Will the high-speed Net recover?

Summary:As Excite@Home files for bankruptcy protection, consumers are getting nervous about losing their high-speed service or getting hit with huge price hikes.

When Excite@Home filed for bankruptcy protection Friday, visions of excruciatingly slow dial-up service popped into Tim Joiner's mind.

Joiner has been using Comcast's Excite@Home high-speed Internet access service since it was introduced to the Little Rock, Ark., area less than six months ago.

"I have been worried and discussing it with several friends," Joiner said. "We just got it, and now what is going to happen? Will they take it away?"

Like Joiner, many Excite@Home users across the country are concerned. Some are aware that the company is backed by several large corporations, such as AT&T, Comcast and Cox Communications, and are hoping for uninterrupted service, while others are worried about losing their high-speed service. With less competition in the high-speed Internet access market, people also worry about increasing fees.

AT&T relies on Excite@Home to provide Net access to AT&T Broadband subscribers, and Comcast has more than 675,000 subscribers to the broadband access service. The companies said they are trying to assuage any consumer concerns that their service will be interrupted.

Comcast sent an e-mail Saturday to its subscribers explaining how it "views high-speed Internet as one of the most important products" in its portfolio.

"We remain committed to this business and to our customers," the e-mail read.

Bryan Felt, a longtime Excite@Home user in New Jersey, said he plans to ride out the company's troubles and has yet to make any contingency plans, comforted by the fact that AT&T is a major concern behind Excite@Home. If the bankruptcy court approves the move, Excite@Home will sell its high-speed network to AT&T for $307 million in cash.

But still the worries linger.

"Nobody wants to deal with an ISP (Internet service provider) change or even a change to your telephone service," said Felt, who operates a production business from his home and spends at least eight hours a day on e-mail and the Net. "Your comfort is knowing what you have is what you have, and the last thing you want to go through is the annoyance of changing."

With DSL (digital subscriber line) service providers such as Rhythms NetConnections and Northpoint Communications dropping dead in the past year, consumers are also worried about seeing bigger bills for existing broadband services. Just Friday, Comcast sent its subscribers another e-mail alerting them to an imminent fee increase.

Beginning Nov. 1, Comcast said it will charge $39.95 per month from $32.95 for its broadband Internet access for customers who subcribe to its full basic cable television service and $44.95 per month for those who only want high-speed Internet access without the cable TV programming.

A Comcast spokeswoman said the increase was announced earlier this year and was not related to the Excite@Home developments.

Analysts see other rate increases in the future.

"Consumers have to worry that the avenues and ways to get high-speed access are narrower and they really need competition to get the best prices," said Howard Horowitz, president of Horowitz Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in the cable and broadband market. "Companies are going to raise prices because they are finding themselves in the fortuitous circumstance of not having any real competition."

Horowitz added that the Federal Communications Commission will need to take a stronger stance to foster competition in the market.

Joiner noted that DSL service is available in Little Rock, but the prices are slightly higher--though the upcoming price increase for cable service will draw rates closer.

He added that he has no desire to switch to DSL and hopes that his cable service will remain alive.

"I am happier with cable," Joiner said. "DSL seems to take a minute to come up to speed, while cable seems to instantly reach maximum bandwidth."

Topics: AT&T, Broadband, Networking

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