A Bad Month for AOL

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NEW YORK: The decision to move to a flat-rate, unlimited-access plan has turned into a horrific nightmare for America Online, the nation's largest Internet provider. Not only must it deal with the threat of lawsuits from members who say the move has congested the network and made it impossible to log on, but it must also suffer the indignity of being ridiculed by the competition before 100 million TV viewers Super Bowl Sunday. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on AOL's cyber-blunder, CompuServe will air a 30-second commercial depicting 15 seconds of black screen accompanied by repeated unsuccessful attempts by a user to log on to an unnamed online service. The ad, clearly aimed at AOL's incessant logjams, then briefly goes silent before viewers are shown CompuServe's logo and a clincher which reads, "Looking for dependable Internet access? CompuServe. Get on with it." CompuServe isn't the only provider trying to get AOL's goat, not to mention its customers. Prodigy is planning a similar AOL-taunting spot and MCI got its shot in today when a spokesman commented, "We certainly think people should be on-line, not in line. If people can't get to the buffet table, they're not coming back." On Wednesday, AT&T made an announcement that AOL's woes have caused a large number of customers to defect to its WorldNet service. And to add to the fiasco, New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco said today he may file a lawsuit alleging AOL has engaged in "false advertising" and "repeated and persistent fraud." AOL has said it will upgrade its network to handle the increased number of members who stay on longer because of the new flat-rate plan. But for the moment, AOL's problems don't seem to be getting any better. In an attempt to log on to the network today, TIME was greeted by a message which read, "The AOL session has been closed because the remote host surprisingly disconnected the network connection." Surprisingly? To an increasing number of users, breakdowns such as this are becoming all too common.