By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
If you're a frustrated member of America Online, there's something you can do to help yourself and the millions of other AOL members get through the overloaded AOL phone lines.
The lines have been swamped ever since Christmas, when hundreds of thousands of new computer owners tried to take advantage of freebie offers to join AOL. And it was compounded by a badly timed marketing decision by AOL to switch to a flat-rate plan for 24-hour-a-day connections.
For a few weeks, AOL members found heaven on earth—a cheap way to connect their computers to their favorite online service, with no one running an online meter. For $20 a month, they could get connected up all day, all night.
But before the first week in January was up, AOL's local-access phone lines were swamped. Current members use these lines, which AOL owns or leases in midsize and larger cities around the country. I heard complaints from two dozen frustrated AOL users in just three days.
Then AOL's new-user call-in lines fell to the onslaught, too. New users must first run a setup procedure on their computers so that their AOL software will know what local-access number to call, and this requires a quick, automated computer call to an 800 number. By the middle of January, these 800-number lines were often jammed from early morning until well after midnight.
And that meant the offers AOL sent out were worthless to anyone who couldn't get past the first step in the sign-on ritual.
America Online says it's going to spend $250 million for extra phone lines. Whether that will do enough to help isn't clear. If you're a member of AOL, I have four ways you can avoid the biggest telephone traffic jams. If you've been trying to sign up but couldn't get through, I have a few alternatives to AOL.
First, let's look at the alternatives.
If your main interest is accessing the Internet, skip AOL and find a local or national Internet service provider (ISP). Although AOL does give its members a way to get onto the Internet (and, especially, onto the World Wide Web), going through AOL to reach the Internet is senseless. ISPs usually charge $20 or less for each month's full Internet access, and they do so without the complexity of a connection through AOL. (For technical reasons, getting onto the Internet through AOL prevents your computer from doing many of the things that can be done through a full-access connection.)
I've written about this limitation many times, but a lot of readers still have no idea what I am referring to. AOL has improved its Internet-access methods over the last year or so, so it's now possible to do some of the things that were off limits before. (AOL users can run Microsoft's Internet Explorer, for example, or Netscape's Navigator, instead of the inane and inadequate AOL browser, and they can use some of the Internet weather-data software and things like that.)
But there is just no way AOL's in-house servers can duplicate what normal Web servers do, and that means AOL members will always be limited in the kinds of software they can run and the speed at which they can run whatever will work.
Personally—speaking as an Internet user, and not as some oracle of expertise about AOL—I find the idea of accessing the Internet through AOL about the same as the notion of flapping my arms and flying.
If you have a Windows 95 PC and like the idea of a commercial online service, try the Microsoft Network. You probably have all the software you need to join MSN (it comes with Windows 95), but you can get a CD-ROM from MSN that will sign you up automatically. Or call (813) 557-0613 and ask for help getting a sign-up kit.
Next, here are four simple ways AOL members can avoid the crush:
Connect through the Internet if you already have an Internet connection. Use the setup options (in the AOL screen you see before you dial) and choose TCP/IP. You'll connect with AOL almost instantly.
Call AOL early in the morning. "Early" is a relative term because of work and school schedules and because of your location. Easterners who log onto AOL at 3 a.m. are changing lanes with midnight electronic traffic from the West Coast. So 5 to 6 a.m. is probably the best time for easterners and 3 to 4 a.m. should work best on the other side of the country. In the time zones in-between, try 4:30 to 5:30.
Use AOL's automation controls to have your PC connect to AOL while you are sleeping. AOL's software will call the access number, redialing if necessary. It will then take care of e-mail duties (sending and receiving mail), download pre-selected files and do other chores. Look in the AOL help menu for how to do this with your version of AOL's program.
Get off AOL if you don't need to be on. Hogging the line just because you spent an hour trying to connect is not a bright idea. You're just making life harder on everyone else.
Finally, here's a way for AOL users to avoid the tedium of trying to connect to America Online. It's a redialer just for AOL. It's a quick download, so go ahead and get it. One caution: You must have AOL's Windows 95 software, version 3.x, and you also must have the current Visual Basic runtime files already installed. If you've installed much software or games lately, you probably already have the VB files. (Go ahead and download this file and try it out; if it works, you'll know you have the VB files.) Choose this link to download the AOL95 Redialer.