In the latest instance of Internet service providers placing limits on so-called unlimited access, AT&T WorldNet acknowledged that it has been cutting off users after three hours during peak times.
Although the practice was part of a test that has concluded, WorldNet spokesman Mike Keady said the company probably will make it policy.
Keady later amended his statement and withdrew his prediction, noting that the company would study the results of the test before making a decision one way or the other. A formal announcement is expected in the next few weeks.
A limited number of users who were logged on during the hours of 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. PT found their sessions terminated in what Keady described as an effort by the company to address worsening accessibility rates during peak times.
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, losing the list of Web sites they had visited, or terminating chats or games in progress.
"Have you ever been disconnected in the midst of researching a project?" asked one irate user in a WorldNet newsgroup. "My, but it's fun trying to find your way back to the point of disconnect if you haven't bookmarked along the way."
Keady said WorldNet had to institute the policy to save the network from overcrowding. "We implemented the time-out simply because some people are hogging the network," he said. "We found that 4 percent of users were using 50 percent of the resources."
Keady said WorldNet ran the disconnect tests after noticing that its success rates for users connecting to the service the first time they dialed it were dropping despite WorldNet's efforts to strengthen its network. WorldNet claims its connection success rates are higher than the industry average.
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, America Online 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.
WorldNet's test has inspired outrage in newsgroups and even a protest Web site. WorldNet's Keady said reaction has been muted outside the newsgroups.
In addition, many ISPs--including WorldNet and AOL--already monitor usage and cut off users during periods of inactivity. That policy is explicitly stated in WorldNet's terms and conditions of service.
Even so, Forrester Research analyst Kate Delhagen said WorldNet should try to control how and when it cuts off users.
"It's not at all uncommon to cut users off during a session," she said. "But network providers can watch the connection and see if data is being transferred. They should not cut a person off if they're in the middle of games or downloads. That is a mistake."
Mistake or not, cutting users off mid-session is not out of line with WorldNet terms and conditions. WorldNet reserves "the right to manage maximum session length and terminate sessions that exceed the maximum length even if [the user is] actively using [the] connection."
Delhagen said the practice of discontinuing inactive sessions is widely practiced, if not as widely acknowledged. And ISPs might step up efforts to manage network loads while keeping their prices low for most users.
"Usage-based pricing could resurface," Delhagen noted. "And that could be by time or by bytes. ISPs could charge people by the size of their downloads."
Launched in March 1996, WorldNet targets home users and now boasts 1.2 million members. Since its launch, the company has offered $19.95 per month "all-you-can-eat" pricing.