CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1997 // January
Jacking in from the "Devil's Own Dialtone" Port:
WASHINGTON -- America Online wants to buy you off with a digital bribe in the amount of 350 million dollars.
That's how much the embattled online company has promised to pump into its wheezing infrastructure, just ahead of network meltdown and just behind every State Attorney General that can spell "A-O-L" and "class action lawsuit." In the boneyard of Washington, this is called "damage control" or "spin control" -- AOL is trying both.
Along with the $350 million in promised upgrades (that's the "damage control") the company tosses out figures like "a 75 percent increase in the number of modems" it will make available for dial in connections (that's the "spin control"). All of this is aimed at giving the company some breathing room, placating an increasingly hostile public and most of all, buying some time and hoping no one figures out the man behind the curtain is basically blowing smoke up the ass of AOL subscribers.
You see, numbers can lie. Here in Washington lying with numbers has been elevated to an art form. You've seen it happen all too often during debates over the balanced budget, medicare and welfare reform. So it should come as no surprise that Steve Case, who heads up AOL, which has its headquarters in the shadow of the nation's Capitol, is comfortable playing tricks with numbers.
The saying, "the devil is in the details" certainly rings true in AOL's situation. When you drill down on AOL's promises you find a completely underwhelming foundation.
The $350 million investment and 75 percent increase in modems means AOL will be able to handle a mind numbing FIVE PERCENT of its total claimed 8 million subscribers at any ONE TIME or 1 line for every 20 subscribers. That's right, read it again. Do the math yourself.
After all the checks are cashed and the modems installed; after all the hurried and frenzied "upgrades" are installed, AOL will *still* not be able to handle more than 400,000 subscribers online at any one time. That means that some *7.6 million* subscribers will be locked out regardless.
Now remember, that's *after* the upgrade. The situation now that's pissing so many people off is worse yet. As of today, AOL only has the ability to connect about 220,000 people at any one time. That's about 3 percent of its users. No wonder people from Fresno to Fargo to Ft. Lauderdale are racking up busy signals faster than Steve Case's paper profits are crashing!
To its credit, AOL doesn't deny this shortsighted folly. Indeed, during an open forum sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission held earlier this week, AOL Vice President of Operations Matthew Korn admitted that "the vast majority of busy signals heard by AOL subscribers relate to difficulties AOL has in the speedy deployment of modems." A gold star for understatement.
Korn claims AOL is working people "around the clock" installing modems. The upgrade is scheduled for completion in June. However, Korn says the company can only move as fast as the local telephone companies will supply them with lines to hook up to the modems. AOL "cannot move faster" than the telephone companies permit them to, Korn claims. J
The AOL "upgrade," as it turns out, is nothing spectacular in the way of industry averages. Indeed, AOL's "five percent solution" may even be on the trailing edge of industry averages, according to James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, a Washington, DC-based Ralph Nader group. According to Love, most Internet Service Providers are engineered to handle between 5 and 10 percent of their total subscribers at any given moment.
And by contrast, Bell Atlantic, the stodgy old Bell telephone company that services AOL's headquarters, is engineered to serve about 1 in seven customers at any one time, or about 14 percent of total capacity, says Love.
All this is grist for the lawsuit mill and refund mill. It also sheds some light on the claims by the telephone companies that connections to the Internet are fouling up their networks and thus, users of the Net should be made to pay for millions in network upgrades the Baby Bells are bitching to the FCC they now must make.
If the largest of such companies, AOL, is only connecting some 220,000 at any one time, where is all that congestion coming from?? Answer: it's non-existent, save for a few telephone switches where the telephone traffic managers have been either too stupid or too lazy to re-route traffic in an effort to better utilize their networks.
(Side Note: Note all such telephony traffic managers are inept. Those at BellSouth foresaw the looming problems with the AOL all you can eat plan and implemented a re-routing plan well in advance of the "data flood." As a BellSouth company spokesman told me: "This isn't rocket science, you simply don't hang all that data traffic off one phone switch... you spread it around." Which begs the question: If BellSouth can do it, why can't Pacific Bell?)
Personally, I don't want the refund AOL is now claiming it will provide if I complain loud enough. Nope, I want restitution for the frustration of not being able to log on when I *need* to, not just when I want to. A lousy $20 isn't going to soothe my smoldering angst. I do have an alternative idea, however.
I'd like to have Steve Case come over to my house and shovel the three week's worth of dog crap piling up in my back yard onto the compost heap. I'd have all of Steve's calls forwarded to a cellular phone that I'd hang from my deck so he could hear it ring. But I wouldn't let him answer it until the back yard was spotless. And when you have a 95 pound yellow lab that moves his bowels with the regularity of the trade winds, that task could end up making for a long, frustrating afcernoon.
Yes, frustrating. Welcome to the club, Mr. Case... oh... you missed a spot, yeah, right there. Maybe by June I'll have upgraded my shovel and this won't take you so long.