AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Free ISP

David Cassel (
Mon, 29 Dec 1997 12:49:53 -0800 (PST)

			  F r e e   I S P


AOL subscribers can get an ISP free.

That's the offer from Van Sintchak.  Until December 31, he's slashed rates
on internet access through FlashNet.  Accessing AOL through the service
will reduce AOL bills by $10 -- less than the cost of the ISP
($9.92/month) when subscribers sign up for a year in advance. Sintchak
dubbed his service AOL two-for-one ( 

AOL's legal department moved quickly.  Saying it would tarnish "goodwill
that America Online has spent substantial resources to develop", they
demanded the service stop using the name "AOL241".  In addition, they
insisted the service "abandon your registration of the AOL241.COM domain
name" and "desist from any further use of AOL241.COM".  "While we would
prefer to resolve this matter amicably, we will pursue remedies afforded
by law if we do not hear from your promptly." 

Ironically, the letter was sent December 22 -- just nine days before the
offer was scheduled to expire.  (Now subscribers have only until Wednesday
to claim the lower rate.)  Sintchak had called it a $600 million Christmas
gift -- the amount saved by AOL's dial-up subscribers if they'd all signed
up for the service. 

Industry experts recognize the advantages of an internet service provider. 
Commercial on-line services, "particularly AOL, don't always provide the
speediest connections to the Internet," the Washington Post noted in a
piece titled "How to Choose an ISP" (adding that "some users complain they
are maddeningly slow.")  Another advantage is fewer busy signals.  Without
the internet connection, "it sometimes can be tough to sign on during
evening hours" -- and as on-line services grow, "they have been plagued
with occasional e-mail problems that have delayed subscribers' messages
for days."

Even AOL concedes the wisdom of the approach.  When one subscriber phoned
AOL to advise them she was moving out of state, "they admitted it may be
difficult to get access, DUE TO THE FACT THERE ARE ONLY TWO ACCESS
NUMBERS."  AOL offered her two months of free service to retain her
account -- and suggested she access AOL through a local internet service

Other subscribers feel internet access is a better deal.  "We give AOL the
same price as other services," one subscriber complained, "but the other
internet services don't have commercials."  Users signing onto AOL must
now wade through several layers of ads before they can access the service
-- and some subscribers see a double standard.  "Every time I sign on, I
get anywhere from two to five windows popping up selling something or
other," one subscriber complained, "and I have to go through them all and
close them before I can even get my mail!!!!  AOL claims to stop SPAM from
their members... Isn't this just another form of spam for AOL's
benefit???"'s Van Sintchak agrees.  "For the last few weeks
every time I sign on to AOL, I have to say, 'no thanks' to at least two
ADs to get to the welcome screen.  That's like Time magazine putting a
full page AD on their front cover." 

The problem has gotten worse.  "Call it the introduction of the 'triple
click'," quipped Ziff-Davis News reporter Steven Vonder Haar.  Before
logging onto AOL, subscribers "must reject three pop-up screens touting
the advantages of long-distance service offers..."
( )  "It's going
to saturate AOL with advertising," wrote a columnist for the San Jose
Mercury News site, "betting that enough AOL users will sign up for its
service to offset the ad costs."  Barnes and Noble also paid $40 million
for a long-term advertising deal -- nearly $4 for each and every AOL
member.  "No wonder hardcover prices are up," quipped the San Jose Mercury
News columnist. 

Even firms sending the unsolicited commercial e-mail -- "spam" -- feel
AOL's policies are just as much of a burden.  "We really do not want to
have our messages received by anyone who doesn't want them," one firm
wrote on their Web site, the New York Times reports. "We challenge AOL to
voluntarily do the same thing with regard to its mass mailings of
unsolicited AOL promotional material."
( )

AOL's software makes an easy target for spammers, according to PC World
( )  And
subscribers agree.  "I did a little test to measure the extent of AOL's
spam problem," one subscriber told AOL Watch.  "I created a new screen
name and entered a chat room, staying in it for exactly 10 seconds. I then
logged off. I signed onto that same screen name five days later and had --
get this -- 148 pieces of mail... all of which were unsolicited junk." 
AOL has apparently given up on a technical solution, and has (again)
resorted to their legal department. The law partner leading AOL's fight
told the Washington Post that "the notion is to pursue them vigorously
until the overall effect of detering spam has been achieved.  If you can
do it with five suits, that's a good number. If it takes more than that,
we'll file more."

AOL's business deals may even affect non-AOL subscribers.  "Here in
Oakland, CompuServe has taken a turn for the worse over the last ten days
or so,"  one AOL Watch reader complained. "I formerly had excellent
response times;  now it grinds to a halt, at least in the daytime:  unable
to log on, or unable to get mail, etc."  They note this occurred after
AOL's acquired CompuServe's subscribers -- and readers of Ziff-Davis's
"Internet" magazine agree.  "Since this merger business started,
CompuServe's reliable connection, which used to get 33bps on a regular
basis on a 28.8 v.33 Sportster faxmodem, has since degenerated to what
varies between 21 and 28 bps," one subscriber wrote.  "This is the first
time in many years that this has happened." 
( )  Some
question the wisdom of AOL's move.  At least one industry writer sees a
conspiracy of silence among stock analysts about the financial impact of
the subscriber acquisition.  Citing a potential "dark side", they raise
the possibility that after ownership of the services is combined,
"earnings will tank." ( ) 

AOL may have seen it as a shortcut to growth.  The Wall Street Journal
reports that this year AOL spent between $360 million and $400 million
marketing their service (12/24/97). That amounts to $163 for every member
added (and indicates that AOL spent $40,000 every single hour of the
year).  Ironically, AOL announced they'd suspended marketing in February
to appease state attorneys general complaining about busy signals. 
Otherwise, presumably, AOL would have spent even more.  Yet the final
impact from all that marketing was uninspiring.  Salon writes that in
1997, AOL "grew to the vicinity of 10 million members -- most of whom
still seemed to be either hanging out in chat rooms, sending e-mail or
complaining about the service."  
( )


A pig sty is a messy, unattractive kennel for pigs -- "an enclosure for
swine", as American Heritage defines it.

But Ziff-Davis News apparently found them on America Online. 
( )  For nearly
two weeks, their web site has been reporting that mandatory ads in AOL's
software display "rotating ads promoting commerce-related sties on AOL" 

        David Cassel
        More Information -


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