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Suffering America Online (AOL) users, furious that the company has taken on more customers than it can handle and frustrated by the resulting breakdowns in service, may be caught between temptation to cancel AOL and reluctance to do so because of the inconvenience of changing to another service.

But there is a third option that may be worth considering.

AOL's problem is that it encouraged its customers to switch to a new, $19.95-a-month unlimited use pricing option, and then found to its evident surprise that millions started using the service more than AOL's facilities were prepared for.

You would think the company would have understood that customers who paid for unlimited access would no longer limit their access, but apparently not.

As a result, users encountered hours of busy signals, breakdowns in e-mail service, and, in some cases, an infuriating inability to log off once they finally were logged on.

Some were reduced to disconnecting the phone line from the wall to break the modem connection. AOL has promised aggrieved customers a month's free access time, and pledged to upgrade its facilities to meet demand. That, however, will take a while.

In the meantime, users presumably are expected to put up with the problems. But for a bit more than AOL's $19.95-a-month unlimited rate, you may be able to get better Internet access and still maintain an AOL account for your e-mail or other service you are accustomed to receiving from AOL.

Here's what to do.

Scan your local newspaper for an Internet service provider (ISP) that offers cheap rates in your area. Some reliable providers are offering rates under $15 a month. Sign up.

You will receive free with your account an Internet browser program, usually a version of Netscape Navigator with instructions on how to use it to access the World Wide Web. You will also receive software to allow you to send and receive e-mail and to access Internet newsgroups.

Next, start your AOL software, go into Setup and choose the "Create Location'' option. Call your new location "Internet'' or some such thing. Then choose the "Network'' option, and from the menu choose "TCP/IP.'' This is the type of connection used by your Internet service provider. You need not fill in any other choices. Just click "OK'' and back out. Make this new location the default.

Now, start your new Internet software. If you are using Windows95, you can simply use the dial-up network utility to connect to your Internet service provider. Once you are online, start the AOL software. With your new Internet location chosen, click on "Sign On.'' The software should use the Internet to access AOL almost instantly. You can now reach AOL without going through its clogged access numbers.

Now, go into AOL's billing area and change your payment program. You have two options. One is what AOL calls its "bring-your-own access'' program, which allows users who have their own Internet connection (that means you) unlimited AOL access for $9.95 a month as long as they themselves connect through the Internet.

You can choose this if you want, but chances are you may prefer using your new Internet service provider and the software that came with that account to browse the World Wide Web and access newsgroups. You are likely to find, despite AOL's claims, that this is faster than using AOL's Internet access, especially now that AOL's lines are so busy. After all, your Internet access provider account gives you unlimited time.

E-mail, however, is another matter. If you have been using AOL for e-mail for some time and your AOL address is widely known, you may want to keep AOL just for that purpose. If that's the case, you can choose the even cheaper "light-usage'' option which gives you three hours a month for $4.95, with extra hours costing $2.50 each.

One possible value to this method is that it does not require you to use the Internet for access, which means you still have the option of dialing in to AOL if you are traveling and there is no local access number for your Internet service provider.

Whichever pricing option you choose, you now have a way to browse the Web without encountering AOL's delays and a way to get on (and off) AOL, bypassing its connection problems. Also, you still have a way to access AOL for e-mail, or other AOL services, without paying the full $19.95 a month.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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