I’m not a Net slut. I’ve been true to America Online since early 1994. For years, I rebuffed the brazen advances of Juno, Earthlink and Netscape. They tried to seduce me with wanton offers of free hours. But I knew that time has a price. I was faithful to the little “you’ve got mail” guy, even when the AOL voice became strangely asexual, like a 12-year-old boy’s. Last year, colleagues (and Comcast, my cable guys) urged me to rethink my loyalty. The CTAM folks pushed hardest, asking me why I was still “netting” in the Middle Ages. Broadband is much faster and more reliable, they said. But I was content with AOL. Oh, sure, if I tried to download a software upgrade for my new Mac, I had to start the process at midnight and then just go to bed, leaving the computer running. But what was the hurry? Then came Christmas, and something happened. Something bad. I started getting knocked off AOL — several times a day, then several times an hour. I’d heard the joke — America Offline — but I didn’t believe it. I called the phone company, who came to my home in Virginia and found nothing wrong with the lines. Then my computer in my D.C. office, a PC using Windows with a D.C. phone line, also began knocking me off my e-mail. In February, I called AOL’s public relations folks, having already called AOL techs a few times. When I reached the press rep, whom I’ll refer to as “Ned,” I told him the whole situation: two computers in two locations having the same trouble; how it had only begun in recent months; and how, in the interim, I’d been told by other reporters and lobbyists in Washington, Maryland and Virginia that they, too, were suddenly having many more dial-up problems than they’d had before. Ned unfortunately took the position that the problem had to be with my home computer, despite evidence of increasing dial-up snafus with other users. I’m not a techno-geek, but I am a reporter, and Ned’s explanation made no sense. By the end of February we were in a tug-of-war. Ned assigned me my own personal AOL trainer, a true genius who spent an entire evening upgrading my Mac to AOL 8. Even then, I was knocked off in 30 seconds. I lost almost a week of work, as AOL began freezing my precious PowerBook. Repeated calls to AOL PR weren’t returned; then the elusive Ned called complaining that I was on a “personal jihad.” That’s when I called Comcast. I’d been getting flyers from them and had already been sucked into the digital cable void with BBC America as the bait. I was ready for the full Comcast treatment. One visit from Comcast techies and I was hooked up and hooked. ( I discovered with broadband speed I could reach Russell Crowe’s website in seconds and quickly download pix of his pecs.) Interestingly, a month later, I came across first one, then two, letters to the editor in the Washington Post from customers decrying new crises with AOL dial-up. Next came stories saying that more than 1 million AOL dial-up customers had jumped ship. At last, I knew I was not alone. Furthermore, I felt I’d been played for a sucker — not by AOL’s fabulous techies, but by its flimsy PR tactics. I had wasted weeks and missed deadlines because of AOL’s attempt to blame my computer, when the problem was AOL all along. So here I sit, online all the time, with my new inamorata, Comcast. Oh, Comcast blanked out once — but its folks never blamed my computer for it. They don’t talk about jihad. I do miss the AOL tech with whom I’d bonded by phone; he showed me how to revive “recently deleted mail.” I called Ned for his input for this column, but never heard back. Too bad. He’d be pleased to learn that I kept my AOL account, for $4.95 a month, to use with broadband. The AOL format is much friendlier than Microsoft Outlook Express or Comcast. But only if you can get on and stay on. There is precious irony in this tale in that a cable company beat the online juggernaut in customer service. Perhaps top management at AOL Time Warner should send the AOL folks to visit Time Warner Cable, where they might learn a bit about customer retention — and how to deal with reporters.