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Many Ways to Pay -- or to Leave

Many wrote that they are confused by AOL's broadband options, unsure how to sign up, angry that their longtime Internet provider is hiking dial-up fees and looking for advice on how to migrate their AOL e-mail to a new address.

Washington area residents in particular complained that AOL's $25.90 broadband bundles are unavailable throughout much of the region, where Comcast is not one of AOL's high-speed partners and Verizon's DSL coverage is still incomplete.

A few Maryland residents said they had ordered the Verizon "AOL High Speed" and had installation appointments made, only to be told when their date arrived that Verizon had "run out of DSL connections." A Verizon spokeswoman confirmed that local DSL demand outstripped supply about a month ago, creating an equipment shortage. That shortage affected a minority of customers and is on the verge of being fixed, Verizon spokeswoman Bobbi Henson said.

The two reasons readers cited most for keeping AOL after switching to broadband were retaining an e-mail address and enjoying the portability of dial-up. Unlike most broadband connections, which are hard-wired to a home or office, AOL's large dial-up network makes it easy to get online from almost anywhere with phone access.

For most AOL subscribers, though, the e-mail address is key. Many wrote to say they'd have little use for AOL if their e-mail identities weren't established there. A few were embarrassed to admit that they had already switched to broadband and kept paying full price to AOL because they didn't know it sells cheaper plans.

And hardly anyone -- including myself -- seemed to know they could continue reading their AOL mail for free, even if they quit AOL and never paid the company another dime. A reader tipped me to this nifty feature.

It dates to last summer when AOL started offering free Web e-mail accounts with Aim.com addresses to users of its instant messenger software. It implemented a feature whereby messages sent to, say, Leslie!@aol.com can be automatically forwarded to Leslie!@aim.com. People can continue reading those messages even if they no longer subscribe to AOL. All they have to do is activate an AIM Web mail account before leaving.

"AOL members will be able to retrieve their e-mail by just continuing to use the AOL Mail button on aol.com and signing in with their regular screen name and password," AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley explained.

Who knew? AOL doesn't exactly tout that feature, which theoretically makes it easier for people to leave.

Nor does AOL talk much about its cheapest access plan, which costs $4.95 a month but is going up to $6.95 on March 9. AOL didn't mention that 40 percent price hike when I called last week to ask about dial-up price increases. After several readers alerted me, Bentley confirmed it. The cheapie plan provides three hours of dial-up a month and unlimited e-mail usage, though only through the Web mail interface at AOL.com.

AOL has another plan it calls "bring your own access" used by many members who switched to broadband. For $14.95 a month, it provides unlimited e-mail usage and access to AOL content, along with 10 hours of dial-up access. While that plan's price is not changing, some members should be able to negotiate a discount by calling AOL customer service.

Why would AOL haggle? Because its new broadband packages aren't universally available and have thrown a monkey wrench into pricing. You have to realize that those $25.90 broadband plans have two components -- a $14.95 charge by the access provider and $10.95 to AOL.


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