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AOL moves to counter Internet provider threat


In a move to bolster slowing subscriber growth, the nation's top on-line service, America Online, announced Tuesday new pricing plans that put it in line -- and make it competitive -- with national Internet Service Providers.

The new pricing offers unlimited AOL access for $19.95 a month. That includes access to its entire content as well as the Internet.

According to industry watchers, AOL has been feeling the heat as more and more content is moved onto the World Wide Web. CompuServe, Prodigy and the Mircosoft Network are all making the transition from proprietary on-line services to Web-based content providers.

AOL remains at the top of the on-line service businesses with more than 6 million subscribers, and the price change puts the service in the ballpark with most national Internet providers. According to recent figures in Boardwatch magazine, the average cost for unlimited Internet access nationally is hovering around the $20 to $22 mark. AOL's ups the ante in its bid to reach the 10-million subscriber mark by the next year.

For users who plan to be on-line a lot, two pay-in-advance plans offer discounted rates -- $14.95 a month if you pay in advance for two years, and $17.95 per month for advance payment of one year.

A new light-user plan offers 3 hours of access for $4.95, with additional hours at $2.50 each.

Those of us who have Internet access but live in rural areas will be interested to know that AOL is also creating a ``bring-your-own-access'' rate of $9.95 per month for unlimited access.

This means that those of us who use InfiNet or another ISP to access AOL will save big bucks on our AOL bills! My checking account is already breathing a sigh of relief. In spite of my passion for the World Wide Web, AOL has some excellent content and information that truly make it an excellent -- and now, more affordable -- resource to have.

I have accessed AOL via the Internet for more than a year as a move to reduce my long-distance phone bill. The ``bring your own access'' rate will make AOL more affordable.

The service also announced its release of AOL 3.0 software for the Power Mac and Windows 95. The new software features an improved interface and a Web browser that beats the old one to pieces.

COUNT ON THEM? BellSouth -- the telephone company for much of central Kentucky -- has also announced its unveiling of its Internet access business.

Dubbed BellSouth.net, the service actually was rolled out in Atlanta and New Orleans back near the end of August; additional metropolitan areas including Louisville, Miami, Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte, Orlando, Jacksonville and the Raleigh, S.C. area went on-line just this month.

The pricing is competitive -- $19.95 per month for unlimited Internet access, and an hourly plan that offers 10 hours of access for $9.95 per month, plus $1 for each additional hour.

BellSouth customers who sign up before the end of the year will not have to pay the $10 set-up fee now being charged.

You can sign up for the service by telephone, e-mail, or as I did, go to their Web site and download their software package.

BellSouth.net's software is a fully licensed and customized version of Netscape Navigator 2.02 Personal Edition. The package includes the Netscape dialer software and a browseable user's manual.

The Navigator interface looks much like the standard one; however, a BellSouth.net bouncing ball icon replaces the customary Netscape ``N.'' In addition to some BellSouth.net-specific navigation menu items, Netscape has thoughtfully included a separate button to zip you straight to their home page.

BellSouth.net offers customized content for the metropolitan areas it serves. Once my software was installed (quite painlessly I must add), I quickly went online and was greeted with the BellSouth.net home page for Louisville subscribers.

The page offers links to Louisville sites such as Virtual Churchill and more, and can be customized -- including six of your own URLs to add to make your BellSouth.net home page customized to your liking. Nice touch, indeed.

Customer service is becoming the real measure of quality among Internet Service Providers, and BellSouth.net apparently knows this. Toll-free around-the-clock technical support is just a phone call away (I haven't needed this feature yet, so I can't comment on its quality).

The major phone companies have been relatively slow to enter the consumer Internet access business, primarily because they haven't been equipped to handle the extensive customer support that top ISPs offer.

NET DRIVING HIGHER PHONE LINE USEAGE. Phone companies representatives reported this week that the soaring numbers of people accessing the Internet by telephone is pushing the phone system in parts of the country perilously close to gridlock.

While this won't cause the predicted crash of the Internet, it could mean delays in completing phone calls in some parts of the country at peak useage hours, experts advise. In fact, parts of California are already experiencing incomplete calls, due in part to Net users keeping phone lines tied up.

Pacific Telesis Group (PacTel) studies show that the average phone call times are much longer for Internet users. Voice phone calls averaged 3.8 minutes, while on-line connections averaged 20.8 minutes in length.

With cable Internet access waiting in the wings, its a good bet the phone companies will move quickly to meet the demand for connections -- if only to protect their franchise as the major avenue for Internet access.

UNIQUE USE OF THE NET. A Reuters story this week says an Israeli Internet company will handle e-mail message for God.

Virtual Jerusalem offers this unique service; according to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem's Wailing Wall is one of the faith's holiest of places, and hand-written messages and prayer requests to God have long been placed in the wall's cracks and crevices.

The company receives more than a dozen e-mail messages per day, and once a month the messages are printed out and taken to the Wall.

INFINET ADDITIONS. If you're an InfiNet customer, you may soon see promotions for Download.com, a new software service unveiled Monday by C|Net.

C|Net announced Tuesday that it inked deals with 20 Internet Service Providers -- including InfiNet -- to promote the new service on its Web sites.

Download.com compiles the Net's most popular free software titles, including games and utilities. Sales of shareware and other commercial software are planned for the future.

 The deal also would put a ``software'' button on each of the 20 Internet access providers' Web browsers. This button would take users directly to the Download.com Web site. In return each ISP would share ad revenues generated by the site.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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