Unless you're an ISP or mammoth corporation, Internet access doesn't come any faster than the cable modem. Microsoft Corp. on Monday announced its second major investment in cable Internet access companies when it joined Compaq in a $425 million investment in Road Runner, which together with @Home, owns the cable Internet access market. Under the terms of the agreement, Compaq will manufacture personal computers that include built-in cable modems while Microsoft will include software in its Windows operating systems that makes it easier for consumers to use the modems.

"This venture brings the right combination of technology and Internet access to make high-speed Internet connectivity a reality for consumers," Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said of the deal.

While there are no explicit technology restrictions in the deal, Road Runner uses and will continue to use Internet Explorer 4.0 as its default Web browser of choice. The company also uses Windows NT Server and Digital hardware (now owned by Compaq) on the back-end.

Interestingly, today's deal shut out competitors Oracle and Intel, which were both wooing Road Runner. In fact, representatives of the two companies were in New York last month to sign a deal when the Microsoft/Compaq team swept in with a superior offer and won the bid from under their noses. The Oracle/Intel team tried to counter-offer over the course of the past month but were rebuffed by Road Runner