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Analysts say AOL has its act together

On the eve of AOL's financial meeting with investors, several analysts say the company has largely overcome its access problems and is ready to grow.

Abhishek Gami, an analyst with Nesbitt Burns Securities, knows how to get a rise from people who follow America Online's (AOL) fortunes.

He says: "Our opinion is [that AOL is] the best managed company in the Internet industry."

The guffaws always come, but Gami means it.

AOL has taken a lot of flak from customers and the press during the last year thanks to its ongoing access problems, which locked out subscribers and generated dozens of lawsuits. But Gami and other investors are still bullish on the company, saying it has largely overcome its access problems and is ready to grow again.

All in all, many analysts buy that argument and are feeling good about the leading online company. Both Lehman Brothers and Nesbitt Burns have rated AOL as a "buy" and expect the stock to rise.

AOL's stock hit a low in December, just after the service went to flat-rate pricing, but has been steadily climbing since then. Today, the stock was trading at 54-1/4, just slightly down from the year's high, 57-3/8 and way up from the year's low of 22-3/8.

Financial analysts are now headed to a meeting with AOL executives in Dulles, Virginia, tonight and tomorrow where they expect, not to commiserate over AOL's bad press, but to celebrate its financial prospects.

AOL executives were unavailable for comment.

Wall Street believes that AOL is still a good investment bet, mostly for one reason: it's the biggest and getting bigger. Some say that people are still looking at AOL as a technology company, but that it really should be evaluated as a media company. "The new medium grabs subscribers together and makes its money by having those subscribers," says Brian Oakes, an analyst with Lehman Brothers.

In other words, with 8 million subscribers, AOL can't lose.

"The overwhelming number of consumers are on America Online," said E. David Ellington, president and CEO of NetNoir, an online service on the Web and AOL specializing in the African American community.

That's why Gami and many other investors are looking forward to this week's meeting.

They don't expect AOL to make any major announcements at this week's meeting. Instead, they'll see the standard AOL dog and pony show, including a demonstration of the next version of AOL's interface, dubbed Casablanca, as well as AOL's push technology called Driveway and its new Instant Messenger service, which allows all Netizens to have the same instant messaging capabilities as AOL members.

The company will also sketch out its profitability picture for the next few quarters. The company eked out a tiny and unexpected profit for its last quarter. While Wall Street was pleasantly surprised when AOL announced its results, some said the numbers were a fluke.

AOL executives acknowledged that in large part the profits resulted from a decrease in marketing expenses forced on the company by an agreement with several states to temporarily stop signing up new subscribers.

Others said that the profit came from a lucrative deal with Tel-Save Holdings, where the company is paying AOL $100 million for the privilege of using the online service to market its long distance service.

But Steve Case, president and CEO of AOL told members in April that the service would start recruiting members again. As AOL slowly cranks up its marketing machine, it raises the question of whether the company can maintain its profitability.

Several analysts say the Tel-Save deal is a harbinger of the future. Companies will go to AOL, they argue, because after all, AOL has something that every company wants: more eyeballs than anyone else out there.

AOL content providers such as NetNoir have boomed because they rely on commerce and advertising to pay their bills. Going to flat-rate pricing meant that their customers suddenly were able to hang out online--and buy things.

"Our usage went up 150 percent in December because our particular audience was so price-sensitive," Ellington noted. Higher usage means more hours, more advertising dollars, and more people shopping.

Still, executives still must explain at this week's meeting how the company will avoid future fiascos like the one AOL experienced in December when the company moved from hourly to unlimited access pricing.

Gami, for one, has faith that AOL executives have learned their lessons, but others are not quite so sure that AOL has completely solved the access problems. "Come Christmas, people will want to see if access issues come back again," says Lehman Brothers' Oakes.

But Gami feels that people are too quick to beat up on AOL for its customer service: "AOL has a spotty record for customer service. AOL has faults. However, their faults are less severe than other companies in the industry. They are the most perfect in an imperfect world."

While Oakes is more skeptical, he says that as long as AOL continues to improve access, it should do well. "As long as it's easier and more convenient, they will always maintain a leadership position."