Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) is dangling AOL on a hook, but it may be angling in a small pond of big fish.
Yesterday's Wall Street Journal singled out the usual suspects. EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK ) has made no bones about its interest in acquiring AOL's dial-up access business. Meanwhile, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) are pretty much the only two companies with the girth to take on any AOL Web properties that would remain, and Yahoo! would actually have to finance the deal if it proves to be an all-cash purchase.
The article claims that the internal work required to split up the two online divisions could be announced as early as tomorrow. Then it's simply a matter of letting the bidding -- or awkward silence, punctuated by chirping crickets -- begin.
Would anyone other than EarthLink really be interested in AOL's fading dial-up service? Juno and NetZero parent United Online (Nasdaq: UNTD ) is diversifying away from access. Telcos and cable providers would love certain regional pockets of AOL's member base, but balk at taking them all on.
Time Warner had better hurry before it runs out of members to hand over. AOL usage peaked in the third quarter of 2002, when America Online's "Welcome" greeted 26.7 million paying customers. Today, just 8.7 million people pay for AOL accounts. If AOL can't quickly hand off this hot potato to EarthLink, just imagine the fire-sale prices it will have to settle for in the private equity market.
Time Warner should have better luck on the content side, with Microsoft the most likely suitor. Mr. Softy needs to grow its traffic quickly if it wants to battle Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) . News Corp. (NYSE: NWS ) is another name worth considering, given the popularity of MySpace, but the last thing that Rupert Murdoch needs is a bidding war against Mr. Softy's fat coffers.
Why drag this out, when we already know where AOL's pieces will go? Ask EarthLink to hand over its best offer for the access side. Ask Microsoft to IM over its best offer for the new-media properties. Let's land this deal before it becomes the one that got away.
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