BLACKOUTS AND BROWNOUTS are all too common for the world's biggest Internet access provider, Northern Virginia's America Online Inc. Its popularity has mushroomed so fast that paid customers often can't log-on. That infuriates AOL's 8 million clients and poses troubling questions about future gridlock as the popularity of computer networking grows.
AOL's current problems stem from a marketing decision to charge a flat-rate fee of $19.95 a month for unlimited use. Three-quarters of AOL's subscribers switched, and new subscribers signed up in droves. Customer usage jumped from 1.6 million hours online in October to 4 million hours in January.
The company can't cope. Especially troubling are the huge blocks of time spent on the Internet. Each AOL user connection now lasts 32 minutes (versus an average phone call in Maryland of 2.3 minutes), meaning that many subscribers are tying up phone lines for hours.
Try logging onto AOL in the evening; you normally get a busy signal. Try contacting a customer service representative. Busy signal. Companies can't get e-mail messages or conduct business. Customers have filed suit; this week, the company was forced to give cash refunds and cease advertising until March.
AOL says it can handle matters once $350 million in system improvements are completed this summer. But for how long?
Telephone companies are worried that as Internet usage mounts, they will be overwhelmed. That kind of interruption to a vital public service won't be tolerated.
What happens as sleek new models for cruising the Internet increase usage further? A universal programming language called Java could take computing to a new level of popularity. The personal computer could soon be obsolete as far cheaper network "server" systems appear. Cable TV and computers are starting to merge, as are telephony, computers and TV.
Technology, though, creates its own pitfalls. Industry changes occur at lightning speed. Today's high-tech leaders risk quick displacement by upstart innovators. It is no longer enough to produce new technology; now you must provide seamless service that avoids brownouts, blackouts and other catastrophies lurking around the bend of the information superhighway.
Pub Date: 1/31/97