Monday, February 3, 1997

Week of 02/03/1997

Can’t Go Online? Call My Lawyer!
Suing AOL for poor service not practical.
- by David Matthews 2


Hear that? That’s the sound of a busy signal.

If you’re a subscriber of America Online, you’ve probably heard that sound a lot! When AOL changed it’s subscription prices from a strictly hourly to a flat monthly fee, you heard that sound often when you tried to sign on to the service. The reason being that since people could stay on AOL as long as they want and still pay $19.95 a month, they have. That meant an increase in capacity, which AOL wasn’t ready for. It’s ironic that only a few weeks ago AOL was talking about getting membership to 10 million and yet when they said that they lacked the hardware to allow the 8 million subscribers they already have to get online.

Of course, the news of crowded servers and a chorus of busy signals wasn’t unexpected. Those who monitor online progress warned of this impending electronic traffic jam to start the day the unlimited access rate was put in. But did we listen? No.

Thousands of users complained to AOL for their inability to get online or to stay online. But even their customer service line couldn’t handle the influx of complaints, annoying those customers ever more.

And America Online’s official response? Chairman Steve Case asked users to decrease their online time. After advertising unlimited access and urging people to sign up for that unlimited access?

It is no wonder, then, that lawsuits were filed against America Online and that the attorney generals of many states threatened to file legal action. The AG of New York even sent a letter to AOL stating that intent. (The joke being they couldn’t E-mail it to AOL because they kept on getting a busy signal.)

But one has to ask if lawsuits and possible criminal prosecutions are even needed in such a situation?

Sure, users are steamed about AOL and their apparent indifference to handling the situation that they themselves created. AOL needed to switch over to an unlimited flat rate just to stay competitive with Internet providers and even I have said in a previous article that it would be welcomed. Yet at the same time AOL wasn’t ready to handle the surge of users. That doesn’t constitute fraud - simply poor planing on their part.

Could AOL have made the situation easier? Sure they could have. They could have postponed their ongoing campaign to boost the number of subscribers so they could catch up on the hardware. Or they could have delayed going to the unlimited access for the few months that would be needed to add that additional hardware. But they didn’t.

And let’s think about the futility of lawsuits in dealing with such a situation. Do the people who are filing these suits want AOL to expand the way they should have, or do they just want to hurt the service? Either the money to expand is used or it goes to defend AOL in court. They can’t have it both ways. And even if these people win, what will they have won? The only thing they would have won would be some sense of satisfaction, because their lawyers would take whatever money they’d win.

There has been another solution all along: switch to another service! Let’s face it, AOL may be the biggest online service around, but it certainly isn’t the only service on the market. Besides the local and national Internet providers, there are three online services waiting in the wings for those dissatisfied users - Prodigy, CompuServe and The Microsoft Network. How do you think AOL got to be so successful in the first place? They did so by siphoning off the dissatisfied users from Prodigy and CompuServe! And in the business world, nothing hastens progress more than when your clients leave you to switch to your competition!

America Online hasn’t made that easier, however. Leaving their service requires contacting that same busy customer service line. And AOL certainly doesn’t want to have to deal with the influx of customers who leave them. But I say to you that’s all the more reason to switch if you’re dissatisfied with the service.

The operators at America Online may not want to hear it’s subscribers urge people to quit, but I think they’d much rather have to deal with those calls now than calls from lawyers who get rich off frivolous lawsuits and district attorneys who act as though they have way too much time on their hands. Lawyers did not make America Online the most popular online service in the world - people did. And the only way AOL will truly change to suit it’s customer base will not come from lawyers or petty legal suits, but from the very people who subscribe to them.

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