December 2, 1996 4:45 PM PST

New usage plan swamps AOL

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So many America Online (AOL) members took advantage of the service's first night of unlimited usage that the network experienced some slowdowns during peak hours, a company spokesman said today.

Not only are more people logging on than usual, but they are staying on longer by an average of 15 minutes, said David Gang, vice president of product marketing. He added that while there were relatively few problems Sunday, if any, there were minor glitches today.

"The system's responded well. We've had little peaks and valleys of system problems," Gang said. "We basically are working around the clock to pull this thing off and make sure our members are happy."

AOL is in the process of beefing up its network to accommodate current users who may be spending a lot more time online and the new members AOL is trying to attract. CEO Steve Case has said he expects to increase AOL's membership from 7 million to 10 million by the end of next year.

"We had more than 8 million member sessions last night," spokesman Michael Gross said. "That's a very large number."

By comparison, the number of sessions a year ago was 3.8 million. Every time someone logs on, the system registers a session. Gross added that Web hits have increased by 30 percent since September.

The high volume resulted in slower times for email as well as site access, according to AOL's new feature, the "AOL Insider," displayed in the service's free area.

"This morning, we here on the 3rd floor of AOL headquarters discussed how technology isn't always perfect [and we intend to immediately submit this amazing and insightful discovery to Duh magazine]," the Insider writes. "You see, we too were stuck watching the lovely but unwelcome hourglass on our screens while attempting to retrieve email."

Conscious that slowdowns and outages, such as an 18-hour shutdown in August, could threaten its bottom line, AOL said it is working hard to improve its network.

In early October, AOL struck a $340 million deal with BBN to expand its dial-up network and will spend an additional $250 million in system expansion and customer support by the end of its fiscal year in June, Gross said.

Those improvements include the following:

  • Adding tens of thousands of new network modems to AOLnet.

  • Doubling AOL's system hardware over the next six months.

  • Doubling AOL's email capacity and its ability to connect with the Web since September. (AOL on average delivers 7 million pieces of email to 12 million recipients per day.)

  • Reducing regular maintenance time "to under one percent running time," AOL states. (The AOL outage happened when technicians were unable to bring the the system back up after it had been taken down for regular maintenance.)

  • Increasing its customer service staff to nearly 3,500 representatives.

  • Adding new online areas for updates, tips, and information for new users.

    The new $19.95 all-you-can-eat pricing began yesterday. Members paying the $9.95 for five hours of access will automatically be boosted to the $19.95 rate as of their billing date in December unless they specify otherwise. The new price plan also includes options for discounts based on paying in advance; $4.95 for three hours of access rate; and a $9.95 unlimited access rate for those who get onto AOL's network through their own Internet service provider.

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