AOL explores new gateway to DSL

America Online (AOL) hasn't abandoned plans for DSL (digital subscriber line) service despite the cable connection it expects to gain by merging with media giant Time Warner. AOL is joining with PC vendor Gateway to sell AOL Plus, a high-speed 'Net access service.

In some Gateway Country stores, you'll find demonstrations of AOL Plus features in AOL 5.0. You can find out whether DSL service is available in your location, and sign up on the spot.

The program will launch in only two places: a Timonium, Maryland, store selling a Bell Atlantic version of AOL Plus, and a San Diego store selling an SBC Communications version. AOL partnered with both regional telephone companies last year to market AOL-branded DSL services. AOL Plus is available only in select areas.

Last October, AOL and Gateway announced a much larger technological alliance, in which they plan to co-develop Internet appliances, cross-market products and services, and develop online stores.

The program's primary goal is answering everybody's first question about DSL: Can I get it?

"You can walk out the door knowing you're qualified," says Wendy Goldberg, an AOL spokesperson. "We're working closely with our partners, making sure we can provide the easiest possible installation experience."

The program differs from other broadband retail initiatives, however, by not claiming you can install the service yourself. (Bell Atlantic and 3Com promote that approach at CompUSA and Staples stores.) Rather, Gateway will help with the installation if you buy a Gateway computer with a DSL modem, says John Spelich, a Gateway spokesperson.

AOL and Gateway are wise to avoid claims of seamless installations, says Mark Margevicius, a Gartner Group analyst. Broadband installations "are far too technical for most consumers," he says.

Considering that AOL aims for a fairly nontechnical audience, the company is being careful about what it promises in terms of ease of installation.

"There's more potential for confusion over DSL installations than with cable," says Joe Laszlo, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

Identifying DSL availability is difficult. Cable companies usually know whether a given neighborhood can get that service. But DSL availability depends on your distance from an equipped central office. If you're more than about 3 miles from an office, you can't get DSL, and the fastest service is available only within a mile.

Often, the phone company doesn't know for sure until a technician arrives on the scene, Laszlo notes.

The project may benefit both companies: Gateway can differentiate its PCs with broadband service, and AOL can gain a broadband delivery platform in regions not served by Time Warner cable systems.

"It's mainly a strategic move on AOL's part to let the market know that it hasn't abandoned DSL just because of the Time Warner deal," Laszlo says. He expects cable will become AOL's priority.

Still, with its vow of "AOL Anywhere," AOL can't afford to ignore the DSL side of the equation just because it's becoming a cable company.

"There's a perception out there that AOL is the Internet," says Gartner Group's Margevicius.

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