Banks concerned that busy signals have kept customers from accessing their accounts through American Online Inc. might find relief if AOL bought Compuserve Inc.
Analysts agreed that buying Compuserve-a move widely believed to be in the works-would bring several benefits to America Online's home banking program, including an improved telecommunications network and users who are primed to bank on-line. Many users have had difficulty accessing America Online since it introduced a flat rate pricing option in December. The number of users and the length of their sessions skyrocketed, causing congestion on the network and busy signals for many of its nearly eight million customers.
America Online curtailed promotions and has taken steps to fix the access trouble. But the difficulty of getting connected and the negative publicity surrounding the problem have hurt some banks who have hitched their on-line hopes to America Online.
"Union Bank is underwhelmed," said Heather M. Robinson, vice president and manager of interactive services for the Los Angeles-based financial institution that in September began offering Bank-Now, a joint service of America Online and Intuit Inc.
"Our success has not been what we expected because who in their right mind would sign up for a service that they couldn't even get to?" she said.
Though the difficulties in logging on appear to have ameliorated in recent months, observers said America Online would like to have recourse to Compuserve's network.
"America Online has looked at Compuserve in the past and is looking more seriously now that Compuserve appears to be available for a fire-sale price," said Peter Krasilovsky, senior analyst with Arlen Communications in Bethesda, Md.
Officials at Dulles, Va.-based America Online and Columbus, Ohio-based Compuserve declined to comment on speculation about a deal.
Compuserve is the No. 2 on-line service with about 2.9 million direct subscribers. The company has systems and operations that could help America Online in dealing with network access and customer service issues- particularly in overseas markets where America Online is looking to expand, Mr. Krasilovsky said.
In addition, Compuserve could bring America Online customers ready-to- use on-line banking.
A survey Compuserve conducted last year found that 70% of its members were willing to conduct transactions on-line.
The average Compuserve customer is both well-off (average household income of $84,000) and well-educated (73% completed at least four years of college). Such characteristics are typical of current on-line banking users.
America Online has 31 banks offering services through its network, compared to Compuserve's 17 and Prodigy's two. About 40% of America Online customers visit the personal finance section of the network, giving banks good exposure.
However, with Internet-based programs gaining in popularity, America Online can use all the help it can get in adding new banking relationships.