Lots of big news rolling out this week, some from Washington, some from the big
Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association
trade show in New Orleans.
Chairman Steve Case and
CEO Gerald Levin announced Tuesday morning that the merged AOL Time Warner will open its captive cable systems -- read: Time Warner's local
offerings -- to other ISPs, not just to the AOL online service.
"AOL Time Warner is committed to offer consumers a choice among multiple ISPs. Consumers will not be required to purchase service from an ISP that is affiliated with AOL Time Warner in order to enjoy broadband Internet service over AOL Time Warner cable systems," a statement by the two said.
The decision is not entirely a surprise: After pulling down two weeks ago its lobbying campaign for government intervention to force
to open its cable systems' Internet-access programs to other ISPs, AOL is clearly no longer pushing for the Feds to get in the game.
You may recall that, after the Multnomah County Commissioners in Portland, Ore., last year demanded that AT&T open a local cable system acquired in its buyout of
as a condition of approving the transfer of ownership, AT&T said it saw no reason to allow other ISPs into its game.
AOL, then greatly worried that it was getting frozen out of access to broadband paths to the Internet, quickly and opportunistically jumped in, damning AT&T's insistence on what was called a "closed" system, and put its hired guns in Washington to work in the halls of
With the Time Warner deal, however, as well as with its deals with DSL broadband providers around the country, AOL is no longer much worried about a freeze-out.
But there's still more at work here.
AOL and Time Warner know they face a tough battle against potential Federal action against their merger. Case and Levin testified today before the
Senate Judiciary Committee
. And on Thursday the
Senate Commerce Committee
will begin hearings on the proposed merger of media giants.
Today's announcement was exquisitely timed to help grease the ways for government approval -- or at least, no disapproval -- of the union.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch socked it to Case and Levin today, as he opened the committee's session at which they testified by calling the promise to open AOL Time Warner cable systems to other ISPs little more than "vaporware."
"Given that this document lacks both enforceability and specificity, this committee remains to be convinced of its value beyond the boardroom and public-relations office of AOL Time Warner," Hatch said.
Legally binding or no, the agreement is a step forward for open-access cable systems. I don't see this as a big issue -- I thought AT&T's stance in the Oregon case was entirely defensible -- but for some, opening the nation's local broadband-access system to users' choice of an ISP is a big issue, so AOL Time Warner seems to be on the side of the angels here.
Meanwhile, at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association's annual blast in New Orleans,
Chairman and Cosmic Architect --
, make that Chief Software Architect -- Bill Gates led a parade of speakers this week pledging their companies' and agencies' attention to fostering the growth of the wireless market.
Gates speech was pure pabulum --
convergence ... blah-blah-blah ... Windows 2000 is good for you ... blah-blah-blah ... convergence
-- but his presence, and that of Microsoft itself, at the show was a measure of how important wireless is becoming.
More substantial than Gates' words was a preview of
MSN Mobile 2.0
, a new version of MSN's mobile-communications site. Present versions offer only one-way communications, which is hardly communications at all, critics have said. Mobile 1.0 also didn't allow users to access their
email accounts -- odd, since that's another Microsoft business, of course -- which wasn't very smart. The MSN Mobile 2.0 portal, available in April, finally makes this a two-way link, with full email access.
Importantly, MSN Mobile 2.0 also supports
Microsoft also announced deals with wireless carriers
to make the portal available to their subscribers. Rumored deals with
and AT&T were not discussed by Gates in New Orleans.
and others were at the show in force too, a further measure of the importance Net companies attach to the burgeoning wireless market.
Two changes of interest in the executive suite announced this week:
Surely no one was surprised that
co-CEO Sandy Weill apparently finally engineered the departure of his ostensible equal, Chairman and co-CEO John Reed. As suggested here before, this was always in the cards, from the first moments of the
-Citicorp merger two years ago.
John Reed is a good and decent man, a civilized and civilizing influence -- and a great banker. The worst that can be said of Reed is that his style may be less of these times than of a gentler, more considered and honorable time a few years ago. And that isn't a bad thing.
Reed, his contacts and the respect in which he is held in America for international business, are a real loss for Citi, and for the domestic banking industry. Weill is an effective leader, no mistake about that. But John Reed's personal style -- and his knowledge of and comfort with the uses of information technology -- will be missed, and not just at Citi.
The second change, announced just this afternoon, is that
CEO Sol Trujillo is leaving the about-to-be-merged US West-
combo. As much as the press releases trumpeted at the time this deal was announced the
relationship between Trujillo and Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, it was similarly in the stars that these two were not destined to ride into the sunset together.
Trujillo said that he'll be leaving after the deal finally closes later this year, because he and Nacchio have not been able to agree on "strategic issues." Sure, Sol.
Trujillo leaves with some accelerated vesting of options, now worth about $17 million. But in a measure of the tone of his departure, he was forced to walk away from another 3 million unvested options in the new company.
Without disrespect to Trujillo, who presided for years over a lackluster company known to many of its customers and to not a few Wall Street analysts as "US Worst," shareholders in the merged venture are far better off with an unrestrained Joe Nacchio in undisputed charge.
Nacchio never should have done this deal, but we've been over that a few dozen times here already; no sense dredging that up again. Of course, this really puts the spotlight and the pressure on Nacchio, to see if he can deliver from a Qwest joined at the hip to a sleepy telco the kind of growth and returns enjoyed by highflier Qwest in its premerger glory days.
No more excuses, Joe.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are current or recent consulting clients of Seymour Group. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at