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ISPs suffer from success

Online services might be promising unlimited access, but the truth is they're working with technology that's being developed as they go.

Imagine an all-you-can-eat restaurant that promised to keep its doors open 'round the clock. It would constantly stock and restock the buffet table, inviting anyone to partake for a flat monthly charge.

Internet services such as America Online, (AOL), Microsoft Network, and Sprint Internet Passport--and thousands of others--are offering that very idea.

They're inviting the world to their door and finding that the world is only too happy to enter and consume.

The only problem is they're still building the restaurant. And while they hoped that customers would take them up on their offer, they somehow weren't prepared when so many of them actually showed up.

Online services might be promising unlimited access, and they may have every intention of delivering it. But the truth is, they're working with technology that's being developed as they go.

Systems go down. Email gets delayed. Billing problems arise. Busy signals replace modem tones.

And people get angry.

In one of the latest examples, customers of Sprint Internet Passport were sporadically locked out of the Net Thursday through Saturday.

Sprint was having authentication problems that resulted in users across the country randomly being denied access, Sprint spokesman Jeff Shafer said. Sprint reloaded the software Saturday morning and fixed the glitch, but not before angering customers.

Shafer apologized but added, "These are problems that everybody in the industry is facing."

He's right.

Internet services such as Sprint and AT&T's WorldNet Internet access service hit technical snags all the time.

Just take a look at what's happening to AOL, the king of online services. A few million people have been having trouble getting into the system because the world's largest online service invited them to come to the table all at once, for one-low price.

And they did. But AOL didn't have enough modems to accommodate all of them.

Some liken it to a food shortage. Others--notably the online services themselves--say it's more like finding out that all your restaurant customers are compulsive overeaters who continually scarf up food while others bang on the doors trying to get in.

Like Sprint and other ISPs facing the same problems, AOL executives have responded that they're doing everything possible. And they also add that they're frustrated that their customers (and the media) are single-mindedly focused on the lockouts, not the fact that millions of customers get on every day without problem.

Customers, they say, are expecting too much from such a young industry that is experiencing "growing pains."

"It's still a new technology," Shafer said. "We're still working on how do you implement it. Everybody's struggling with it."

When television started, stations regularly experienced blackouts. But today's consumers, used to largely uninterrupted telephone and electrical service, expect instant reliability--something the Net has yet to provide.

Those who have been online for years know about the technological difficulties inherent with the industry and technology. But those logging on for the first time have been sold a world that doesn't yet exist: a slick, perfect online world where information is cheap, fast, and available 24 hours a day.

Just watch the TV commercials luring users to AOL, MSN, and other online services. Like most ads, they fail to mention the pitfalls.

And most users fail to read the fine print in the user agreements, just as they do when being promised a $99 cross-country air fare.

Maybe the commercials should end with a disclaimer reading: "This is a new service. We're still figuring it out as we go. But we're doing the best we can."

But don't hold your breath.