Five America Online users began legal action against the company on Wednesday after they found it almost impossible to log on to the service.
The customers filed class action suits against AOL in the US states of California, Illinois and New York. Earlier this week the company admitted problems in coping with a huge surge in demand after it introduced an unlimited, flat rate fee for its Internet service (see story, 14 January).
According to the customers, AOL cannot provide the unlimited access its advertising offers because its lines are constantly tied up. On behalf of all AOL users, they are seeking refunds and damages of at least $20 million for AOL's alleged "fraudulent and malicious misrepresentation". Some customers say they have spent over an hour getting engaged signals when trying to log on to the online service. The company provides just 250,000 modem lines for its 7.5 million customers, but maintains it will spend $250 million to add 30,000 lines per month until June.
Representatives would only issue a statement saying the company understands the frustration of its customers but expects "to prevail in the class action suits addressing member access to AOL".
But Louis Marlin, the attorney representing the customers, said: "They are paying for unlimited service and they?re not getting unlimited service."
AOL said it will not drop its pricing plan and sources expect it to defend its position by arguing that it could not have anticipated all the problems. The plaintiffs would have to prove AOL knew in advance that it could not handle the increase in demand, if they are to win the case.
AOL is also offering free access time to users in a bid to ward off a suit that accuses it of overcharging. Yesterday the company moved to dismiss another recent suit over AOL?s introduction of a new pricing scheme, which switched subscribers paying $9.95 per month to the $19.95 unlimited access scheme. Some users claimed they did not want to pay more than $9.95 a month as they only required small amounts of access anyway.
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