After being threatened with law-suits by customers across the country angry at the increasing difficulty of getting on-line, America Online (AOL), the world's largest on-line service, has found that success has its price.
AOL's problems began on Dec. 2, when the company announced a flat fee of $19.95 a month for unlimited use, says Matthew Nerzig, spokesperson for AOL.
"It's at that point that our user demand completely doubled," he says. "We anticipated that there would be a surge in use...but we didn't think it would [be] that much."
Nerzig says AOL had thought there would be an increase in usage by 50 percent with the unlimited access plan and had not prepared for the overwhelming response it did get.
"With the unlimited use fee, people have doubled the use time that they are on," Nerzig says. "When you've got an $8 million customer base and you unleash a popular product, I could guess you say you set yourself up for these things."
"There are all kinds of problems--getting connected and...the busy signal," Nerzig says.
With over half the on-line world on AOL and three times as many users as any other on-line service, AOL is now paying for its success, Nerzig says.
"So when you get a little too popular, popularity does have its price," he says.
Harvard is suffering from AOL's popularity as well, says Franklin M. Steen, director of Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Computer Services.
In an e-mail message, Steen said that, as of last Friday, there were several thousand messages sent from Harvard to AOL which did not get through.
Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 AOL messages are being held by FAS and are not being sent, Steen says.
FAS processes 200,000 to 300,000 messages a day.
The e-mails stuck en route to AOL amount to 75 percent of the FAS messages that are currently queued, or stuck.
"It indicates a problem on AOL's mail servers," Steen says. "Students who are sending to others on AOL are encountering delays in getting mail to AOL's servers. The problem appears to lie on the AOL end."
Andrew K. Mandel '00, a Crimson editor, says he has seen the negative effects of the on-line service's popularity.
Mandel works in a tutoring program for three hours a week which takes place over AOL. The programs allows children to come to "chat rooms" and ask questions of the tutors on duty. One tutor goes into the room to help guide the student in solving the problem.
Because Harvard has a special server through which students can log on to AOL, Mandel says he personally has not experienced busy signals getting on-line.
However, many of his fellow tutors have.
"Those students who can get on are on for a very long time," Mandel says. "It's much more hectic to weed out who actually has a problem and who's there just to cause problems."
Mandel says the program is attempting to alleviate the problem by limiting the number of students who can log on to AOL at the same time.
"The service I work for [is] working on solving the problem by making it a revolving door, letting certain people [come on] at a time," he says.
However, Mandel says he does not think this solution is going to be too helpful.
"When the demand is high, it's not going to help permanently," he says. "I guess we're going to have to wait and see."
Steen says he has also experienced problems with AOL when he has tried to use it.
"I tried AOL a few times over the past months and it is really slow to connect to," he says. "When I tried it I had to wait 20 minutes or more just for a connection to do anything at all."
Steen says the slow rate of the service frustrated him so much that he gave up trying to connect again.
"Getting to e-mail required even more time," he says. "I did not have the patience to even try to get to the Web."
AOL is currently ordering new modems and installing them, a process that will take several months to complete, Nerzig says.
"We're spending $360 million to install different modems," Nerzig says. "We've also curtailed our marketing activities. It only seems like the right thing to do."
In the meantime, AOL is offering a credit refund to users who cannot get on-line, "so people could at least get their money back," Nerzig says.
To alleviate the back-up of users for the time being, Nerzig says AOL has been asking users to try to vary the time they log on so the lines are not as busy at the same time.
Additionally, AOL has been making efforts to appease its customers.
Steve Chase, chief executive of AOL, sent an e-mail message to users last Thursday, explaining the refunds the company plans to give its customers.
"Naturally, we anticipated more usage, and prepared for it, but we seriously underestimated the surge in demand that actually occurred," he wrote in the message.
Chase says that AOL has four goals for improving its services.
The first goal of AOL, Chase says, is to expand the "system capacity" as soon as possible.
"Our $350 million system investment program, more than we spent in our first decade of existence, will add 150,000 more modems to AOL-net and give us the capability to handle 16 million member sessions a day--five times more than we handled last year," he says.
Chase also says AOL plans to cut back on its advertising campaign and focus its efforts on improving the services for its current customers.
