AOL's busy signal sounds a warning to online users Technology that delivers access to Internet must be improved


AN ANGRY AOL subscriber (as if there's any other kind these days) called me to complain about the trouble she's having getting through to the country's biggest online service.

"I just don't understand it," she said. "They know we have to use the phone to call them. But it's busy all the time. Why don't they just put in some more phone lines?"

The problem: Ever since America Online switched from hourly charges to a flat rate of $19.95 per month in December, its 8 million subscribers have been staying online a lot longer than they used to.

They're tying up the phone lines to AOL's regional network centers and overwhelming AOL's computer system -- which was barely able to keep up with peak demand even before the deluge.

The solution: AOL says it's putting in phone lines as fast as it can plan to increase the number of modems that subscribers can call from 200,000 to 400,000 by the end of June.

Last week, under pressure from attorneys general in 36 states, it also agreed to make refunds to customers who were shut out of the service and to stop advertising for new users until it can handle the load.

While AOL's crisis is unique because of its size -- and not surprising for a company whose reach has always exceeded its grasp -- its busy signals are a warning for all of us who go online anywhere.

Basically, the phone system we use to connect our computers to AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, AT&T; WorldNet and other Internet providers was designed for something else entirely.

The system's capacity is based on a set of statistics, assumptions and educated guesses about who's going to call whom, and when, and for how long. But with millions of homes and businesses installing second lines for computers every year, we're starting to turn those assumptions upside down. Sometimes the result isn't pretty.

Consider what happens when you pick up the phone to dial Aunt Rhoda. Your call travels along the phone line from your house to the nearest central office, known in the trade as a "switch." It's a building full of electronic gadgets and computers connected to a network of almost 24,000 similar offices around the country.

The network routes your call to the central office that serves Aunt Rhoda. The call travels from her central office to her house, where the phone rings. She picks it up, and you chat for a couple of minutes. While you're chatting, you're tying up one of a large but finite number of paths between your homes and your central offices. The rub: There aren't as many paths as there are telephone subscribers.

"Nobody could afford phone service if the network were designed for everybody to be talking at the same time," says Ray Albers, Bell Atlantic's vice president for technology planning.

In fact, except on Mother's Day, most people aren't going to be on the phone at any given moment. In residential areas, Albers says, the central office is designed to handle simultaneous calls from about one phone out of eight. And that's based on an average call length of three to four minutes (even with my two teen-agers figured in).

Computer users dialing their online service or Internet provider tend to log on and stay logged on, with an average call length of about almost half an hour. With the big Internet service providers moving to a flat rate for unlimited use, there's no incentive to hang up, particularly if you're using a second phone line.

As a result, there are fewer circuits open for regular voice calls. This isn't a serious problem in the residential areas that generate the Internet calls, Albers says. But, on the other end, some busy central offices that serve Internet providers have been stretched thin -- resulting in longer waits for dial tone and sometimes the fast busy signal that means all circuits are in use.

Is this something we should be worried about? The phone companies say yes. Last year, they issued a blizzard of press releases warning about phone network gridlock as they asked ** the Federal Communications Commission to let them charge Internet access providers extra fees to cover the equipment needed to handle calls from all those phone-hogging Internet users.

Not surprisingly, online access providers and just about everyone else who uses the Internet disagreed, and the FCC turned the phone companies down -- for the time being.

In January, the online industry counterattacked with a study claiming that the so-called gridlock was actually limited to a few central offices with geeked-up subscriber bases. In any case, the study said, the phone companies have made zillions of dollars selling second phone lines to computer users and shouldn't be averse to putting some of that money back into the system.

Like most regulatory debates, this one involves a lot of arguments between accountants. But there's a general agreement that the technology that delivers Internet access to most homes and businesses needs to be improved.

We use the regular telephone network because it's there. For delivering data, it's slow and inefficient, and there isn't necessarily any reason that the needs of Internet users should conflict with those of voice callers.

What are the alternatives? There's a lot of talk about cable modems, direct broadcast satellite systems and phone company alternatives such as ISDN and ASDL. We'll talk about them in the coming weeks.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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