AOL keeps local users on hold

January 20, 1997


Staff Writer

Chrissy Jordan, 15, keeps in touch with her friends at North Hagerstown High School through e-mail, but lately she's been stuck in a traffic tie-up on the Infobahn.

Like other America Online customers across the country, Jordan and her friends are having trouble getting through to the online service, which has been swamped since it began offering unlimited access in December.

Tri-State area AOL users complain that they keep getting busy signals. One Hagerstown woman says it has taken her more than four hours to get connected.


Still, many local users say they're willing to patiently wait out the situation. Chairman and CEO Steve Case is telling customers that help is one the way.

"Sometimes, change is hard and often painful," said Bob Kochera, a Hagerstown electrical contractor. "I believe AOL will do their best to bring the service up to speed as quick as possible. Patience should solve the problems of most."

Most problems occur during peak hours, in the evening and on the weekends, users say.

Many people are going online, and staying online, because the price is more affordable than the old hourly rates.

"It's like you keep redialing, redialing, redialing," said Kathy Jackson of Hagerstown, whose husband and 10-year-old daughter Jena also use AOL. "My husband spent a half hour trying to get on last night. Finally, he just gave up."

When customers finally get through to the service, they often are knocked off without warning, they say.

AOL users in Martinsburg, W.Va., and Franklin County, Pa., complain that there's no local phone number.

Some people anxious to bypass the logjam already have switched to local Internet service providers.

"(America Online) has been the best thing to happen to us this month," said Clint Wiley, president of New Frontiers Internet Services north of Hagerstown. "The last couple of weeks we've seen a huge spike due to frustrations with AOL."

Internet service providers like Wiley say they're able to offer a stable Internet connection that also can be used to access America Online accounts.

"Due to the fact we're not spending $1 billion in advertising, we're able to control the growth a little better," Wiley said. "The small, independent Internet providers are able to maintain the proper balance between users, modems and phone lines."

Despite complaints about America Online, and at least five lawsuits filed by consumers against AOL in the past month, many are hooked on the service.

Melanie Port, 33, of Hagerstown, uses AOL e-mail to stay in touch with her husband, who is in Hungary with the U.S. Army Reserves.

Since he left in November, she's been writing to him twice a day.

Pat Hull, 38, of Hagerstown, admits she is addicted.

"I pretty much turn mine on in the morning and leave it on," said Hull, who has a small business providing day care at her home.

Although it took her 4 1/2 hours to sign on one time, she isn't about to give up the dozens of friends she has met online.

Hull grew up in Hagerstown and now she has friends as far away as Washington state.

Her three teenage daughters have to give up their phone line to support their mother's habit, she said.

Her husband, Keith, enjoys AOL but has to wait in line until she is finished, she says.

America Online's problems began in December, when the company began charging a flat fee for unlimited use with options to pay less for various hourly rates.

Until then, AOL charged customers a flat monthly fee - $10 or $20 - for a specific number of hours, and hourly rates beyond that. Customers were clocked per second.

AOL plans to spend $350 million to expand its system, Case said.

The company will add 150,000 new AOLnet modems by June, an increase of 75 percent. By June, it will be able to handle roughly 6 million more sessions each day, he said.

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