MindSpring Announcements, February 6, 1999

Dear MindSpringers,

I periodically send out a letter on topics I think will be of interest to
MindSpring customers. I'm a bit overdue on this one, so it is pretty long.
Also, this installment is different, because for the first time I'm going to
encourage you to take action on a public policy issue. I'll save that for
last. Here is the complete list of topics for today:

* MindSpring Network Issues
* MindSpring Growth and Acquisitions
* Spam
* Open Internet at Risk


MINDSPRING NETWORK ISSUES

We have recently had some capacity problems with some of our dial in numbers - most notably in Atlanta. First, I'd like to apologize for this. As I'll explain in a moment, this problem sort of sneaked up on us. But, we are on it now, and I think we are well on the way to resolution. 

We have a number of network monitoring tools that let us measure usage levels and see when we are operating at close to capacity limits. Embarrassingly, our tool that measures the percentage of our modem capacity that is in use was not communicating properly with some of our new modems for some time before we realized it! As a result, we thought we had spare capacity in some cities when in fact we did not! So, our warning mechanism to tell us we were getting full became customer complaints. One of the 14 Deadly Sins at MindSpring - the things we NEVER want to do - is to "rely on dissatisfied customers to be our service monitors." Well, I'm afraid we did on this one.

Compounding the problem, we were simultaneously suffering from problems in the local phone network called "trunking problems". This can lead to false busy signals, "fast" busies, and telephone company "all circuits are busy" messages even when there is plenty of capacity available on MindSpring's lines. From a customer point of view, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a real busy signal (where all MindSpring's lines are actually full) and these telephone trunking problems. We misinterpreted early reports about busy signals - thinking they were due to telephone company trunking problems and not real capacity issues at MindSpring. Well, it turns out that we had some of both, and our misinterpretation slowed our response in dealing with this.

Anyhow, our deep apologies for any problems you may have experienced. This problem has been most severe in Atlanta, but has happened in some other cities as well. We are treating it like a three-alarm fire now, and in fact have managed to turn up a substantial amount of new capacity this week. Our intent is to provide the best network performance there is. I think and hope you will find we are back to those standards very quickly.

MINDSPRING GROWTH AND ACQUISITIONS

Since my last letter we have announced two major acquisitions. In October we acquired SPRYNET's national ISP business, with over 150,000 customers. In January we announced that we are acquiring the domestic business of Netcom, another national ISP with over 400,000 customers. And at the same time, we have been bringing on lots of new customers through referrals, word of mouth, and our normal marketing channels. So, we are a lot bigger than we used to be. At the end of 1997 we had 287,000 customers. At the end of 1998 that number was up to 693,000. Once we close the Netcom acquisition, which should be this month, we should have well over 1 million customers.

Many of you might be thinking: "Hey, what does this mean for me?"

From a customer point of view, there are some important good things about us getting bigger. If we are one of the major participants in our industry, we are more certain to be able to obtain and deliver the key product and service enhancements that you will want and need. Plus, the resources that we will be able to devote to product development will be greatly increased. For you, this should mean a better service, and increased confidence that we will bring you new network technologies and infrastructure.

On the other hand, there certainly are management challenges that come with this growth, and you might be concerned about how well we will handle those challenges. But really, I think we are ready. Sometimes a new challenge is too much. Other times it is just what you need, and it energizes you. I think this is just what we need. If you encounter any problems with your service over the next few months, please don't just chalk it up to our acquisitions. They should not hurt your service at all. If you are having any problems with MindSpring, please let us know and we will try to make it right!


SPAM

Unwanted email is commonly called "spam". It is a big problem for the Internet, and getting bigger. Spam is sort of like junk mail, except that from the point of view of the sender it is practically free. Spammers can send millions of email messages at very little expense. Spam is also worse than junk mail because the subject matter of spam is often offensive - get rich quick scams and pornography solicitations abound.

Fighting spam is a big job at MindSpring. First, we believe that as a responsible network provider we have an obligation to prevent our customers from using their MindSpring connection to send spam. This is a labor intensive task, requiring a full time staff of system administrators devoted to this purpose. Some customers really don't understand what kind of email is OK to send and what is not, and we don't want to be too heavy handed with them as we explain the issue to them. But for intentionally malicious spammers and repeat offenders, we have no choice but to terminate their accounts. According to the MindSpring Appropriate Use Policy, sending unsolicited commercial email is prohibited, as is sending large quantities of any kind of unsolicited email.

The other part of our spam related duty is to help protect our customers from receiving unwanted spam. We have a free spam filtering service called Spaminator that will help weed out some unwanted mail. We have some improvements in the works for Spaminator that should increase its effectiveness quite a bit. If you have not signed up, I highly recommend it. To learn more about Spaminator and sign up, go to:

http://www.mindspring.net/acct-mgmt/spam.html

We have to be quite careful in implementing mail filters, because we need to make triple sure we do not impede legitimate email. And, spammers are pretty clever in figuring out how to get around filters. So, Spaminator won't get it all.
Finally, we will pursue legal action against spammers in where that makes sense, and we will support anti-spam legislation.


