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IBM's dead letter office

Some users of IBM's Net access service are losing their email.

Some users of IBM's (IBM) Net access service are losing email to the cyberspace version of the dead letter office.

The company confirmed today that some subscribers to its IBM Internet Connection service, a $19.95-a-month unlimited access service, have experienced problems with email delivery since last October. Although an IBM spokeswoman was unable to describe the problems in detail, users of the service told CNET of delays of 6 hours to 14 days in receiving email. Others complained that email sent to their addresses has been lost altogether.

More and more ISPs, including AT&T and America Online, are struggling with technical glitches brought on by a tremendous growth in customers.

Analysts said that IBM is far from the only ISP having trouble keeping up with the growth in its service. "It's an enormous challenge for all of them," said Rebecca Wetzell, director of Internet services for TeleChoice, a telecommunications consultancy. "The Internet tidal wave is not easy to get ahead of. Even deep-pocketed IBM is not immune to the pressures that every one else in the business feels."

But IBM's problems are particularly ironic since Big Blue is one of the earliest builders of the Internet.

Better known for mainframes and PCs than as an ISP, IBM has offered Internet access for consumers around the world through its IBM Internet Connection service since October 1994. The service is provided through the IBM Global Network, which offers local dial-up access in more than 50 countries and 830 points of presence.

Big Blue's Internet history actually dates back much further. The company supplied some of the hardware and networking expertise for the construction of NSFNET, a predecessor the Internet run by the National Science Foundation.

According to Linda Wizner, an IBM spokeswoman, the company has been working on its email servers since October in an effort to work out the kinks. She wouldn't specify how many users subscribe to the service, but did say that the company experienced a surge in growth after it announced a $19.95 unlimited pricing scheme last July.

"We're facing the same challenges everyone is," said Wizner. "We are aware of the mail problem. We apologize for the inconvenience."

The most recent slowdown in email service for IBM users was on January 5. On that day, a special Web site that provides information on the status of IBM's service said that users might experience delays in receiving email.

A number of users complained to CNET of frustrating, intermittent delays in receiving email, although all users can send email without a hitch and some have never experienced any problems at all.

"Ever since I first joined, there have been continuous email problems including messages arriving anywhere from 3 to 14 days late," said Mark McGuire, a subscriber to the IBM Internet Connection service. "I know of four emails sent to me that were returned to the sender. If I remember correctly, the whole point of sponsoring the Olympics was to show off their ability to handle unusually high volumes."

"The major mail problem I encountered was bounced email during maintenance down times," said another subscriber who asked not to be identified. "This in itself, although distressing, was only part of the problem. When the mail was bounced, the sender got a message back that I didn't exist. This usually occurred one early morning every month or two."

Some users think that the problem reflects poor planning on IBM's part.

"It seems to me that IBM, like AT&T, looking for market share and presence, expanded their marketing faster than their hardware capabilities," said Lee Muenzen, another subscriber.