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Comfort and Excite-Ability

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 12/7/01 issue of R&R This past weekend, it was, as the malaprop goes, deja vu all over again. Remember how, back in 1996, the infamous America Online blackout made the front page of USA TODAY?

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Everything changed for the digital business sector, as we all discovered just how important AOL had become in all our lives, whether we were AOL members or not.

America Online had, in fact, become as much of a utility as water, electricity, gas or the telephone. And it confirmed Ted Leonsis' prediction that AOL would one day be as important to us all as television and radio.

This past weekend, many AT&T subscribers shuddered when they went to log on and get their e-mail and visit e-commerce sites to do a little holiday shopping and were surprised that their access had been cut off. They soon realized that their '@home.com' e-mail addresses were no longer (and wouldn't be available to them ever again), and that if they were business people themselves, their websites had disappeared overnight. So much for the holiday season - those AT&T subscribers can't even leave behind a forwarding message as to where to find them.

And so, for AT&T/@Home online radio listeners, for digital music enthusiasts, for streamers and downloaders, they were all painfully reminded of exactly how important not just Internet access is in our lives, but how important high speed broadband access is. The torture of going back to a dial up modem not only includes the annoying modem noises and a general slowdown in one's pace online, but also a drop in quality in what we hear online. We've been reintroduced to the very audible difference between a 56K stream and a 100K stream, and the dull plodding upload speed of a typical music file.

AT&T is working feverishly to build out their own infrastructure, and by today was due to have almost all of their customers cut over to the new @attbi.com addresses. But will those customers care? How many of them have already left skid marks sliding over to DSL and satellite broadband service? And how many will let themselves get comfortable with yet another online service that might fail them someday?

Brand loyalty is becoming something that is scarce in the online industry; about the only company that has managed to maintain any such loyalty is AOL, who announced they've topped 32 million subscribers. Given the amount of uproar people felt back in 1996, maybe a company can regain the trust and support, even the love of their customer base. If AOL can do it, maybe AT&T can.

Unless they sell their broadband division, as is likely. Then, their users are at square one.

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