"We've cut back our recruitment of new members until we are sure that you are being served properly, holding membership at the current mark of approximately 8 million," he says.
In addition, AOL plans to give refunds to customers who have complaints about the service.
"We're also offering credits or refunds on request to members who don't feel they have gotten sufficient value from AOL due to our capacity problems," he says.
"I think the AOL services that they have on the Internet already are probably the most refined," says Gaurav A. Upadhyay '00, who used AOL for a month over the summer. "It offers the most services for users, but, at the same time, it comes with a lot of baggage and restrictions."
Upadhyay says one of the problems he has found with AOL is the limitations it places on the resources which users have direct access to, such as the Web.
Users can explore the Web through a browser on AOL, but can only reach specific sites. If they want to reach other sites, the users must download Netscape and search for the address on their own.
But many users, like Upadhyay, stick with the browser provided by AOL because it has advantages like compressed graphics.
Despite the benefits AOL offers its customers, Upadhyay says he did not like the charging plan AOL had over the summer.
"When I was a member of their plan, they charged a small fee for e-mailing anyone outside its own network," he says.
Additionally, Uphadyay says he occasionally had trouble logging on over the summer because the lines were crowded.
"AOL has the most local sites of any commerical network. Even during the summer during peak times, I would have to try two numbers, maybe three, before I'd find one [that was open]," he says.
Despite these glitches, Upadhyay says he would choose AOL again because he was satisfied overall with AOL.
"I thought the service was pretty good," he says. "I would have to go back just because it's the most convenient service."
One student who used AOL over the summer says that although he didn't have any problems with the server, he would not choose AOL as his personal on-line company.
"The only [thing] I used it for was [having] all my Harvard mail forwarded there," said Ian K. Tzeng '98. "I didn't use any of their other services at all."
Tzeng says the convenience and good deal he got from using AOL made it worth his time to use it this summer, but he would not choose AOL as a permanent service.
"I was using it for two months, so that was a really good package," Tzeng says. "I mean if I was going to do it long term or something, I might go for another one."
Tzeng says, however, that he does not foresee having to pay for Internet services in the future. He says he believes he will be given e-mail where he works and won't need to have Internet access at his home.
"I don't anticipate ever using a commercial one ever again," he says.
AOL Parallel to FAS?
Some of the delays experienced by FAS can be compared to AOL's difficulties, Steen says.
"Our problems can be compared to AOL in some ways, but they are quite less pronounced," he says. "Our problems lay with one application, PINE e-mail and not with the network as a whole."
Steen says PINE has experienced a great deal of problems with over-crowding.
"Users of PINE, which is the majority of our users, have experienced delays at times of heavy demand, mostly in the afternoons," he says.
FAS did not have the equipment they needed to deal with the heavy usage, and, like AOL, has had to make accomodations.
"At the start of the year we did not have the kind of equipment we needed to effectively deal with the demand we are facing this year," he says. "It took us months to reengineer our systems and order the equipment we needed. We are now at the stage of installing this new equipment."
Steen says he recognizes the much larger scale on which AOL must work, but says FAS has accomodated to the level on which it must function.
"We have 12,000 [users] or so to deal with, but have appropriately smaller systems, budgets, staff and so on," he says. "[O]ur network itself has been properly engineered from the start to deal with the demand we face."
Steen says there is limited delay on FAS to access services other than PINE.
"There is no delay connecting to the network and our users can get at the Web, newsgroups, software and such quickly," he says. "The main problem this past term lay with the e-mail application PINE, which used enormous amounts of our resources when used concurrently by the number of people who used it this year."
Expanding the Refund Policy
The refund AOL is offering to customers who have difficulty getting on-line is merely the extension of an old policy, Nerzig says.
"We've always had a policy of refunds," he says. "What we did on Wednesday was to announce an extension of our refund policy to include a credit. Since we're aware that most people were having problems in December and January, we're providing more streamlined ways to get credit."
Customers can now mail requests for credit to an AOL office in Utah in addition to contacting AOL though phone lines.
"That should get their credit to them faster, setting up another avenue so people can talk to us," Nerzig says.
The refund is only fair for the customers who did not get what they paid for, Nerzig adds.
"The bottom line is that people who pay for service should get it," he says.