START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME

Installation Nightmare Illustrates Why Broadband Bang Is Still A Whisper

 

by Matt Welch

The Zone News

July 2000

 

 

 

“Reading your email and listening to your message, I think one thing that needs to be emphasized is that fact that this is your own, individual experience, not the experience of the tens of thousands of other EarthLink DSL customers we’ve successfully installed. The viewpoint you expressed, especially the reference to “...the wide gap between Mindspring promotional DSL claims and actual experience...” would indicate that you might be projecting your case as the standard for all installs we do. I know how frustrating it can be to deal with something like that, but your experience was outside the norm, and I need to know that it won’t affect the journalistic integrity of your story.”
—Kurt Rahn, Senior Public Relations Manager, EarthLink

The following tale has no “journalistic integrity.” It is a random story of how one person who really, really, really wanted a high-speed, always-on connection to the Internet has been thwarted by the mind-blowing ineptness of the companies responsible for installing it, and a bit of bad luck. As Kurt Rahn points out above, many people haven’t had any trouble getting hooked up. There are also many people whose eyes glaze over in an apoplectic rage whenever words like “DSL” and “cable-modem” are brought up in conversation. Over the last 10 weeks, I’ve become one of them.

I hadn’t been a leading candidate for Broadband Grump of the Year going in. Actually, I was seduced by reports from friends about how high-speed had changed their lives, turned them into common Napster junkies, and made possible all these wacky Southland companies in the emerging business of digitizing entertainment and sending it through the fat pipes.

I wanted in.

Ten weeks later, after eight installation visits, daily tech support calls, bizarre and incorrect instructions, annoying automated e-mails and countless broken promises, I now have a DSL line that—while nice and fast—breaks connection at least twice a day for reasons the providers still can’t pinpoint. Dialup is slow, not fast, and my non-DSL phone line is now plagued with a hideous buzzing noise. I’d try for a lucky ninth technical visit today, but I’m off to jury duty indefinitely.

As such, I can’t help disappointing Rahn and “projecting” my experience toward a generalized conclusion: the broadband revolution everyone’s been talking about—the one that’s supposed to be a boon for Los Angeles in particular—is not happening, and likely won’t until competition is introduced to the business of running data-wires into homes.

BOTCH.GOV

I had been poking my nose around broadband deals for the past year, reading the usual horror stories, talking to friends who had it. I was initially inclined against cable, because of bad customer service and sharing bandwidth with my neighbors, but my rich Westside friends swore by it.

Whatever, our local cable oligarch was Century Communications (now Adelphia), and it still doesn’t offer Internet access in the Los Feliz section of L.A. Strike One against monopolist wire-owners.

That left a digital subscriber line. For a long time I was put off by the onerous terms of DSL service (12-month minimum, penalty for shutting off service, several hundred dollars for installation and equipment). Then this March, suddenly a half-dozen companies (especially Pacific Bell) were flooding mailboxes with much better offers. The newly merged Mindspring-Earthlink seemed to have the best deal (though, in an early warning I should have heeded, the two companies were simultaneously advertising conflicting offers under the same name). The final answer: free DSL equipment, free installation, just a six-month commitment, and just $49.95 total for the first three months. Sounded great.

This may be old news to broadband vets, but when you sign up for DSL with an Internet service provider, you are actually putting your life in the hands of a local telephone monopoly (Pacific Bell in my case), which as a group are not famous for great service to captive customers, let alone for technical support on accounts won by direct competitors. On top of that, the ISP frequently subcontracts the installation dirty work to a third party (in my case the ominously named Covad), which is yet another DSL-access competitor, and is staffed with ex-employees of the local phone monopoly.

Got it?

Since my wife and I both work at home, using two phone lines and two separate dial-up accounts (one Mindspring, one Earthlink), I had lots of technical questions. At the end, a Mindspring salesman assured me that—just like the promotional material said—”You’ll be able to talk on the phone and surf the Internet at the same time—on one phone line.”

Then I received a confirmation e-mail March 29 (sent three times, for emphasis), that suddenly warned: “[W]e cannot send the DSL signal over your voice line” in markets including Los Angeles. Then, confusingly, it said “if you are in these non-line sharing markets, and if you currently have two voice lines serving your location, then it is possible that we will not be able to provide you DSL service unless you cancel one of the voice lines. This is often not a problem, since customers plan to cancel their second lines anyway.” Finally, the e-mail asked for a confirmation of which phone number I wanted the DSL line assigned to, with warnings of delays and extra fees for switching it around.

Meanwhile, Covad sent an e-mail making sure our information (including installation number) was correct. I wrote back, explaining that I needed to hear more clarification from Mindspring before confirming, and I received an automated reply.
The next Mindspring guy explained the situation as that I needed “to make sure to cancel the second phone line before the phone company shows up,” and that it would “probably be fine” to run the DSL and voice off the same line, using the original phone number. So I wrote Covad confirming my original data. They wrote back the next day, saying they had changed my installation phone number, and that if I had “any other questions, and concerns please contact your ISP.”

I wrote a curt little protest, and the next day Covad restored the phone number and announced that the phone company would “deliver” the DSL line on Monday April 10, and that I would need to be there (and that if I had any questions, by all means contact my ISP). No time was given.

