AOL: Always Off — Maybe Not

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Last Tuesday, AOL Time Warner Inc. mapped out what the company called its new strategy for its flailing dial-up online provider, America Online.

But most industry analysts did not see anything radically new about the strategy, and had little good to say about any of it. Faced with steep declines in advertising, AOL now wants to convert a chunk of its 35 million subscriber base to AOL Broadband and make users pay for selected content from the parent company.

Much to my surprise, that very same evening at home, I received an e-mail from AOL offering me a free 30-day trial of AOL Broadband. I've been an AOL subscriber since the early '90's and have kept the clunker, even though we recently got a cable modem, which my husband hogs for his computer.

The e-mail offered a modem, free activation and a 30-day trial. Curious, I clicked on the link to get more details. I didn't get very far. I filled in my name and address and the next thing I knew, I was spun out to a Gateway Inc. site, where I was pitched on a new computer.

I hit the back key to try to learn more abut AOL Broadband, when — oh so predictably with AOL — I was bumped off. That's a phenomenon that happens at least two or three times a night, even if I don't leave my computer unattended to dare get a drink of water.

The plot thickens: The following night I got two more e-mails from AOL. The first said, "We are pleased to confirm your order for AOL Broadband."

I obviously didn't order a thing, since I never got past first base with these folks.

The second e-mail informed me, "Your DSL line will be ready between Dec. 11 and Dec. 16." Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather, because the last time I checked, DSL was not available on my street.

Yet a fourth e-mail arrived telling me that my kit — perish the thought, I have to install this beast myself — would ship by Dec. 16, and even gave me a tracking number.

Nowhere in any of those four e-mails from AOL was there a single dollar sign. I have no idea how much any of this is going to cost, but I'm going to play this string out to the end.

Will my next e-mail from AOL say, "Oops, we goofed, DSL is not available in your area?" Or perhaps, if I feel frisky (which I don't at this moment) I'll call the toll-free number of the "Broadband Team" and ask why they didn't give me the option of choosing a cable modem instead. Can't wait to hear that spin.

If AOL Broadband truly arrives, and I can do the install — both of which are points of doubt — what if I hate it and decide to cancel after the free trial? I'm hoping AOL's history of customer retention prevails. Talk to anyone who has tried to cancel AOL, and they'll tell you how the company induces them to stay by offering three months of free service. I've heard there are scads of AOL customers who haven't paid a nickel for the service for years.

Personally, I hope this all works out fine and that the offering is reasonably priced. After all, I do love my screen name, mpcable@aol.com, and the horoscopes are really quite funny. And AOL's instant messaging is truly a killer application.

But mostly, I know I'll never get my paws on what has now become my husband's cable modem.

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