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AT&T exec departure may take heat off Excite@Home

The departure of one of its most seasoned cable executives isn't good news for AT&T, but it may bode well for its Internet partner, Excite@Home.

The departure of one of its most seasoned cable executives isn't good news for AT&T, but it may bode well for the company's cable Internet partner, Excite@Home.

Leo Hindery, the AT&T broadband and cable division president who announced his resignation today, has been an outspoken critic of Excite@Home's content-plus-access strategy.

Tension between Hindery and Excite@Home's CEO Tom Jermoluk, as well as with other cable partners, has led to an uncomfortable public tug-of-war over the company's strategic direction.

The executive departure comes amid talk that Excite@Home could be split and possibly sold to companies like Microsoft or Yahoo. Ongoing fights with America Online and other Internet service providers over cable access has deflated Excite@Home's stock price in recent weeks.

Excite@Home executives aren't commenting on Hindery's departure, but privately some say his absence will help clear confusion over the company's future. And Wall Street seems to agree: the Net-over-cable firm's share price jumped more than 10 percent on the news.

Nominally the figure that oversees AT&T's interests in Excite@Home, Hindery in the past has been vocal in disagreeing with Jermoluk's strategy of linking content delivery over the Internet with high-speed cable networks.

Tom Jermoluk "My differences of perspective with Tom have dated back to January," Hindery said today in a telephone interview with CNET "We've worked some things out. If I've ruffled any feathers around here, I don't know about it."

Some analysts say the management tension has been blown out of proportion.

"I don't think it much matters," said Michael Harris, president of consulting group Kinetic Strategies. "[Excite@Home and cable firms] have been looking out for their own interests, which is good. Sometimes that's a healthy dialogue."

Even with Hindery gone, stormy waters remain for the cable Internet company. AT&T last week released a statement saying it was considering possible business deals that could affect its ownership stake in Excite@Home.

However, some executives said that speculation about the shape of possible deals--much of which has involved splitting the company's Excite content division and @Home cable delivery unit--had gotten out of hand.

Some analysts pointed to last week's corporate reorganization, which divided the company into a media division and subscriber access division, as a sign that Excite@Home was positioning itself for a possible sale.

But one senior executive denied this, saying the plan simply moved the company toward a more traditional publishing model of editorial and distribution.

"It was not a way to split the company," the executive said. "If you look at the two divisions, they're not particularly self-sufficient."

Sources have said AT&T and Excite@Home have been talking to Yahoo and Microsoft about striking some kind of deal with the content side of the company. But those firms may be more interested in @Home's high-speed cable networks than in content from Excite, sources said.

From PC to the TV
In the middle of this management shakedown, Excite@Home unveiled its TV set-top box service today at an event at Internet World in New York. A midtown Manhattan apartment was taken over to demonstrate how the "home of the future" could be wired with fast @Home TV and computer connections

The second major push in its access strategy, Excite@Home says the service mixes traditional television content with Internet access. Users will be able to click into Net service, read email, or browse through sponsored shopping services while watching TV simultaneously.

The company plans to offer the service, scheduled to be available by next year, over a set-top box jointly created by Microsoft.

To help drive adoption, Excite@Home plans to offer a free, scaled-back service dubbed Local.TV. This will be available in areas where the cable infrastructure hasn't yet been upgraded for two-way services, and will be supported by advertisements.