Excite@auction: Going once...

Pingpong tables and pinball machines, stereo equipment, computer servers, and even a barbecue grill and BMW sedan--all could be had at the Excite@Home auction, for a price.

5 min read
REDWOOD CITY, Calif.--The collapse of high-speed Internet provider Excite@Home cost employees thousands of jobs and shareholders millions of dollars. But it cost Andre Ortega only $500, and at least he got a professional-grade tripod out of the company's demise.

The 27-year-old student was one of hundreds of people attending the last big asset auction of Excite@Home on Wednesday. The company ceased operations in February after months of decline and disintegrating relationships with cable partners such as AT&T.

Pingpong tables and pinball machines, stereo equipment, computer servers, and even a barbecue grill and BMW sedan were among the goods being auctioned off by DoveBid.

"They have a lot of good photography equipment," said Ortega, who studies architecture and was scoping out camcorders and desktop computers in addition to the video tripod and carrying case. Ortega learned of the auction through a friend of a friend, who used to design Web pages for Excite@Home and was laid off in one of the company's many downsizing rounds.

"I didn't realize the company had bought so much stuff," he said.

Few bidders missed the irony of the auction, held in Excite@Home's now empty office complex off Highway 101 in the heart of Silicon Valley. In some cases, bidders paid fire-sale prices for the assets of one of the most formidable powerhouses of the 1990s tech boom.

Venture capitalists and executives created Excite@Home in January 1999, when Web portal Excite.com completed a $6.7 billion merger with @Home--the largest deal between Internet companies. The company provided the optical backbone for its cable partners, and it eventually amassed 4.1 million subscribers--45 percent of Americans with home broadband access.

But the company may have been doomed from the start. AT&T, which at one point had its own executives occupying more than half of Excite@Home's board of directors, never condoned the merger. Cultural clashes soon erupted between Ma Bell's conservative "cable guys" and the younger Silicon Valley honchos who ruled Excite. The young company quickly lost focus, and customers began complaining of outages, slowdowns and advertising campaigns that didn't deliver on the company's promise of reliability.

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as Excite@Home winds down operations.

By summer 2001, Excite@Home's cable partners had decided to bail out and build their own fiber-optic networks, forcing Excite@Home to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Excite@Home planned to sell its assets to AT&T for $307 million and then go out of business.

But Excite@Home bondholders balked at the deal, saying the assets were worth at least $1 billion. AT&T, which was building its own network and preparing to transfer more than 850,000 customers to it, rescinded the $307 million offer, and soon after the company announced plans to distribute its assets and wind down operations.

Now all that's left of the company is a spate of lawsuits from creditors, ranging from Verizon Communications, Qwest Communications International and Microsoft to Silicon Valley real estate magnates and janitorial companies. Angry landlords had Excite@Home's logo stripped from its sprawling headquarters months ago.

After the big Excite@Home auction concludes--possibly as late as 8 or 9 p.m. Wednesday--the company will survive only in bankruptcy court and at a few smaller asset sales throughout the summer. The festive air of a giant barbecue pit and kielbasa-wielding griller, who was selling lunches Wednesday to hungry bidders outside Excite@Home's former headquarters, will be gone by the end of the day. Even the billboards on the nearby highway--once graced by boastful advertisements from Excite@Home, Intuit, Inktomi, Oracle and other high-flying companies--have been co-opted by the diminutive Mini Cooper and the California Avocado Commission.

Excite@Home's demise cut close to home for Steve Hoyt, a 55-year-old former sales engineer for a nearby office of Nortel Networks. The Los Altos Hills, Calif., resident was laid off last July, around the same time that hundreds of Excite@Home workers were also getting pink slips.

After his layoff, Hoyt decided not to return to one of the Silicon Valley's bland office parks, instead opting to open his own business. He came to the Excite@Home auction to bid on surveillance cameras and a new PC for his 70-machine laundry business in San Mateo, Calif., called Mr. Suds.

"I got fed up with it," Hoyt said of his tenure in the tech industry. "I worked hard for long hours and didn't want to keep having my life disrupted every time someone above me made a stupid decision. I figured if I opened my own business, at least I'd be the one taking responsibility for the stupid decisions."

Sam Vancea, a 31-year-old mechanic from San Mateo, lived in the Silicon Valley during the late 1990s boom and wasn't surprised at Excite@Home's swift demise. He took time off from his family's mechanic business Wednesday morning to bid on item #4999, a 1994 BMW 540i luxury sedan with 75,000 miles on it.

"The dot-com thing was all craziness, pure craziness," said Vancea, who planned to buy the BMW in "as is" condition and resell it through Vancea Automotive Service in Belmont, Calif. "At least I might be able to get a nice car out of it."

But Vancea, whose item was unlikely to come up for bidding until late afternoon or early evening, might not drive home in a used BMW. Similar to people who have attended hundreds of dot-com auctions in the past year in the Silicon Valley, numerous attendants complained of high prices, driven up by hundreds of bidders here as well as by roughly 2,000 people from 15 countries who tapped into DoveBid's simultaneous online auction.

The virtual crowd meant local bidders had to compete with people from New Orleans, the Netherlands, Mexico, Hong Kong and Lithuania, many of whom were used to paying far more than Californians for items such as Apple iMac computers, Hewlett-Packard LaserJet printers, Cisco Systems switches and Sun Microsystems servers. Professional resellers also swarmed the event, scooping up multiple servers, phone banks and packages of video equipment, with many prices exceeding $7,000.

Rafael Dabul, a 25-year-old photographer and San Francisco resident, was worried Wednesday morning that he would get quickly outbid for the Apple desktop he wanted to buy.

"Things that people here get a good deal on, like Apples, people in Europe and Mexico can't get as easily," Dabul said. "The people here get excited during the bidding, and they lose track of their heads. I'm a bit anxious about whether I can afford a desktop."