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Best Buy swallows Speakeasy whole

Last bastion of independence, ISP gets borged

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Best Buy, the giant electronics retailer known for interminable waits to get time with a salesperson, is acquiring Speakeasy, an ISP popular with the techno-elite for its flexibility and attentive customer service. The companies are promising Speakeasy will remain independent, but some of the ISP's customers are ruing the union.

Best Buy plans to fold Speakeasy's business-class DSL and voice over IP services into Best Buy for Business, a unit that aims to provide comprehensive service to small businesses. The retailer is paying about $97m for the ISP, or about 1.2 times Speakeasy's 2006 revenue.

Founded in 1994 as an internet cafe in Seattle, Speakeasy has flourished into a provider of DSL and VOIP with service in all 48 contiguous states. With service representatives known for their ability to advise users of Linux gateways and FreeBSD boxes, the ISP was considered a refreshing alternative to more limited service delivered by Comcast, AT&T and their ilk. Speakeasy also stood out for its lack of bandwidth caps and the tolerance it showed to customers who shared their connections with neighbors.

Today's announcement raises the question: Can Speakeasy's reputation for attentiveness and tech saviness survive in a Fortune 100 company better known for quantity than quality? Despite an email to Speakeasy subscribers from the company's CEO, promising there would be no changes, bloggers are decidedly skeptical.

"I chose Speakeasy eight years ago because they openly welcomed and supported Linux," someone at The Command Line wrote. "Best Buy’s track record with Windows based PC support is abysmal, let alone expecting them to grok the needs of a customer like me." The Consumerist also weighed in, writing: "Hm, how long will it take BBB to turn Speakeasy, which boasts very high customer satisfaction and loyalty levels, into shit?"

To be fair, Best Buy's sprawling, one-size-fits-all approach is no different from that of competitors such as Circuit City. Both often provide the lowest prices among brick-and-mortar retailers for hard drives, video cameras and other electronics. But the low rates come at a price, mainly in the long waits it often takes to find an available sales person and merchandise that frequently is not in stock. ®

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