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Glitches put America Online offline for nearly 2 hours

America Online Inc. plunged into darkness for nearly two hours Wednesday, leaving its 9 million customers without service. For almost three more hours, users could log-on but still couldn't send or receive e-mail.

Company officials called the breakdown the worst at AOL since a 19-hour blackout in August 1996 forced it to credit subscribers for a day.A hardware glitch, later complicated by systemwide software problems, caused the outage, according to a spokesman for the world's largest online service.

AOL went offline at 11:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.The spokesman said customers who were signed on at the time continued to receive the service, but couldn't use e-mail, although some could visit chat rooms, check bulletin boards and surf the Web.

AOL subscribers who tried to log on to the system were greeted with the log-off screen and the automated "goodbye" voice for nearly two hours. Although many were able to log on after 1 p.m., they couldn't send or receive e-mail until 4 p.m. "Sorry, we are temporarily unable to list mail," a message read when trying to check e-mail. "Please try again in a few minutes."

Thomas Elliott, an AOL subscriber in Redding, Calif., summed up the frustrations of many who called The Chronicle to complain about the service. He said he tried unsuccessfully to log on 100 times Wednesday and could not reach technical support staff on AOL's toll-free phone number.

AOL - whose e-mail volume has tripled during the past year to an estimated 17 million pieces a day - also experienced widespread blackouts in February and June. But those took place before sunrise for only a few hours.

Industry experts say that half of AOL's e-mail messages are from or to the Internet, so the outage may have had a ripple effect on overall Internet traffic, and some messages may have not been delivered.

Ironically, AOL Wednesday debuted redesigned chat rooms and new software that filters unwanted e-mail such as "spam" junk mail from specific Net addresses and domains. But company officials insisted neither change had anything to do with Wednesday's problems.