EarthLink On Board for Trial

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Comcast Corp. last week said EarthLink Network Inc. was the latest Internet-service provider to agree to take part in its planned cable open-access trial in the Philadelphia area.

The exact location and other details of Comcast's pilot are expected to surface as the launch nears.

That technical pilot is set for the second quarter of this year. The companies said the trial would be completed in anticipation of a "definitive" agreement between the two.

EarthLink is the second ISP not affiliated with Comcast to agree to participate in the trial. Juno Online Services Inc. penned a similar deal in November. Financial terms of both pacts were not disclosed.

In addition to Juno, EarthLink continues to be among the most aggressive ISPs in terms of signing such deals. It has similar relationships with Time Warner Cable and AT&T Broadband.

EarthLink has about 4.7 million customers, 215,000 of which use broadband connections from digital subscriber lines, cable, fixed wireless or satellite. It ranks behind America Online Inc. as the No. 2 ISP, but it's a distant second.

AOL's latest count tallied 28 million subscribers. By comparison, though, Excite@Home Corp. ended 2000 with close to 3 million subscribers.

With respect to AT&T, EarthLink is participating in the MSO's Broadband Choice technical trial in Boulder, Colo. That test is expected to end early this month, followed by a limited commercial pilot.

AT&T Broadband also is preparing a wider Broadband Choice rollout in the Boston area, but is still in the process of signing up national and regional ISPs for that project.

Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, has connected Road Runner, America Online Inc. and CompuServe Interactive Services Inc. to the MSO's multiple-ISP trial network. EarthLink will be the next ISP to be physically linked in Columbus, Ohio, confirmed Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Luftman.

Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Internet Commerce & Communications (formally RMI.net) also are among the ISPs set to participate in the Columbus trial.

While downplaying the regulatory issues involved in providing access to multiple ISPs, Comcast said the deal with EarthLink will help the MSO determine how it can boost the caliber of its high-speed services.

"We are interested in learning more about which value-added relationships with ISPs will be most attractive to our customers," Comcast Cable president Steve Burke said in a press release.

Behind the scenes, High Speed Access Corp. also has plotted out its own open-access plans. In addition to launching ISPs on top of an incumbent provider, HSA also has worked on a "managed-access solution" to foster access to several providers, which would be marketed to MSOs, said company spokesman Andy Holdgate.

HSA is talking to MSOs about the launch of such a system, but wouldn't be more specific about which companies have been contacted. Holdgate said the first iteration would likely be in a city where HSA has an existing relationship.

HSA's largest high-speed affiliate is part owner Charter Communications Inc., which uses the Charter Pipeline brand in the majority of its cable-modem markets. Several systems that Charter has acquired recently currently don't offer Pipeline, but instead market other ISPs, such as Excite@Home.

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