AOL France: Woes due to Web hogs

The online giant's fixed-price offering of unlimited services has been disturbed by 'a minority of subscribers', reminiscent of US problems a few years ago

America Online is blaming recent service problems in France on the "passion" of its online customers -- in particular a minority of subscribers who are hogging the service, making the most of their 99F (roughly £10) per month for "unlimited" access.

The complaints by both AOL and its customers are reminiscent of problems the online giant faced in the US in 1997 and 1998, when the service was plagued by outages due to mushrooming demand. AOL UK announced plans last month to roll out an unmetered Internet access service in Britain -- claiming it had solved the problems which afflicted other ISPs that have attempted to provide unlimited Web access.

Users trying to contact AOL's customer service about the problem are met with the following message: "The fixed-price unlimited service provided by AOL France has been immensely successful with consumers. This is why we have seen a considerable rise of the number of connections and of their duration during periods of high usage."

On subscriber-accessible pages, AOL France explains that it "underestimated the passion for the new fixed prices and more particularly the intensive use of the service by a minority of subscribers who monopolise most of the total time spent online."

The Internet service provider admitted some blame, but also fingered certain users whom the company feels are mostly responsible for the problem.

To combat the overload, AOL France is planning to quadruple its network capacity while adding nearly 60,000 connection lines. It also will double its customer-support staff and start regularly sending information to its subscribers on the best ways of connecting to their network. The ISP also started several ad campaigns addressing the problem of service overuse.

In addition, AOL said it will "set up technical measurements to manage traffic fairly during peak hours."

"This effort could result temporarily in the moderation of the duration of online sessions during these hours," AOL explains on its customer site, saying, in essence, that it will ask online laggards to kindly log off.

"Only three percent of subscribers would be affected by this, which would make it possible for other users to connect more easily. We plan to send messages to inactive users to make sure as they wish to remain online or, if not, that they log off and give up their space to other subscribers."

There is nothing new about these messages, since such warnings already exist.

At the end of a period of time, which varies according to the bandwidth available -- from 30 to 122 minutes, as reported by some users -- a window appears on a user's screen, asking the subscriber if he or she wishes to remain online. If users do not answer within a short time, they are disconnected.

Which could be particularly frustrating for users downloading software, an activity that doesn't require the user to be present. Or, during an online gaming session, a window of this type might also be quite unwelcome.

For now, AOL France will continue to "temporarily" limit connections to only one type of use: traditional online surfing, and not to time-intensive downloading. In short, only supervised and time-limited access to the Internet.

Right now, the message is clear: users will have to keep getting permission to stay online.

Subscribers who hope to discuss these subjects with Stéphane Treppoz, chairman of AOL France, will have to be patient: an announced online chat has been postponed indefinitely.

ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden contributed to this report.

Translated by Adam Gillitt, ZDNet News US.

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