POBox.com held to new standard

Customers were baffled by Friday's outage in an otherwise reliable email forwarding service, not knowing the cause was a water main break.

It may be true that when it comes to the United States Postal Service, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" will keep mail couriers "from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

But when it comes to email, any number of natural--and not so natural--disasters can delay delivery.

Of course, delay is relative, and so is the term "swift" when it comes to mail versus email. Where people expect their email to be delivered as soon as they send it, they will wait up to several days for a letter form the U.S. Postal Service.

On Friday customers of POBox.com, an email forwarding service, were baffled by an outage in what they say has otherwise been a highly reliable service. It turned out that the eight-hour shutdown--in which no email was lost--was not caused by a faulty router or programming error, but by the kind of a common building problem that faces "brick and mortar" companies every day: a water main break.

"In a rather unusual turn of events, the basement of the building for our primary site was flooded by a water main break, and they had to turn the power in the building off all day to pump the water out," said Pobox president Helen Horstmann.

Because the break shut down the entire building, Pobox employees didn't have any way to inform customers, who pay annual fees for the forwarding and other services, about the problem until it was over. When they did, members were generally understanding, Horstmann said.

The response contrasts somewhat to the outrage heard in many of the Net's corridors last January when online bookseller Amazon experienced a 12-hour outage. And when online services such as America Online experience even 15-minute hiccups, it can create reverberations across the Net.

Largely the response to outages is directly proportional to the number of people affected. Where Amazon and AOL brag of millions of customers, Pobox is substantially smaller, with only about 20,000 clients. The company is one of the few Net businesses that makes money through direct fees for services from customers, rather than by advertising.

Regardless, the outage once again demonstrated both the flaws and the strengths of the Net. On one hand it showed how vulnerable the Net can be to natural disasters; at the same time it demonstrated users' higher expectations.

Most people never know about an eight-hour mail delivery problem (although it if happened at the wrong time there certainly would be a national uproar.) But they also don't expect Net companies to close. They expect Net companies to be up and running all the time.

That point was driven home for Pobox on Friday. While other businesses in the Pobox's Philadelphia building--such as a donut shop and a minimart-- simply hung signs on their doors saying they had to shut down due to a water main break and then left for the day, PoBox employees sat in front of the building for the duration, waiting to get back in.

Where people seemed to simply accept that a flood and power outage would shut down a retail store, Net customers, who in fairness, usually have no idea why their service suffers an outage, are not always so tolerant.

"People get very concerned," Horstmann said.

But once they discovered the problem, they were then quick to offer solutions. Unfortunately, a gas-powered generator, however, would probably not work in an enclosed office space.

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