OPEN INTERNET AT RISK

You have a personal stake in a crucial issue where the Internet's future is being decided. The Federal Communications Commission, Congress, and other governmental agencies are considering whether the keys to the Internet will be left in the hands of consumers, or instead given over to local telephone and cable company monopolies.

You may be astonished that this debate is even occurring. After all, today access to the Internet is remarkably open and competitive. That is the very source of its power. Consumers are able to choose among dozens of competing service providers to help them connect to the Internet at the lowest price and with the best service. ISPs compete on price and ease of use. We compete on connection quality and on customer support. We compete in the different services we provide. This openness and competition has driven the incredible phenomenon of Internet growth over the last few years.

Now imagine a future in which only one ISP is allowed to connect you to the Internet. You must use that ISP no matter what its price, or how poor its quality and customer service. You are forced to see the content that ISP puts on its home page or splash screens - perhaps obnoxious advertising, perhaps political commentary that you disagree with. 

Believe it or not, that is the result we could have in the next generation of the Internet. The Internet of the future will require high-speed "always-on" connections. We will be able to download information from the Net at amazing speeds, including video programming like today's television and cable services. We will be able to use our Internet connection to make much cheaper phone calls, and video phones will finally  become practical and common. Many other devices in our homes and offices will become more efficient and useful through links to the Internet.

The key to all these new services will be a permanent "broadband" connection from your home or office to the Net. You will no longer "dial-up" the Internet by a local call from your computer to your ISP. Instead, you will be permanently connected to your ISP with a link that is capable of carrying far more information than today's phone line.

These "broadband" local links are not futuristic technology. Telephone companies already are starting to upgrade their local lines to support broadband transmission. Cable companies also are adapting their lines so that they can carry communications to and from the Internet at high speed. It remains to be seen where and how quickly these upgrades will occur. Cable, for example, may have a particular advantage in the small business and residential market. But in any event, consumers generally cannot expect to have more than two "broadband" links to their home. And many will have only one: either the telephone line or a cable connection.

The catch is that both the cable industry and some telephone companies want to use their control of the "last mile" wires leading to homes to gain exclusive control of access to the next generation Internet. These "local wire companies" want to force consumers to use the local wire company's affiliated ISP - whether the consumer is happy with that option or not.

Cable companies are unanimous and very direct on this subject. They do not intend to allow customers to select any ISP but the cable company's own service. When the cable company offers a broadband link to your home, you'd think that you could use that link to connect to  MindSpring or any other ISP, just as you buy local phone service today that allows you to reach anyone you want, including your preferred ISP.  But cable companies state emphatically that they will not give you that option. If you want to get next generation Internet service delivered through their wire, you will be required to use the cable company's own ISP. You'd better like that company a lot, including its prices, service quality, the editorial views it promotes on its home page, and the use it makes of your customer information with junk mailers.

Local telephone companies probably will not be allowed to "just say no" to other ISPs. And, some of them are behaving much better than others in dealing fairly with other service providers. However, in many cases they are seeking the same practical power the cable companies want by looking for ways to discriminate against their competitors and steer customers to their own ISP operations. How would you feel if your only economical way to reach the next generation Internet was by using your local phone company? Do you want to pay their prices, which would not be regulated? Do you want to rely on them for technical support? Do you want them deciding what content you are exposed to each time you visit the web? For that matter, do you feel much better if you could choose between the phone company and the cable company, but no one else?

It doesn't have to be this way. Both the phone and cable companies can easily allow customers to connect with other ISPs besides their own so that consumers can continue to choose their ISP for themselves. They just don't want to do so. They want to completely lock up the next generation Internet customer for themselves (the cable position). Or they want freedoms that would allow them to discriminate against consumers choosing unaffiliated ISPs (the position of some telephone companies). Either way, today's open and competitive door to the Internet would be slammed shut.

This is the most important issue consumers of Internet and telecommunications services face. If consumers don't have an open choice of which service provider they connect to through the "last mile" wire leading to their homes and businesses, we emphatically will not have a competitive market for the core communications service of the future - the Internet.

Government policy makers are considering these questions right now. They are hearing plenty from the telephone company and cable company interests. They need to hear from customers. The message is simple. The government should adopt policies that allow consumers to use the Internet service provider of their choice - both today and in the next generation "broadband" world.

MindSpring is a founding member of the OpenNET Coalition - a group dedicated to this issue. If you would like to find out how to make your voice heard on this issue, please go the coalition web site and sign up to be part of the OpenNET Coalition Activist Network:

http://www.openNETcoalition.org/action/

The coalition will keep you informed and let you know about the best opportunities for you to express your views to policy makers.

We at MindSpring have never asked you to take a stance on any political or public policy issue. But, this one is so critical to the future of Internet consumers, and so directly relevant to the service that MindSpring provides to you, that we feel we need to make sure you are aware of this issue and encourage you to speak up.

As always, thank you very much for your attention and for choosing MindSpring.


Sincerely,

Charles Brewer
MindSpring Founder and CEO