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New Excite Network EVP Targets Reliability

Newly installed Excite@Home Corp. executive vice president of broadband network services Chris Hjelm knows a thing or two about reliability and scalability.

During a 14-year stint at Federal Express Corp. — including two years as its chief information officer — Hjelm saw the overnight-delivery company's daily package volumes skyrocket from about 500,000 to more than 3 million.

Instead of letters and boxed packages, Hjelm, who reports directly to company chairman and CEO Patti Hart, will now try to deliver digital packets with the same type of precision and performance.

As adoption of broadband connectivity grows, the stress placed on Excite@Home's network and services will only increase. Today, the company's backbone handles about 1.5 terabytes of data per day. A terabyte is about a trillion bytes, equal to roughly 10 million JPEG images.

Hjelm, 39, was most recently CEO and president of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Zoho Corp, a Web-based procurement vendor that streamlines shipping and banking for the hospitality sector.

He joins Excite@Home as it faces criticism for a number of service outages and electronic-mail server problems over recent months.

In February, Excite@Home hired AT&T Labs vice president of data and Internet network services Hossein Eslambolchi as its interim president of broadband networks. Essentially on loan from AT&T Labs for about six months, Eslambolchi was brought on board to help the company scale its broadband network.

Eslambolchi and his team have since been transitioned out; the responsibility now resting with Hjelm and his squad.

Hjelm said his short-term objectives are simple: "I've got five, and they're all reliability. There are other things going on, of course, but for me, that's the most important part of my job and where I'm spending all of my energy."

Hjelm said Excite@Home's reliability has improved in recent months, citing a customer-satisfaction rating of 98 during the most recent quarter — the highest in the company's history.

While reliability of the Excite@Home backbone is the least of the company's problems, applications that run over that network and the complexity of its regional data centers, which house about 50 percent of Excite@Home's traffic, represent an entirely different animal.

How customers use e-mail, for example, is different in a broadband environment than it is over narrowband connections. That's because users realize how quickly they can move and download large multimedia files with a cable-modem link.

"Our customer base is continuing to do more once they understand the power of broadband and the things that they can do with it," Hjelm said. "They start using those services to send bigger e-mail attachments and download more music."

Excite@Home's subscriber base has grown to about 4 million, and is projected to hit between 4.8 million to 5.1 million by the end of this year, but its number of transactions continue to scale at an even faster rate.

"That's where the challenges really come in," Hjelm said. "We have to look at trends to see what our network traffic was a year or a quarter ago and what the subscriber-growth level or usage increases were, and draw those lines.

"You have to start a large-scale engineering effort today to re-architect a service that will be ready a year from now for the projected subscriber numbers," he said.