This week the company is kicking off a new $28.95 offer that bundles a so-called Web accelerator service with an ordinary dial-up account. Using a combination of techniques, the service can speed Web page loading times by up to five times, although it has no effect on other activities such as e-mail or file-swapping downloads.
EarthLink is also test-marketing a low-priced, basic DSL (digital subscriber line) service, although the company has no launch date planned. Analysts say the company is doing the right thing by trying to appeal to different market segments, but at least some say they're skeptical about this week's new "EarthLink Plus" accelerated dial-up offer.
"The market is definitely crying out for broadband alternatives that come in at lower price points than broadband," Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo said. The service may suffer from the lack of DSL and cable connections' always-on aspect, he added. "I'm not sure you get enough of broadband's value to be worth a premium price. Speed is only one of the things that make broadband worth paying for."
EarthLink's drive toward this sub-broadband market is part of a larger ISP trend of offering tiered services withaimed at different consumer demographics. Many ISP executives say that average consumers can be better attracted with menus of prices and speeds that fit individual habits and that once subscribers start paying for low-priced broadband connections, they are ultimately more likely to start upgrading to faster speeds later.
Most of these tiered service offerings have been slightly slower broadband, rather than an enhanced dial-up service, however. An early product from US West--the phone company later bought by Qwest Communications International--offered a DSL service that wasn't always on and carried the risk of busy-signal equivalents, but it ultimately faded from the market.
EarthLink executives said they don't necessarily believe the fast dial-up service will be a huge part of their business, but it is a segment that's not being addressed today.
"There are different sectors of consumers that are going to be very price-sensitive," said Erika Jolly, EarthLink's vice president of brand management. "We're trying to address the consumer that wants additional speed at the price they're most comfortable with."
The EarthLink Accelerator product is provided by a company called Propel, which also offers the Net-speeding service independently for $7.95 a month. It uses a combination of advanced compression and caching techniques not unlike Akamai Technologies' content delivery services to speed Web page loading.
In addition to the accelerator, EarthLink Plus subscribers will get access to a "priority" technical support service, where on-hold waits are guaranteed to be five minutes or less, the company said.
At the close of 2002, EarthLink said it had 5 million subscribers, about 749,000 of whom were paying for a broadband connection.