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AT&T to sell Net assets to @Home?

The long distance giant is considering selling its WorldNet service to the @Home Network, the company that agreed to buy Excite, according to reports.

AT&T is considering selling its WorldNet Internet service to the @Home Network, the cable Net access company that agreed to buy Excite earlier this week, according to reports.

In the potential deal, AT&T would sell its Internet access assets to @Home in return for $1 billion in @Home stock, according to a Wall Street Journal report today.

But any such deal would reportedly wait until AT&T completes its $40.9 billion acquisition of Tele-Communications Incorporated, which holds a controlling stake in @Home.

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The final result of such an arrangement would be to fold all AT&T's Internet access properties under the @Home umbrella, while still allowing the long distance company to control them through its ownership of TCI.

"AT&T is going to end up with a substantial economic interest, as well as a controlling voting stake, in @Home, so it's more like a rearrangement of the family more than anything else," said Philip Surlin, a telecommunications analyst at Schroder & Company.

Any such deal remains speculative, contingent on regulatory approval for the pending merger between AT&T and TCI. The Justice Department has already given the two companies its blessing, but the Federal Communications Commission has yet to rule. At the same time, a handful of local municipalities have begun raising their own objections to the deal.

But analysts say the transfer would make sense for AT&T, both to help move customers into the broadband world and give the company a more solid platform to compete with Net giant America Online.

AT&T has long struggled make a name for itself in the online world. Its WorldNet service has nearly 1.4 million consumer customers, along with the near-one million business customers recently acquired along with IBM's network division--but still trails far behind AOL's 15 million subscribers.

The @Home cable Net service still has only about 331,000 customers, but is growing quickly. The addition of Excite will give it a new footprint on the Web, allowing it to market its broadband service to Excite's users, while folding the Web company's content into its own online service.

But all of these brands need to be marketed through the same channel if the merged company's Net strategy is to be a success, analysts said. If AT&T's soon-to-be-acquired parts were marketed under the same brand, a move from WorldNet to @Home could be cast as a relatively inexpensive upgrade--and prove to be an effective way to entice dial-up subscribers into the broadband world.

"There has got to be a consistent message from AT&T to Internet subscribers," said Ron Rappaport, an industry analyst with Zona Research. "What this would do is consolidate AT&T Internet access efforts under a brand that AT&T really wants to fortify."

"If you're marshaling all the Internet offerings under one brand you ought to be talking out of one mouth," agreed Ted Henderson, an analyst at Janco Partners. "The left hand should know what the right is doing."

Representatives from @Home and AT&T declined comment on the reported transfer of the WorldNet assets.