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Excite@Home launches free ISP

Excite@Home launches a new free ISP service called FreeWorld in an effort to attract new users that eventually could be converted into subscribers of its broadband Internet access service.

Excite@Home today launched a new free ISP service called FreeWorld in an effort to attract new users that eventually could be converted into subscribers of its broadband Internet access service.

As previously reported, the new service will be powered by CMGI-owned 1stup.com, the same company that launched AltaVista's free dial-up service last August. Like other free services, it will be supported by advertising, with a window displaying banner ads that can't be closed as long as the user is online.

In order to receive the free service, users will have to provide some demographic information and allow their movements online to be tracked. Ads targeted to subscribers' interests will be displayed in the FreeWorld window.

FreeWorld users will get 56-kbps speed Net access and a customized start page developed by Excite's content and Web tools, such as free email, online calendaring, and search. The start page will also incorporate a persistent navigation bar that contains links to these services.

The addition of a dial-up service gives Excite@Home another avenue to market its high-speed services to users lured in by free access, the company said.

"Once online with FreeWorld powered by Excite, we increase audience and reach for Excite and Blue Mountain Arts content, and gain the opportunity to market our leading, high-speed @Home broadband service to new subscribers," George Bell, Excite@Home's president, said in a statement. "We have already shown tremendous synergy in using our MatchLogic ad targeting division to upsell narrowband users to broadband, and this will increase our narrowband target audience significantly."

Bell added, "Encouraging mass adoption of the Internet is fundamental to our business model, and we expect to take full advantage of the projected growth in the free ISP arena."

FreeWorld is now available for download on Excite.

With today's announcement, Excite@Home enters the same ring as its other portal rivals, such as AltaVista and Yahoo, which offer similar services.

But the new service could play a more important role for the Redwood City, Calif.-based company than similar free Net access initiatives launched by numerous other companies. Excite@Home executives are betting they can persuade many of their new dial-up users eventually to sign up for the company's high-speed cable Net service.

Free Internet service providers have jumped quickly into the mainstream in the last several months. Once viewed as a relative novelty, gratis services are now provided by well-regarded companies like Yahoo and Kmart, and millions of people have signed up.

Free high-speed Net services are even beginning to pop up, although these remain a chancy business model.

Alone among the major Web portals, Excite@Home is already as much an access company as a Net content player. Its cable modem service, which boasts more than 1 million subscribers, is the largest high-speed Net operation in the country.

But it has lacked a dial-up component, a critical gap in a world where the vast majority of Excite customers still use regular phone lines to access the site. Analysts have said that offering a dial-up service would help the company move mainstream Web surfers to its high-speed offering.

Nevertheless, the offer will initially not include any discounts for free ISP customers who decide to upgrade to the @Home cable service, sources said.

The deal is also good news for 1stUp.com, which now proves that it can take its services beyond the CMGI stable of companies, even though CMGI's AltaVista is a direct competitor to Excite@Home.

News.com's Jim Hu contributed to this report.