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AT&T WorldNet cans time-outs

The ISP decides not to implement a policy of cutting off users after three hours during peak times, citing user response and limited benefits.

AT&T WorldNet has decided not to implement a policy of cutting off users after three hours during peak periods.

WorldNet recently tested the practice in an attempt to gauge its effectiveness in curbing what it called excessive use by a small group of subscribers. After analyzing the results of that test, however, the ISP concluded that the benefits of the forced time-outs to network performance were negligible and not worth the ire they inspired in users.

"Based on what it did for us and how our customers felt about it, we decided it wasn't worth continuing," said WorldNet spokesman Mike Miller. "It just didn't make sense."

Although "customers did have concerns about being disconnected," Miller said, he noted that a small but "not insignificant" number of users were not opposed to the policy if it improved network performance.

User response was gauged from email messages and newsgroup postings, he said.

Many service providers--including WorldNet and America Online--already monitor usage and cut off users during periods of inactivity. That policy is explicitly stated in WorldNet's terms and conditions of service.

But ISPs get into hazardous territory when they cut off active users, a practice that analysts say can alienate and drive away subscribers.

The results of the test came surprisingly quickly. On Tuesday, the company had said a decision on implementing the session cutoffs would come in a matter of weeks, not days.

WorldNet spokesman Mike Keady said the ISP ran the disconnect tests after noticing that its success rates for users connecting to the service the first time they dialed in were dropping despite WorldNet's efforts to strengthen its network. WorldNet claims its connection success rates are higher than the industry average.

Customers were allowed to log back on, but not all were understanding--especially those who were cut off in mid-session. For some, the disruption meant interrupting file downloads or terminating chats or games in progress.

WorldNet, which provides Internet access for $19.95 per month, is not alone among unlimited-service providers curtailing usage in some way.

In January, IBM Internet Connection Services announced it put a 100-hour limit on its $19.95-per-month "unlimited" access plan. IBM implements an hourly fee after that.

And citing increased network costs, among other factors, AOL last month announced it will increase its monthly charge by 10 percent to $21.95, starting with the April billing cycle.

Both IBM's time limit and AOL's rate hike met with hostility from users, but neither company has backed down from its decision.

Now that the time-out idea has been shelved, WorldNet is faced with coming up with alternate solutions to its network overcrowding. Miller said the company was investigating a number of different options, but declined to give any details.

He said the company's position that it would continue its $19.95 per month pricing scheme for now was unchanged. He did not rule out a rate hike at some point in the future, however.

Launched in March 1996, WorldNet targets home users and now has 1.2 million members. Since its launch, the company has offered $19.95 per month "all-you-can-eat" pricing.