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AOL rivals face same problems

America Online's competitors want to profit from its problems but may be open to similar complaints.

Compared to the well-publicized woes of America Online, today's offer by fledgling sounded pretty attractive: unlimited Net access for life for just $59.95.

But signing up was another matter. When some would-be customers (including CNET staffers) tried the toll-free line, their calls were automatically disconnected. Others found the lines constantly jammed. is one of AOL's many competitors who are trying to take advantage of the online giant's problems. AT&T claims to be experiencing a sharp spike in sign-ups for its WorldNet Internet service, an increase it attributes in part to an influx of refugees from America Online. CompuServe will run television ads during the Super Bowl touting the reliability of its service, the company announced today.

But if they do attract a sudden rush of new customers, these companies may well be opening themselves to the same kinds of complaints that are now being directed against AOL. executive vice president Bram Ambrose conceded today that the phone lines were swamped because the company wasn't adequately prepared for the wave of new business that followed stories in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today. "Our big problem right now is our phones: They are overloaded," Ambrose said. "It does concern me."

Ambrose said was confident that it would fix the phone problem by letting a Utah call center handle more sign-ups. The company is also limiting subscriptions to 15,000 new users every two weeks so that no one will run into Internet connectivity problems a la AOL.

AOL's customer-service complaints are arguably more serious, having drawn the ire of 20 state attorneys general and a spate of class-action lawsuits by customers. (See related story)

But experts say the incident at, combined with many others, brings to mind a familiar proverb: "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

"Most providers that are growing are going to have some infrastructure problems," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with Jupiter Communications.

AT&T, for example, has run into some problems of its own. In November, 50,000 customers were unable to receive email for nearly two days because of a hardware glitch in a database server that stores the service's email. Customers received a 30-minute phone card worth about $10.50 as compensation.

On Monday, 105 Web sites belonging to AT&T WorldNet's Managed Internet Service were affected by an outage that lasted from Monday evening until Tuesday afternoon. The company blamed temporary overload stemming from a hardware upgrade at an Internet switching facility in Palo Alto, California. "It was like blowing a fuse," an AT&T spokeswoman said.

There are other examples. Among them:

  • Microsoft Network had to clear up a massive billing problem last year. Because of a billing backlog, some users were surprised to find "several hundred dollars" of charges in a single credit card statement. "The infrastructure wasn't set up to handle as many bills as we tried to push through the pipeline," an MSN marketing manager told CNET at the time.

  • Last fall, just two weeks after Sprint launched its Internet service, about 100 to 150 customers found themselves locked out of cyberspace during a five-hour intermittent outage.

  • Last summer, 400,000 Netcom subscribers found themselves with no access for 13 hours because of a network outage resulting from human error, leaving users without email, Web access, or any other Internet services.

  • Some users of Pacific Bell Internet Service complained last September that it took too long to get technical support. The company responded by expanding its staff.

    AOL also has been accused of making it difficult for users to cancel their subscriptions. But some customers also complain that it is no easy trick at CompuServe, Microsoft Network, or Netcom, either.

    "Virtually every ISP has had a problem with service cancellation," Rubin said. "I don't attribute it to malice. I attribute it to the rate at which they're growing."

    The real lesson in AOL's saga may be that consumers should ask more questions when they sign up for an online service or ISP, said Allen Weiner, an analyst with market research firm Dataquest. "Consumers need to get a little bit more educated," he said.

    Weiner recommends they ask questions: What is the ISPs network capacity? Does it offer 24-hour technical support? What are the cancellation and refund policies?

    "Consumers can't be blinded by price," he added.