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AOL touts security for broadband plans

As surfers jump to the broadband world dominated by cable and phone companies, the one-time dial-up stalwart tries to position itself as the safest way to go high-speed on the Net.

America Online is urging broadband users to practice safe surfing. Conveniently, AOL's solution for broadband users concerned about security is AOL.

The AOL Time Warner Internet unit said Monday that the next version of its proprietary service, AOL 9.0, will offer a package of security-related software, such as e-mail virus scanning, firewall protection, spam filtering and beefed-up parental controls. The announcement follows the launch of a public campaign to highlight the dangers of unprotected broadband access.

"Getting a basic broadband connection without AOL for Broadband is like buying a fast sports car without seat belts. Why take the risk?" Tatiana Gau, AOL's senior vice president for integrity assurance, asked in a statement.

AOL has historically launched its upgrades in October, but this year it plans to offer subscribers an exclusive upgrade to AOL 9.0 during the summer months. An AOL representative would not say when exactly the product would become available.

Monday's announcement underscores a brewing features battle between Net giants that are trying to find a place in a broadband world that's dominated by cable and phone companies. AOL, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo have all signaled their intentions to bundle and sell versions of their "bring your own access" services to people accessing the Net from a third-party broadband provider.

In many ways, these bundled services are similar. All three Net giants have touted security, antispam and antivirus software as a major component of their BYOA plans. In November, Yahoo began testing a service bundle similar to AOL's called Yahoo Plus, but the company has made little mention of it since. Microsoft has also touted MSN's BYOA plans as a counterweight to two quarters of dial-up subscriber declines.

Appealing to broadband users has become essential to AOL, which has also witnessed two consecutive quarters of subscriber declines from its dial-up base that have been exacerbated by defections to lower-priced ISPs such as United Online and to broadband services provided by cable and telephone companies.

In an attempt to suture these wounds, AOL is trying to market its service to potential broadband defectors. The company in March launched AOL for Broadband, a souped-up version of AOL 8.0 for people using faster connections. The product was launched to offer defectors an appealing reason to stay with AOL despite subscribing to a third-party broadband service.

This BYOA strategy has become the cornerstone of AOL's broadband efforts. AOL has tried for years to model its broadband business after its dial-up business by buying access from DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem providers and then reselling it to subscribers. However, the cost of buying access has created thin profit margins, while cable companies were hesitant to open their lines to AOL.

Now AOL is trying to convince people to pay $14.95 a month on top of their monthly broadband bill in order to maintain their accounts--with a $9.95 a month offer for existing AOL members until the end of the calendar year.

Already in its second round of beta testing, AOL 9.0 is expected to include broadband-focused enhancements such as a splashier interface, a greater emphasis on multimedia and more proprietary content, among other features.