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Prodigy Limits Unlimited Usage

When you enroll in your ISP's "unlimited" plan, exactly how much time online is too much? That's the question that's got hundreds of Prodigy subscribers scratching their heads.

Beginning in March, as many as 300 subscribers to the White Plains, N.Y.-based ISP received e-mail notifications, warning that accounts would be terminated if users didn't pare down the time spent online.

"...your account continues to show such high activity. This level is excessive and, as we previously notified you, a violation of the Prodigy Internet Member Agreement," the e-mail stated.

"..this includes...the use of methods or automated programs to defeat systems which limit activity."

The problem, said a Prodigy spokesperson, are members who log on but don't log off.

"The issue is not limiting usage," said the spokesperson. "The issue is reducing improper activity. A number of people are not using the member agreement correctly and are using artificial means to sustain account activity."

Which leads back to the question, how much activity is too much activity?

Frustratingly, the answer, according to the Prodigy spokesperson is: "There is no threshold; we have no cap on usage."

While an exact time amount is not counted, said the spokesperson, levels of activity are.

"We look at usage patterns. If a member goes from four hours of usage to 12, then that's a red flag to us that something's going on," the spokesperson explained.

"It's similiar to credit card usage. The credit card companies call you if they notice unusual activity with your card. This is the same thing."

Members replying to the termination warnings also claim their e-mails have gone unanswered.

"I'm thinking it doesn't really matter, I have unlimited service anyway. Then I get a note that says 'you've been an excessive user and your account's being cancelled even though we don't have to give you a month's notice.' I was like, this is wrong! I was so mad!," said Prodigy member Deborah Ivey of Toldeo, Ohio.

Conversely Prodigy's spokesperson said, "It's not like we're saying 'hey, you're out of here.' We're encouraging them to give us a call and have a dialogue with us. I think that's pretty reasonable."

The problem for the communications company sounds like a communications problem. Members claim they were led to believe one thing, and then the company reigned them in.

An earlier ad for Prodigy's unlimited service boasted, "Think of it as all you can eat. Spend as much time online as you like for only $19.95 a month. No more watching the clock or worrying about the cost."

Member Ivey said, "If they had presented it as you have X amount of hours for X amount of dollars, I would have no problem with that."

In the meantime, members have contacted the attorney general's office in Washington and also the Federal Trade Commission, filing complaints about false advertising.

Other ISPs who have had problems with members staying connected to services use an automatic cut-off system to prevent network hogs. AOL, for example, warns members if the system detects inactivity after a certain period. MindSpring said it cuts members off after 12 straight hours of connectivity.

While Prodigy could implement such a safety-feature, the struggling ISP still has to contend with angry users who feel as though they were victims of bait and switch tactics.