Ugly from Start to Finish

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The family feud has ended. Excite@Home Corp. — the first and largest cable-modem service, with 3.7 million subscribers — will go dark Feb. 28.

That leaves its former MSO partners scrambling to find their own in-house services, as AT&T Broadband had to do in a New York-minute.

Some say the Internet-service provider's demise is a shame, because @Home could have been a serious rival to America Online. Sure. That's about as likely as my dethroning "America's Sweetheart," Katie Couric, from her perch on NBC's Today.

Janco Partners Inc. cable analyst Matt Harrigan said @Home's demise "exposed the darkest side of the cable industry, and this has really been cable's most inglorious episode in the last five years."

Oh, horse feathers. From the very day @Home lit up in September of 1996, tempers among the partners flared. Who could forget the countless articles in all of the Internet publications reporting about how sloppily the service was rolled out. (Remember? There used to be dozen of those magazines, but they, like @Home, are gone now.)

The worst part was the constant finger-pointing. Neither side of the partnership took responsibility for its problems.

And they weren't with just one particular MSO partner, Cablevision Systems Corp., which set up its own Optimum Online service. Now, the other MSO partners are working to build their own networks by Feb. 28, or partnering up with other ISPs.

There was clearly no way this doomed partnership could have been saved. It was ugly from start to finish.

Most recently, AT&T Corp. — with its 23 percent stake in the service — withdrew its $307 million bid for Excite@Home's assets, pointing to many breaches and violations in its agreement.

And when AT&T Broadband wouldn't sign a new service contract, so on Dec. 1, @Home cut off service to the cable company's 850,000 subscribers.

Some say it was the work of cable's old-boy network, which collectively conspired to kill @Home. They maintain that the cable industry used @Home to jump-start its entry into high-speed Internet access.

So what? The cable industry paid the price of admission by partnering with an upstart company that was badly in need of financing. Now, all of @Home's other MSO partners, except Adelphia Communications Corp., have signed short-term contracts to keep things humming until Feb. 28.

All things considered, AT&T Broadband — which had to convert its 850,000 subscribers overnight — at least has that mess behind it. Sure, there was some bad ink, but it's pretty remarkable that the company was able to pull the transition off as smoothly as it did, given the circumstances.

Sure there were threats from angry @Home subscribers whose cable-modem service was disrupted for up to five days or more. They vowed to find other solutions.

But the reality is — for now, at least — where would they go? Digital subscriber line services have their limitations, so it's unlikely that many angry cable-modem customers would actually bother to take that route.

And @Home's other cable partners know that. There's a tremendous opportunity for them to do the conversion right without disrupting service for nearly a week, as AT&T Broadband had done so boldly. Judging from the approaches they're taking, they realize that this is no time for complacency.

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