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Murky future for Excite@Work customers

The likely shutdown or sale of the business department forces thousands of small-business customers to shift their service to a new carrier or take their chances with a new owner.

Excite@Home plans to shut down or sell off its Excite@Work business department, forcing thousands of small-business customers to shift their service to a new carrier or take their chances with a new owner.

see special coverage: Complete coverage of Excite@Home troubles "We are currently evaluating the business opportunities for @Work commercial customers," said a representative for Excite@Home. "Our options are to sell and transition, or shut down the service."

The 12,000 business customers of Excite@Work are a fraction of the almost 4 million customers that used Excite@Home. Earlier this week, a bankruptcy court judge approved $355 million in contracts between the high-speed Internet provider and its cable partners to maintain the service through February and help switch customers from Excite@Home's network to the cable companies' own networks.

The fate of Excite@Work has not been as clear, and the uncertainty has many customers shopping around for a new service, even before Excite@Work announces its plans.

"Our network consultant thinks the service could be dead as early as January," said Morgan White, principal at Woodside Asset Management of Menlo Park, Calif., where they've been using the Excite@Work service for three years. "In any case, we'll be off @Work by February when (Excite@Home) shuts down. We're waiting to see if AT&T picks us up."

In the event of a sale, defecting customers could devalue Excite@Work as a property. Excite@Home faced a similar dilemma when suitor AT&T broke off talks and immediately started switching its 850,000 customers over to its own recently constructed network. The transition has been hard on customers, however, many of whom say they have slower connections or still aren't connected at all.

For Alfredo Garcia, an IT department manager at Lipman Company, an insurance company in Fremont, Calif., it's time to get a new service.

"We haven't had any problems; it's a totally different department," Garcia said. He said he called Excite@Home last week and was told that "@Work will be totally fine."

But he has doubts about continuing with a company that's going through so many problems, he said.

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collapse of Excite@Home "I am doing some research to find another ISP," he said.

Excite@Home spokeswoman Stephanie Xavier said Wednesday that an announcement on the future of Excite@Work was expected by the end of the year.

"We take the @Work business very seriously; it's been a good business for us," she said.

Unlike Excite@Home, which connects 4 million home subscribers through cable access, the @Work service offers high-speed connections using T1, T3 or "OC" lines to businesses with added backup and access for multiple users.

The service is exclusively for businesses or organizations, so customers "don't have to compete with hundreds of thousands of dial-up users for bandwidth," according to the company's Web site.

It has also given business customers another advantage: continuing, reliable service, even as the rest of the company crumbles under bankruptcy. Angry customers have complained that their high-speed service has been inconsistent since the company began bankruptcy proceedings.

This isn't the first time Excite@Work got its boat rocked because of an outside event: Xavier said the company lost thousands of customers earlier this year when NorthPoint Communications, which provided Excite@Work DSL service, went bankrupt and shut down its high-speed Internet network.

The digital subscriber line (DSL) service was used by about 2,000 Excite@Work customers in New York, Chicago, Orange County, Calif., and the San Francisco Bay Area. To help customers, Excite@Work offered its affected customers discounts of up to 30 percent for a fractional T1 connection or subsidized dial-up Internet access. Since then, Xavier said, they have had more customers sign on to the Excite@Work service, keeping the overall number of customers steady.

see Special report: Excite@Home marriage doomed at the altar? Even if Excite@Home does manage to cobble together uninterrupted service, they may lose critical mass as customers lose trust.

"I would say it's going to cause a lack of faith in any Internet service when you know a company can detach themselves so much from a customer that they can shut off service within a week of telling them anything's wrong," said Motley Fool Chief Technology Officer Max Keeler.

Keeler said Motley Fool stopped using the company's @Work service two years ago, around the time @Home was bought by Excite. "They were great back then--super customer focused--but once they were bought by Excite, we fell off their radar," Keeler said. Since then, Motley Fool has been using UUNet.