AOL Plays The Washington Game

Initial market reaction to Tuesday’s news that America Online Inc. (AOL)
and Time Warner will allow other ISPs to use their cable lines indicates
investors are unsure if the decision will benefit the two companies once
they merge.

AOL shares edged up in pre-opening trading to 61 15/16 from Monday’s
closing price of 60 9/16, but slipped back to 59 1/8 by early Tuesday
afternoon. Time Warner, meanwhile, was at 86, down slightly from
Monday’s close of 86 11/16.

In the long run you can expect consumers and ultimately investors to
applaud the move. It will give Internet users a wider choice of access
providers, and will keep AOL on the right side of the open-access
debate.
But of greater concern to AOL in the short-term is the reaction of an
entirely different target audience: anti-trust regulators and advocacy
groups raising warning flags about the effect of the merger on
consumers.

It’s no coincidence that AOL-Time Warner’s plan to let competitors use
its cable lines was unveiled immediately before Senate hearings on the
merger Tuesday in which the two CEOs in question — AOL’s Steve Case and
Time Warner’s Gerald Levin — were slated to testify.

With the specter of Microsoft’s protracted battle last year with the
Department of Justice fresh in their minds, neither executive wants to
become a familiar face on Capitol Hill. They also undoubtedly learned a
lesson from watching Bill Gates’ tortured testimony in the Microsoft
case: When dealing with the feds, cooperation works a lot better than
obfuscation.

Shares of AOL and Time Warner have fallen sharply since the deal was
announced on Jan. 10 as investors
grappled first with valuation questions accompanying the marriage of a
fast-growing Internet leader with a larger, slow-growth “old media”
company, and then with growing qualms that the deal could be scuttled
over antitrust fears.

An endorsement of the merger last week from Merrill Lynch Internet
analyst Henry Blodget helped reverse some of the weeks-long decline in
AOL’s stock. By quickly and successfully navigating its way through
Washington’s regulatory waters, AOL could further bolster investor
confidence in the merger.

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