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One-fee ISP faces challenges

When @bigger.net launched its lifelong Net access for $59.95, it aimed to lure users who couldn't log onto overtaxed providers. But now, the frustrated customers of other ISPs are hurting--not helping--the service.

    When @bigger.net launched its lifelong Net access for just $59.95, it aimed to lure frustrated Netizens such as America Online members who couldn't log onto the overtaxed service.

    But now, the frustrated customers of other Net access providers are hurting--not helping--@bigger.net.

    The public's growing distrust of cheap Net access deals has made it difficult for @bigger.net to meet its goal of 200,000 subscribers by year's end. Today, its customer base is barely 20,000.

    Since @bigger.net launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, a slew of companies around country have shut down their nearly free Internet services. Some disappeared without a trace, taking customers' money with them.

    In June, Hyper Net USA canceled Cyberfreeway, which was promoted as all-you-can-eat access for a one-time fee of $29.95. In April, j3 Communications ended its free, advertiser-supported service after only three months.

    In addition, hundreds of frustrated customers complained that they never received their lifetime Net access after paying between $25 and $45 to BOSnet Communications and an affiliated company, USFreeway, both of which have fizzled out.

    "@bigger.net's challenge is getting consumers to trust them when the competition is AT&T and AOL--trusted brand names that consumers expect to be in business ten years from now," said Kate Delhagen, an analyst for Forrester Research.

    Executives for @bigger.net admit that business has been slower than anticipated, but they are striving to change public perception.

    They say they aren't making the same mistakes as other low-cost services; they've promised to add equipment for each additional 15,000 customers to keep up with demand; they have a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week technical support line. They add that they are getting funding through venture capitalists and advertisers.

    The company also still is planning to roll out services in other major cities. "As more people see us up and running, this will work itself out," company chairman Scott Smith said today.

    The latest version of @bigger.net's start-up software is being well received by its advertisers as well. Whenever surfers log on to their accounts, an advertising window will pop up, which can't be closed without disconnecting the service.

    It also has managed to smooth out its start-up kinks, according to customers. For example, when @bigger.net rolled out, its customer service lines were busy, but the problem was quickly fixed along with other glitches.

    "At first, their server went down quite a bit. But that has improved and they don't go down anymore," said an @bigger.net customer who signed up in January.

    Still, it is unclear whether @bigger's business model will work. "People will still try 'free trials' before they choose a service that calls for money up front," Delhagen said. "They can't sell advertising without a critical mass, and they can't get the critical mass with this up-front fee. So this all depends on how deep their pockets are and how long they can sustain until their customer base increases."

    Some customers, however, are willing to take the gamble. After all, most services cost about $20 a month and @bigger.net has already stayed in business long enough to give most subscribers more than their money's worth.

    "What's nice is the one-time fee. I also subscribe to AOL for my business and that costs around $240 a year," said the customer. "I think @bigger.net has proven itself."