Originally created 01/16/97

Grrrrr! America Online gets too much of a good thing

ORLANDO, Fla. - There's a new online word I'm seeing more and more lately:


That's cyberspeak for grumble, grumble, grumble - that under-the-breath swearing that you do when things don't work the way you want.

And little wonder. Have you tried to sign on to America Online lately and not been able to get in because it was chockablock full of other users?

Frustrating, isn't it?

You're not alone. AOL's woes are all I hear about lately. As Merritt Island's Carl Holtman wrote me in an e-mail message this week: "We did not expect the jam to be quite this great. Has AOL sold us a product they can't deliver?"

Well, there's no excusing AOL, but there is an explanation.

User demand has surged like a tsunami since December, when AOL began offering subscribers unlimited hours online for $19.95 a month. There were more than 7 million subscribers in November; and we'll find out in February how many AOL has gained since then.

A year ago, AOL says, members logged on about 3.8 million times per day. It's now up to about 10 million times a day. A year ago, the number of simultaneous users at peak hours was 84,000. These days: more then 250,000.

Inveterate users of AOL - like me - can really tell the difference. Before the days of unlimited service, I would log on and let the program run in the background all day, a feat made possible because I wasn't paying the bill. Now, if I let the program sit for more than 10 minutes without doing anything, it boots me out.

To AOL's credit, the company did acknowledge when it announced the new pricing plan that its service likely would get sluggish during peak evening and afternoon hours.

What the company obviously did not anticipate was how quickly it would have to switch to an unlimited pricing plan to meet competitive pressures. You can thank AT&T's WorldNet service and Microsoft Network for that.

AOL's problem is twofold. It needs to get more modems, for Orlando and all the communities it serves, and it needs more processing power at its headquarters in Dulles, Va.

That's happening. AOL has added more than 30,000 modems since October, and it will spend $250 million by June to expand system capacity.

When will you notice a difference? Probably by March, the company says.

So rather than grumble, what can you do? Here are some tips:

- Go in through the back door. It's possible to connect to America Online through an independent Internet service provider - rather than through AOL's proprietary phone network. I wrote about this last week but received a number of e-mail requests for more details, so here goes.

You'll need to set up an account with an independent ISP. More than 30 serve Central Florida and most of them are listed under "Internet" in the phone book. They generally charge $19.95 a month for unlimited service, but if you shop hard, you may be able to find a group discount.

By the way, it does cost more to have two services, but if you decide to make this your permanent way of connecting to AOL, you can change your account to "Bring your own access" status. That's $9.95 for unlimited time on AOL.

Signing on to AOL through an ISP is a two-step process. First, you log onto your ISP. Then click the minimize buttons on all the windows on your screen until your desktop is clear, then launch your AOL program. Click on the Setup button and create a new location.

Then click on the Network box and select TCP/IP. That stands for Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol; essentially it's computer lingo for "Talk to me over the Internet."

Click on Save, then on OK and you're all set. Click on sign-on, and it will log you on quicker than you ever imagined.

- Become a night owl. If you're not up for having an alternative Internet provider, you'll have to deal with AOL's peak usage hours. That means signing on in the wee hours of the night.

If you like waking up to your e-mail in the morning, consider using flashsessions, which let you schedule AOL to automatically call the service over night - while you sleep - and collect your e-mail. You also can schedule flashsessions in the mid-afternoon, while you are at work.

- Get the inside scoop. With the price change, AOL launched a feature called AOL Insider, which features a daily column by a staffer known only as "Meg." It's now one of my daily must-reads.

In addition to being fresh and funny, the column notifies you of AOL's various system outages, plus lets you know which cities are getting more modems and new access numbers.

Meg also gives periodic peaks at AOL's upcoming software revision, which is scheduled to ship in the late spring and summer.

Among the innovations coming: Sending photos with instant messages, longer screen names and the ability to switch screen names without having to sign off.


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