Flat-rate Internet access was supposed to be the pricing policy that would make the Internet as mainstream as television. However, one of the first companies to announced low-cost flat-rate access has been accused of making the whole thing up. Four national newspapers, a host of consumer magazines, and several Web sites claim that AltaVista's much-hyped flat-rate Internet service is a fabrication (or at least they can't find anyone who's actually using it, despite the company's claim of 90,000 customers). Mitchell has instructed his spokespeople that he, and he alone, can comment on the service. However, he has been conspicuously absent for three weeks. "To be honest, we are spending an awful lot of time with AltaVista at the moment, and we acknowledge the damage which is currently being done," says David Hargreaves, director of the AltaVista account for public relations firm Firefly. "Fortunately, our reputation with journalists is such that it's not damaging Firefly per se. They know that we've got our hands tied. It's hard to comment any more than that." Mitchell made headlines in March when he announced that AltaVista would offer flat-rate Internet access, saving home users from paying hobbling per-minute charges. Mitchell won accolades from none other than Prime Minister Tony Blair, who applauded AltaVista for bringing affordable Internet access to the country. The service was supposed to go live on June 30, and the company signed up some 250,000 customers in the months between the announcement and launch. "The industry needs kick-starting here," Mitchell said proudly in March. But on June 30, Mitchell was incommunicado (on a boat off the coast of France, his press representatives said). Customers who had signed up for the service were told that demand for the unmetered product meant that AltaVista could roll out the service only gradually. Company representatives told journalists that only Mitchell could comment, and Mitchell, somewhere in the Mediterranean, could not be reached. June turned into July, and July into August, and there was still no sign of AltaVista's would-be customers getting Internet access. The company said it would have 90,000 of the 250,000 registrants online by the end of July but refused to produce a single customer testimonial to show that this had been accomplished. Consumer technology magazines like .Net, Internet magazine and ISP Review called for any of its readers who had been allowed on the service to come forward. The silence was deafening. Four of Britain's largest national newspapers – the Guardian, the Times, the Mirror and the Daily Mail – urged their readers to join the hunt for any of the 90,000 customers AltaVista claimed it was servicing. "All week we've been asking for anyone who is actually online with AltaVista's free-access package to get in touch," wrote the Mirror's Matt Kelly. "We'd have had more response by asking for volunteers for root canal work." Meanwhile, Mitchell left the country in early August and hasn't responded to press queries since. His spokeswoman at Firefly said that he left three weeks ago, first for some catch-up with the home office in California, and then on a 10-day vacation. AltaVista Europe, which oversees AltaVista.co.uk, is beginning to worry about what Mitchell's absence is doing to the value of its brand. "Obviously we're concerned to make sure that the good brand of AltaVista is sustained," says Vesey Crichton, the marketing and strategy director for AltaVista Europe. "We're working right now to come up with a solution that meets everyone's needs." Mitchell joined AltaVista from DoubleClick in January, even though the two companies had signed a global non-poaching agreement. Neither AltaVista in the US nor its parent company CMGI responded to requests for comment. © The Industry Standard