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Has The Net Finally Reached The Wall?

America Online's crash may portend constant crises unless the Internet is revamped

It was the day America Online Inc. became America Offline. For 19 hours on Aug. 7, the world's biggest online company and its 6 million customers were blacked out while technicians tracked down what they described as two crippling problems: a faulty roadmap of Internet addresses and a bug in the software of a powerful switching computer called a router. In an apology to subscribers, Chairman Stephen M. Case wrote: "I would like to be able to tell you that this sort of thing will never happen again, but frankly, I can't make that commitment."

That's for sure. Preventing blackouts may actually get tougher as online services such as AOL--and the global network of networks known as the Internet--run ever closer to the limits of their capacity. Outages at overburdened Internet service providers have already become dismayingly common. Says Allan H. Weis, CEO of Advanced Network & Services, which sold its Internet service business to AOL last year: "Maybe for the first time in the history of the Internet, the demand is exceeding the supply that technology can deliver."