Excite Gets a Mr. Fixit

AT&T lends networking guru to troubled Internet provider

With a new Mr. Fixit in the drivers seat, the nations largest broadband Internet provider is using a different roadmap to navigate the technical wilderness.

Hossein Eslambolchi, acknowledged as one of the brightest minds to emerge from AT&Ts Bell Laboratories, will run [email protected] as interim president, just two months after backing out of a job at Cisco Systems.

At Excite, he will have his hands full running a venture that lost its aim under the direction of too many masters. AT&T now has direct control over [email protected], after a complicated and costly battle with cable partners Cox Communications and Comcast.

"Hossein has really two things that hes going to be focused on," said [email protected] spokeswoman Alison Bowman. "The first is stabilizing the network. Were trying to do something thats never been done: build a broadband network. Hes also here to help our preparations to scale as we grow the network."

While a search to replace Chief Executive George Bell is in full swing, theres little likelihood that Eslambolchi will stay beyond his six-month tenure as an executive on loan from AT&T, Bowman said. As vice president of data and Internet network services at AT&T, Eslambolchi specialized in restoration and reliability of networks. He headed the team that invented the Fast Automated Restoration (FASTAR) system that in 1995 restored service to 82,000 Alabama customers within one hour of a cable cut.

"He is one of the most renowned networking gurus in the world," Bowman said. "We feel very lucky to have his expertise temporarily as were doing this build-out."

In December, Eslambolchi accepted a job at Cisco, but only worked there one day before deciding on a January return to AT&T. He decided his heart was at Ma Bell, where he had worked for 16 years, a company spokesman said.

Eslambolchis most pressing concern is restoring the reliability of [email protected] e-mail service, which has been plagued with problems. The company is in the midst of consolidating management of its e-mail service from 27 data centers to one new center in Redwood City, Calif., built by Sun Microsystems. That transition is expected to be completed within a couple of weeks, Bowman said.

Growing Pains

The e-mail system has been plagued by growing pains. Typically, Excite handles 60 million e-mail sessions per day, compared with 6 million to 10 million for a typical dial-up service. Because the e-mail is sent over a broadband cable network, it often includes bandwidth-consuming video or graphic images that users would never think of sending across narrowband phone lines.

With its 3 million customers expected to swell to 5 million by the end of the year, growth will remain a challenge for [email protected] It took the cable broadband service four years to reach 1 million customers, nine months to hit the second million and just five months to reach the third million, Bowman said.

Despite the aggressive growth, Bell vowed to streamline operations as he stays on, pending the appointment of a more permanent successor. He acknowledged what online analysts at Motley Fool called a "schizophrenic" management by the cable consortium.

"Now, were going to strive to do less," Bell said, in a conference call last month, outlining plans to cut back on content in favor of improving service. The company handed out 250 pink slips in January.

Meanwhile, [email protected] will help AT&T grow its own languishing WorldNet Web business under a joint marketing deal that will offer access to content providers through the two companies networks. The deal is expected to give content providers access to a larger audience with more reliability in the delivery.

"With the ability to simultaneously connect to both the AT&T and [email protected] backbones, customers now have the added confidence that their online events will run without a hitch," said Mike Jenner, vice president at AT&T Internet Connectivity Services.