AOL is not the Internet, although they do have an awful lot of influence. mblase complains that AOL raising prices does not mean that "US Internet access charges could rise," but the sad fact is that it has already happened. When AOL raised their unlimited rate from $19.95 to $21.95 per month, there was a great buzz about how this would cause AOL users to leave the service in droves. Analysts, in their infinite wisdom, claimed that this was the beginning of the end of America Online.
They were wrong.
AOL is just as strong as ever. In fact, their major competitors learned that AOL has the power to effectively raise the standard rate for national dial-up Internet service. MSN charges $21.95 per month. AT&T Worldnet used to charge $21.95 per month for unlimited service, but now they have discounted their rate to $16.95 a month and proclaimed that they're that much cheaper than AOL. Now that AOL has raised their price to $23.90 per month, it's likely that its competitors will do the same after a few months.
AOL, despite having one of the worst records for customer service (most of the folks I talk to hate the service with a passion) in the industry, has a loyal userbase. Why? Fear. AOL is the only ISP that many folks have ever known. Take away the friendly MDI front-end, and people don't know where to go. There's no big colorful "Write" button to send mail, no nice man to proclaim that they have mail, no list of channels to tell them what to view. Granted, most ISPs have their own web-based portal to handle these things, but it's too different from AOL for the transition to be smooth. Bear in mind that some AOL subscribers still rely on their AOL For Dummies book to help them check their e-mail. Are other ISP's really ready to handle the flood of calls from such uninitiated newbies?
AOL has a lot of leverage on-line, too. Their decision to go with Internet Explorer as their web browser means that people can write standards-compliant HTML without too much difficulty. However, if in AOL 8.0 (IE is already confirmed for the 7.0 release) they go with a Gecko-based solution, then you'll have 30 million users slowly migrating to a different rendering engine. AOL is in the unlikely position of being able to twist Microsoft's arm in that sense.
Bear in mind, noders: AOL is not the Internet, but it is a significant cross-section of it.
kto9: Perhaps you've forgotten that when AOL became AOL Time Warner, they acquired one of the largest cable systems in the U.S. All Time Warner Cable and RoadRunner subscribers are effectively AOL users now. Dial-up users in selected markets are now receiving pitches for AOL Plus or AOL for Broadband, basically the same interface on top of a cable, DSL or satellite connection.