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WorldNet still struggling to keep pace

AT&T's ISP service steps up its investment in new lines following a flood of customer complaints about access problems.

AT&T's WorldNet's Internet service has stepped up its investment in new lines following a flood of customer complaints about access problems.

But the ISP still continues to suffer from criticism over busy signals in many markets across the country, primarily in areas outside the company's largest urban markets--even as its subscriber base continues to grow.

A spokeswoman said the company already planned to upgrade the network's capacity over the course of 1999. But she confirmed that WorldNet had sharply stepped up its deployment of new lines after user complaints started to pour in.

"They've beefed up their deployment plans," said Janet Stone, an AT&T spokeswoman. "There will be 100 cities that will be upgraded by the end of March."

AT&T has made a major media advertising push to boost its subscriber base since mid-December. At the same time, the company has rolled out new pricing plans, offering $21.95 for unlimited service, $19.95 for 150 hours, and introductory offers of $14.95 per month.

AT&T said today that it had signed up 100,000 users in January alone, boosting the total subscriber figures to 1.5 million.

But the new market momentum has brought some serious growing pains. As reported earlier, the service began experiencing a deluge of complaints from users about busy signals in mid-January, as new subscribers joined the system.

On February 5, the company told its users it had added new access lines in ten of the hardest-hit cities, including Portland, Oregon, Everett, Washington, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

By the end of March, the company has scheduled some 100 cities for network upgrades, a significant increase from the original 40, Stone said.

"After the initial rush in January, they have stepped up the pace [of upgrades]," Stone said. "These people are working around the clock." AT&T has updated the networks of 18 cities this week alone, she added.

Users question upgrades
The volume of complaints on WorldNet's internal newsgroups has decreased from its original peak, which sometimes ran to several hundred a day in late January.

But the bulletin boards still are home to nearly a hundred complaints a day about busy signals and dropped connections.

"I have been recommending AT&T, but if this continues I will have to recommend someone else," wrote Jim McDowell, a subscriber in Burlington, Vermont. "I would prefer not doing that." McDowell said he used the service for work purposes, and had recently had been forced to use a backup Compuserve account.

Some of the sites experiencing busy signals appear to be tied to areas where the company has upgraded to 56 kilobit modems, sometimes reducing the number of available telephone numbers in the process.

"I have tried to be patient with the upgrade, but the service leaves much to be desired," wrote Philip Walton, an Atlanta subscriber. "I have been a WorldNet customer since WorldNet went online. I have never gotten so much as a busy signal before the 'upgrade."

Despite the continued complaints, which largely come from second and third-tier cities, the ISP service has been ranked among the top ISPs in the country by Inverse Network Technology, an ISP rating service. That company rates ISPs on call completion rates, focusing heavily on large markets.