Aol Fee Prompts Online Jam Users Dial In And Stay On For Hours. There's Room For 250,000, But Aol Has 7.5 Million Subscribers.

Posted: January 14, 1997

Across the country, it's a favorite topic at the water cooler, at cocktail parties, and among those who do manage to get online:

It seems that nobody has been able to get on America Online, at least not easily, since the world's largest online service switched last month from nickel-a-minute fees to flat-rate pricing.

``Anytime after 6 p.m., if you're not already on, you're out. You don't get on, or it'll take you hours and hours of dialing, and that's constant dialing,'' said Shawn Berry, a Southern California college student.

AOL's problem is that there are far more people who want to use the service than the service can accommodate at once. Most AOL subscribers must dial in to the service through a telephone attached to their computer. AOL can take just 250,000 of those calls at a time, but it has 7.5 million subscribers. The problem is especially acute in the evening and on weekends.

Berry, 22, admits he may be making the problem worse. He gets frustrated with AOL, but likes it so much that he and his chat-room friends use software that does the dialing - for hours at a time, if needed - and can keep them online all day, even if they are off at work or classes.

And why not? Whether he is connected for 10 minutes or all day, AOL charges Berry only $19.95 per month. On the other hand, Berry said, ``I'm not going to pay $20 a month to go on there for an hour.''

AOL officials cringe at what Berry does, but insist that marathon users are a tiny minority of their subscribers. They say average online time has grown from about 18 minutes per session before the price change, to about 28 minutes now.

David Gang, AOL's senior vice president for product marketing, yesterday acknowledged that getting online is ``definitely a problem. Customers are experiencing busy signals during prime time all over the country.''

He said America Online is working on a $250 million upgrade that, by June, should raise AOL's capacity from the current 250,000 simultaneous users to more than 400,000.

This may be news to local subscribers, but, according to Gang, Philadelphia is one city where the AOL system has not run out of capacity. He provided two access phone numbers that, he said, have had open lines during peak hours: 215-413-6400, and 215-209-8400 (these numbers may not be local calls from many of the suburbs, and, now that they have been published, they may fill up fast).

The service also is encouraging subscribers to access AOL via alternative connections to the Internet, instead of through its direct-dial lines, and is offering a lower rate - $9.95 per month - to those who do.

Despite the crush of users trying to get on the system for e-mail, chat, games and other activities, Gang said AOL is not reconsidering its move to flat-rate pricing.

With a few significant exceptions, such as AOL rival CompuServe, ``everyone . . . offers a $19.95 flat fee price and they're not having these problems. So it's in some ways a nice problem for AOL to have - if they can turn it around quickly,'' said Robert Seidman, publisher of the industry-watching newsletter Seidman's Online Insider.

Other services offering flat rates - from 2,000-member FishNet, headquartered in King of Prussia, to one-million-member Prodigy, the smallest of the major commercial online services - said yesterday that they seldom have clogged lines and have no plan to dump unlimited-usage pricing.

FOR MORE INFORMATION * Read tech.life@inquirer on Thursday to learn how to cut through the AOL logjam.

|
|
|
|
|