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Spring Hill customers rattled by AOL tactics

The Internet service provider blames a computer glitch that warned users their local dialup number was to be canceled.

By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


SPRING HILL -- When AOL threatened to yank its local access number last year, Bob Burnham got disgusted and switched Internet providers.

The last thing he wanted was to pay long distance charges every time he went online.

But the new service didn't work out and Burnham, 70, of Timber Pines, eventually went back to America Online, taking advantage of a 45-day free trial offer.

On Thursday, Burnham got an e-mail from the AOLnet operations team marked "urgent," and identical to one that arrived last year just after Thanksgiving.

"One of the phone numbers you recently used to connect to the America Online service -- (352) 683-3652 -- is going to be unavailable in the very near future," the message announced. "We apologize for any inconvenience. But we want to be sure you replace this number immediately, if you want to continue connecting from this locality."

The company has no other local phone numbers.

Last time around, AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said a temporary database error had inadvertently removed the number from the company's list of access points.

That glitch triggered an automatic e-mail system to alert subscribers about a change that had not really happened, he said. The same people who got the incorrect number cancellation notice later got another e-mail describing what happened, and no one should have lost contact with the Internet server.

Graham could not be reached for comment Friday.

But like other frustrated AOL users in Spring Hill, Burnham said he wouldn't wait to find out if AOL had simply made another mistake or if the number really will be disconnected this time.

"I was absolutely disgusted," he said. "They gave me instructions to find a new access number. I couldn't. There was no access available for Spring Hill."

All of which leads Robert Burns, 77, also of Timber Pines, to conclude that AOL is trying to herd local customers into AOL Time Warner's cable-based Internet system, which costs about twice the dialup service fee.

"They're bad news," said Burns. "I think they're trying to force people into (using cable access)."

Burns begrudgingly signed up for AOL through Time Warner in December after the first warning went out. He didn't want the hassle of switching his e-mail account or losing his address book.

"As much as it kills me to say this, AOL does have good features," he said.

For Burnham, though, no features are worth the on-again-off-again fears of losing toll-free dial-up access to the Internet.

"I'm going to cancel and go on to someone else," he said. "I thought they'd given up being stupid, but no, they're trying to do it again. They're trying to manipulate the market, in my opinion."

-- Information from Times files was used in this report. Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to farrell@sptimes.com.

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