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Excite@Home wants its MTVi

The Internet access provider and the Viacom-owned company launch a long-awaited co-branded music channel, Excite Music.

Excite@Home and Viacom's MTVi Group on Wednesday launched a long-awaited co-branded music channel, Excite Music.

The channel was first announced in April with an expected summer release. It was accessible to the public Tuesday afternoon and includes music news, Internet radio stations from MTVi's, MTV video clips and sales of legal music downloads.

As previously reported, the belated move comes as major Web portals including Yahoo, Terra Lycos and the Microsoft Network have been struggling to gain traction with their commercial online music plans despite--or perhaps because of--the popularity of free music-swapping services such as Napster.

Although Napster is fighting for its life in federal court, the free service has raised the competitive bar for companies that expect to charge consumers for music through, for example, pay-per-download schemes that offer only a limited selection of titles.

Web portals such as Excite face other threats, including the prospect of heightened competition in the music arena if the America Online and Time Warner merger is approved as well as moves by record labels to forge ahead with online distribution plans independently.

While record labels have not been known for their aggressive online strategies, the latter threat became more palpable last month when German media conglomerate Bertelsmann partnered with Napster. The company is seeking to broker similar deals with all of the major labels.

While it is far from certain that the enormous gulf between the labels and Napster can be overcome, the deal raised the specter of on an online music distribution channel that could cut out the portals altogether.

In addition, record labels such as Seagram's Universal Music Group and Sony Music Group are developing their own subscription services in which consumers pay a monthly fee for access to selected songs. Universal has begun a closed trial for its service, according to a company representative.

Excite hopes to augment its e-commerce music play with a more varied offering, including videos that are not widely available on Napster-like file-sharing networks. The deal also gives MTVi a way to syndicate its content and raise brand awareness.

"Music is key to the online experience and an area where we expect to see maintained growth in both dial-up and broadband. (This) is the next step in Excite@Home's commitment to bringing consumers the best-quality online music on the Web through an innovative connection broadband," Byron Smith, executive vice president of Consumer Broadband Services for Excite@Home, said in a statement.