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Digital Hang-Ups

Sometimes, service is not best left to machines.

After several recent attempts to fix computing problems over the phone, I figured the worst thing service providers can do is outsource their phone help to India. I pay them for their service, and they fail to provide it when they try to save a buck and introduce a language barrier in the process. But after a recent incident with my local cable company (let’s call them Acme Cable), I know they can do worse than outsourcing to India–they can automate their tech support.

I had an Internet outage the other day, the third in three days, which lasted three hours. Casual Internet users might not think that’s a problem, but when you telecommute, a three-hour outage constitutes a crisis.

Because of the crude electronics in their provided cable modem, every time you have an outage, you have to re-initialize the modem, which involves the cumbersome process of disconnecting all cables from the box, waiting a few minutes, and reconnecting all cables. Normally, you also must restart all computers connected to the modem as well. Of course, this only works if the outage is over, and you never know it’s over until you go through all this nonsense.

After disconnecting and reconnecting a few times, I called Acme to find out when I would get service again. I navigated through the maze of phone menus to Internet service help and waited on hold for the next available operator. The hold time was remarkably short (it’s usually between 10 and 20 minutes), so I was encouraged initially. However, I soon found out that the first available representative was an automated assistant. Her voice sounded real, but it was clear from the first response that I had to speak a certain way for her to understand me. When I cursed at her and she said, “I’m sorry, I did not understand your answer,” my suspicions were confirmed.

As obvious as it was that I was talking with an automated assistant, the company continued the charade by simulating the frantic typing sounds real human technicians often produce in the middle of a tech-support call. Still, I thought, I’ll keep answering her questions in the hopes that Acme is just using the assistant for phone triage until the next available human operator came online. All I really wanted to know was when they expected the service to be back online, and the only way I would find this out was by speaking with an actual human. Plus, I was curious to find out how far Acme would take the charade.

The trouble was, the fake human kept asking me questions, and they were remarkably similar to the questions I got from the last live human tech support guy I spoke with from Acme, after my first outage:

“Are you looking at your modem?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Do you have green lights?”

“No, I have no lights at all,”

“I’m sorry, I did not understand your answer, please say yes, no, or just there’s a problem.”

“No”

“OK, good. Now look at the back of the modem and find several cords. Do you see them?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Please unplug all cables from the modem.”

“Why do I need to do that? Shouldn’t I just power down the unit and restart it to initialize the modem?”

“I’m sorry, I do not understand your response…”

Click.

The first time around I actually called back and got a manager on the line, who explained that the modem has no reset button, and, because the cable and USB connectors provide some power to the modem, you really do need to disconnect and reconnect everything to do a cold restart. At least the manager was slightly more apologetic than the pseudo-human I got in my first call, and was way more understanding than the automated human I “spoke” with the other day. Except the other day, I never did get a real live human and I never learned what I needed to relay to my manager: When will I be able to do my job again?

When it comes to always-on Internet service, I’m an early adopter. And, you could say, I’ve lived at the bleeding edge. Ever since the first DSL lines came to my neighborhood, I eagerly signed up for all the touted benefits at the low introductory rates. I’ve tried every kind of always-on service, and I have found them all wanting. The Internet service never lived up to the marketing, the customer service has gone from bad to worse, and the rates quickly got exorbitant after that three-month introductory period.

All things considered I have had better success with cable, so when I moved to the sticks, I chose my cable provider over the two DSL providers in my town. If the cable service turned out to be poor or they raised my rates without notice or cause, I could always revert to the local phone company for DSL service.

Anyway, until recently, I haven’t even thought of calling the DSL provider, despite the fact that the cable modem stinks, I’ve had a dozen outages in three years, and the service is really slow on uploads. But that all changed two weeks ago when I got a new bill from the company, which announced that our rates had gone up 40 percent and our service had only slightly been upgraded. Then there was the incident with the automated assistant, which got me thinking that Acme had bypassed outsourcing to India and gone straight to all automated tech support people, all the time.

Even if they staffed their tech support centers with live humans, a dozen outages in three years is far too many. And any one outage that lasts more than 10 minutes is totally unacceptable. I write and edit technical information on high-availability cluster systems, which have an uptime approaching 99.99 percent. With Linux or UNIX on relatively inexpensive servers arranged in a cluster across several sites, the number and length of outages I have experienced would never happen. Of all the companies to invest in high availability cluster systems, Internet service providers should be at the top of the list, especially with the rates they charge.

So I will try another DSL provider: my local independent phone carrier. Not only will I save 20 bucks a month on service, but also, if something goes wrong, I will be able to call a local office and speak with a real human being.

James Mathewson is editor at large for ComputerUser and editor of IBM’s VIC-H Web site.

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