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AOL users in for sticker shock?

While most users are happy about America Online's new flat-rate pricing scheme, some are questioning the decision to switch members without asking them first.

While most users are happy about America Online's (AOL) new flat-rate pricing scheme, some are questioning the decision to switch members from their current pricing plan without asking them about it first.

AOL has been charging members $2.95 an hour after they exceed their allotted time on either the $9.95-for-five-hours or the $19.95-for-20-hours plans. The move to flat-rate pricing starts on December 1. Only those members that specifically ask to remain on the existing plan, which charges $9.95 for five hours plus $2.95 for every additional hour, will not get rolled over to the new one.

While many users praised the unlimited pricing, not all were pleased that it is being implemented automatically.

For at least one member, the move was the last straw. "I was hanging on to the AOL legacy for a couple of features and email continuity," said one member in a Usenet posting. "I never used more than 5 hours per month, usually a lot less. [I've] been annoyed by [AOL] many times over the years, but never enough to terminate it. When I figured out today that the new pricing plan would have increased my monthly cost without giving me a vote on it, I said, 'Screw 'em.'"

In fact, users can elect to stay with the lower rate and AOL says it is making every effort to inform users of the upcoming change by sending online letters, posting news to bulletin boards, and maybe even sending direct mail to members.

Nevertheless, members who rarely log on or who use "flash sessions" to automatically retrieve their mail may be in for a surprise when they get their credit card bills.

If, by chance, someone is unpleasantly surprised by the $19.95 AOL bill next month, the customers will be allowed to adjust their plans retroactively, according to company spokesperson Pam McGraw.

AOL spokesman Andrew Graziani added that 300,000 users called in the first 24 hours after the announcement to see if they could make the switch.

Nevertheless, the decision to put the burden on members is sure to cause some waves, analysts say. "I don't think that's smart," said Emily Green, an analyst with Forrester Research. "I don't think that was designed to garner the most positive feedback from the customer base."

Green said AOL probably made its pricing decisions with its pocketbook in mind. "I think it was a revenue-driven decision."

Another member added, "The new pricing would have automatically converted me to a $19.95-unlimited user in December, an increase of $11 from my current rate," another user wrote. "That's not addressed in any of the announcements...You have to burrow to learn their service conversion 'defaults.'"

Particularly angry are AOL's "community leaders," those who accumulate free online hours by referring new members to the service or by volunteering to monitor AOL sites. They are wondering how they can take advantage of all the time they earned.

"Am I to assume that all the credited hours I've been squirreling away for winter are going to disappear?" one user wrote to an AOL bulletin board. "Tell me I'm reading this wrong. So much for the 800 and the 2100 hours I just got. Now we know why they're giving it away."

As miffed as some members may be, users outside the United States are even more upset that the unlimited pricing plan applies only to U.S. residents.

"Congratulations all," another wrote under the subject heading "Feeling cheated." The note continues, "But we here in Canada are not so lucky."