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Honest, Hernando, I really tried

It seems that America Online is everywhere, but don't tell that to would-be subscribers in Hernando County.

Soon after Tech Times began publishing in October, messages began arriving from readers complaining that they could not get local access numbers for the major online services. One of the more recent was a not-so-subtle plea:

"Help! Get us AOL service for Hernando County."

AOL, the country's largest online service with more than 12-million subscribers, doesn't have a local access number in Hernando County. For the 352 area code (which also includes part of Pasco and all of Citrus counties), AOL offers access numbers in Leesburg, Ocala and Gainesville. All are long-distance calls for those residents.

So, Hernando County, I felt your pain. I called AOL. It took some rounds of phone tag, but I finally got to talk to a human.

The first suggestion from AOL spokeswoman Jennifer Jaffe: Request a local access number through the service. No guarantees, but if enough people speak up, you never know.

Apparently the writer of the most recent Tech Times e-mail had tried that approach. The writer's comment: "The computer message through the "keyword access' system seems worthless to me _ we need some powerful lobby (like you) to get this mission accomplished."

Powerful? Me? Nah. Even my kids don't listen to me.

I persisted nonetheless.

AOL's second suggestion: Call the numbers available. Our writer: "Perhaps they are still using old maps that don't even show Spring Hill, and don't realize the huge population in Hernando County . . . However, using a long-distance number can be expensive."

No. 3: AOL's 800 number. Nope, it's still a toll call.

No. 4: Sign up with a local Internet service provider to get to AOL. Our writer: "I have tried other ISPs but many don't service Macs, and the others don't have the technical assistance needed for Mac users to make the necessary connections. One I did manage to get onto for a short time, but their format isn't nearly as user-friendly or appealing as that of AOL." In any case, the user taking this route would have to pay both the ISP fee and a $9.95 monthly fee to AOL.

Jaffe says AOL has spent more than a year adding modems, at a clip of about 25,000 a month, to catch up with the number of subscribers. (It learned a painful lesson on busy signals after it went to its $19.95 flat rate in 1996, a rate that has since risen to $21.95.) But some places still don't have access numbers of their own.

When we seemed to be at a dead end, Jaffe promised to talk to others about this problem and get back to me. I waited. And waited. Then I finally called her back. She apologized, and again promised to have someone call. Like an AOL customer with a tech support inquiry, I'm still waiting.

In defense of AOL (gosh, those are hard words to write), other major service providers also lack local access numbers in Hernando County, as Times staff writer Amy Schatz reported this winter. She also reported that business was booming for the local ISPs in that county, which means at least some folks are going for the alternatives.

So we're back where we started, although at least now someone at AOL is aware of your concerns, Hernando. We'll have to wait and see if it makes a difference.