The trial would allow Cox and AOL to determine whether to negotiate an agreement that would allow AOL to market its service through the cable company's high-speed network.
AOL has long desired deals with cable operators to get a foothold in offering higher-speed versions of its service. The Internet service provider already has a carriage deal with its sister company, Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable network. However, parent company AOL Time Warner remains tethered to a Federal Trade Commission consent decree that prohibits its launch until a third-party service such as EarthLink becomes available on the network.
Although the company owns its own cable company and online service, AOL Time Warner executives have said they want to strike as many deals as possible with outside cable operators. That would allow the company to market AOL to more people instead of limiting itself to Time Warner Cable subscribers.
"We hope it's the first of many" trials with cable operators, an AOL representative said.
Cable operators currently offer subscribers either Excite@Home or AOL Time Warner's Road Runner as the default cable ISP. In Cox's case, the company has an exclusivity agreement with Excite@Home that expires in June 2002. Cox can end that agreement in December of this year, but the cable company has vowed to work with Excite@Home until 2006 on a nonexclusive basis.
In January, AT&T, the largest shareholder of Excite@Home, agreed to acquire stakes in that cable ISP from Cox and cable operator Comcast for about $2.9 billion in stock. However, last month Cox and Comcast decided against selling their stakes in favor of retaining their investments in Excite@Home.
The trials between Cox and AOL will last for six months and be conducted in El Dorado, Ark. Rival ISP EarthLink will also participate in the trials.