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WorldNet users suffer through busy signals

AT&T's ISP service is suffering network slowdowns that have some angry users comparing the situation to the depths of America Online's early troubles.

AT&T's WorldNet ISP service is suffering network slowdowns that have some angry users comparing the situation to America Online's early access troubles.

For at least a week, users have been experiencing high levels of busy signals, and some have complained that download speeds have slowed.

An internal bulletin board dedicated to connectivity problems is being deluged with hundreds of complaints a day about busy signals, from customers ranging from Portland, Oregon, to Ft. Myers, Florida.

"Every night from 7 or 8 p.m. to 12 midnight it is really absolutely impossible to get on," wrote Matt Kennedy, a WorldNet user in Nashua, New Hampshire. "I have lived with other services in the past such as AOL and I have never experienced anything like this before."

An AT&T spokeswoman said yesterday that some areas of the system were experiencing heavier-than-usual traffic as a result of the company's successful advertising campaign.

"We are not experiencing the problems that AOL experienced," said Janet Stone, an AT&T spokeswoman. "What we have experienced is that there are hot spots where demand is high."

America Online, the world's largest online service, suffered nationally publicized network congestion problems after offering unlimited use service in late 1996 and early 1997. That episode sparked a number of class-action lawsuits as well as scrutiny by state attorneys general. In an effort to improve its service and quell user complaints, AOL upgraded its facilities and offered refunds to customers.

Since launching a new round of television ads in December that tout a new unlimited use pricing system, AT&T's WorldNet has experienced "significant" traffic growth across its network, Stone said.

The company now offers unlimited dial-up service for $21.95, along with six email addresses and 30 megabytes of Web space. A less expensive plan offers 150 hours a month for $14.95.

Earlier in the week, the company released a list of 45 cities--the areas Stone called network "hot spots"--where AT&T plans to upgrade its network and add new dial-up lines over the next three months.

Some of these cities also have recently undergone upgrades in which multiple lines were consolidated, but all access ports were upgraded to accept the recently standardized V.90 56 kilobit-per-second modems.

Some of the cities that show up most frequently on the internal complaint list, including Portland and Tacoma, Washington, are scheduled for new lines in the next several months, the company said. In Portland, a support staffer told users that AT&T is trying to move up the planned February 23 upgrade date.

"We know where we're getting the demand," Stone said. "There's a significant amount of expansion happening in the first quarter."

The company is responding quickly to the complaints on its bulletin board. A team of service representatives has answered virtually every one of the complaints on the connectivity news group within hours of a message being posted, detailing plans for network upgrades in that customer's area or making other assurances that their technical staff is looking into the problems.

The complaints come shortly after AT&T was rated as one of the top ISPs in the country by Inverse Network Technology, an ISP rating service. The company scored nine out of nine A+ grades on three call-failure measurement standards for the months of September through January--outperforming most of the industry.

This news came as a surprise to some of the users currently unable to dial in to their ISP.

"AT&T is now a disaster," wrote WorldNet subscriber Robert Payette after seeing the Inverse Network news. "Their advertising has flooded many of their POPS [points of presence] leading to busy signals galore?It's really getting bad."

In a survey of 42 major metropolitan areas, Inverse Network said that AT&T's call failure rate was just 2 percent over a 24-hour period--but climbed to about 4.7 percent in the evening hours, or 6 p.m. to midnight. That compared to industry average figures of 6.9 percent for a 24-hour period, and 13.6 percent in the evening.

Busy signals typically go up in the months after the winter holidays, said Inverse Network research manager Chris Roeckl. "As users get all those new PCs for Christmas, they start cranking them up and going online," he said. "There is a holiday effect."

AT&T reported that it had close to 1.4 million subscribers to the WorldNet service by the close of December. That figure put it far behind rival America Online, which has more than 15 million subscribers.

The company also is reportedly considering transferring the WorldNet division to @Home, the cable Internet access company controlled by Tele-Communications Incorporated. AT&T would retain control of the entire Internet company after its merger with TCI is approved.