AOL France has capped users of its unmetered access service to just 30 minutes online because its network can't cope with the demand.
French users who took advantage of the summer offer of FF99 for unlimited access are now being limited during peak hours. When users log on a pop-up screen warns of the congestion, followed by an alarm ten minutes before the user is disconnected.
The troubles come less than three months since the 'all you can eat' service was launched, and just a week after AOL UK unveiled its unmetered access service in Britain. UK ISP Freeserve today announced that it is blocking a further 600 heavy users from its unmetered service for staying online too long - bringing the total number 'evicted' to 1,300. It too is experiencing capacity problems.
An AOL France spokeswoman said: "Our offer generated more interest than we expected. We had made plans and we did prepare for the interest, but even with all our preparations we underestimated how powerful the demand in France is for unmetered access."
In an attempt to alleviate the network congestion, AOL France will invest FF600m to install 60,000 points of access, and plans to double the number of staff at its customer service centre. But AOL could not specify how long the limitation would last.
"This is only a temporary measure and it's a fair way to allow a maximum number of people to connect at peak times. It only affects three per cent of our subscribers though."
However, a European spokesman for AOL said the troubles are part of the process to prove to politicians and telco regulators throughout Europe, and especially in the UK, that there is demand for unmetered access.
"We have waged an 18 month epic battle with BT to demonstrate that consumers want unmetered access but we showed the demand with consumer testing and market research.
"AOL France has to show to France Telecom that there is clear consumer demand, this was the prime motivator for launching the service. This was a promotion to prove a clear point to the policy makers. Internet access is political," he said.
For more than a year AOL UK has been negotiating with BT, through Oftel, to implement Friaco (Flat Rate Internet Access Call Origination), the wholesale tarrif BT charges ISPs to use its network. Currently, ISPs are charged on a per second basis, which means anyone wanting to offer an unmetered services has to subsidise users - and makes heavy usage very costly for the service provider.
In France, network providers are similarly dependent on France Telecom for internet capacity. AOL UK claims the Friaco agreement - which could be in place next February - will prevent a similar situation occuring in Britain.
AOL is now in discussions with French telco regulator ART and the French National Assembly about the possibility of introducing a Friaco infrastructure within France.
AOL's European spokesman said: "We took the judgement that we had to demonstrate on the ground that there was a demand and to show this to France Telecom and French politicians, to say that unmetered access can be done but it is not being done because of France Telecom."