By the time April 10 got close, I became more dubious of the need to cancel my second phone line. I called Pacific Bell several times, was transferred to several different departments, got nowhere closer to the information I was looking for, and gave up after 90 minutes. A Mindspring guy told me I didn’t need to cancel my second phone line after all, that my case depended on the number of “active nids” I had, and that the servicemen may come any time after 8 a.m. “You know what it’s like dealing with the phone company,” he said with a laugh.

The big day came, and…nothing happened. I was a prisoner in my own home. I needed desperately to go to the post office for 20 minutes, so sometime in the early afternoon I called Covad to ask if A) PacBell would definitely knock on my door if they came, and B) I definitely needed to be there. The answers to both questions varied with each of the three people I spoke to. Finally, a young woman told me that her boss said I could “definitely leave.” I put a note on the door with a cell-phone number to reach me, went to the post office, rushed back, and never heard from PacBell, Covad or Mindspring.

The next day I e-mailed Covad to ask what happened. No response. Two days later, on April 13, Covad was supposed to come for their end of the installation process between 8 a.m. and noon. At around 12:45 p.m. a Covad technician showed up, began rooting around with phone wires and routing gear, and announced that PacBell’s trip three days earlier had been “unsuccessful” because workers were “denied access to the basement.” (Even though they never came by and never called. Strike Two against monopolist wire owners.) The Covad guy installed everything he could without the PacBell work, assured me that my DSL line was “totally separate” from my phone line, and said the next move belonged to the phone company. “And you know how they are,” he said, laughing.

It was five minutes after he left that I noticed that both of my phone lines were dead. My wife was on deadline. It took Covad two hours to come back and fix the damage they’d done.
Later that day, I received an ominous sounding e-mail from Covad...addressed to an Andrew Wojcik in Chicago, Illinois.

THE INTERNET AS IT SHOULDN'T BE

I can’t exactly piece together everything that happened afterward; it’s a fog of deadline pressure and boiling anger. No one from any of the companies involved proactively contacted me to update my installation status. My wife, who reads radio reports over the phone, was told on several occasions that the quality of our phone line no longer passed muster, and on occasion had to drag a laptop to the neighbor’s and call France long-distance on a line that hadn’t yet been Covaded.

I called Mindspring to ask that in the future I be contacted ahead of time—by a human, not an e-mail robot—about when exactly any technician would come, and I asked that any visit include at least a courtesy knock on my door, so I would know if and when I could leave the apartment. Somewhere along there, it was discovered that the phone company had come out another two or three times without telling me, and again had their “access denied.”

One of the Mindspring blokes was suitably outraged to the point where Covad folk began calling me apologetically, talking about “needing to get this thing done.” Finally, I was told that the earliest anybody could come was April 28, and that I had to give three possible work dates. I offered the 28th, May 1 and May 2.
On April 21 I received an e-mail from a Covad rep, “to inform you of your DSL phone line install” on April 28, and urging me to call Covad one day later “to confirm your DSL phone line install date form (sic) Pacific Bell.”

I had no idea what this meant (for instance, which company would be coming), so I called Covad for clarification, and after a good while a nice agent told me a complicated story about how Covad had probably preemptively ordered a job for the 28th, on the hope that PacBell would also come the same morning, even though they had no evidence of such plans. We made intricate contingency plans, and I hung up. An hour later, she sent me an e-mail, saying, “I’m afraid I gave you some wrong information.”
The new plan was that PacBell would come on the 28th, definitely warning me ahead of time and contacting me during the visit, and then Covad would immediately get hold of me to arrange a follow-up as soon as possible, and this little comedy of errors would reach its last act.

I stayed home all day the 28th, and heard nothing. Four days passed. On May 2, Covad e-mailed me: “We are pleased to inform you we have received a committed delivery date from the local phone company for a new data line...[on] April 28.” And, in case there was any confusion about announcing an act that was supposed to have happened four days ago, “All previously received committed delivery dates, if any, should be considered canceled.”

My next letter to Covad started with “You people are incompetent,” and deteriorated from there. I have never been the guy who sends a bottle of wine back, or complains about a rude clerk, or insults any service employee who doesn’t work for the government or an HMO. Nor have I ever mentioned, in the middle of a terrible hassle, that I would be writing about the bungled job in a publication people read, but that’s just what I now did. It had been three weeks since I was supposed to have DSL, I had canceled a trip to San Francisco, been locked nervously at home for three full days, and was willing to do anything to shock these people into some kind of response.
I received an automated e-mail response.

Two days later, it got worse: Covad e-mailed me that “There is an ongoing issue with your phone lines. We are working closely with the phone company to resolve this as quickly as possible. If you have any further questions, please contact your ISP.” The e-mail signature of Covad had now changed, to an infuriating: “The Internet as it Should Be.”

My resulting tantrum finally got results: a Mindspring manager forced Covad and PacBell to visit me at the same time, and work everything out at once. Everyone was incredibly pleasant and apologetic; a Mindspring person said, “Believe me, it’s even worse in other parts of the country, depending on how bad the local phone company is.” A Covad gal said, “You know, the demand’s just been greater than anything we’d ever expected.” No one could decide who to blame for my horrid-sounding phone line (though everyone gently suggested it was my fault), but I didn’t even care much anymore.

On May 10 Pac Bell showed up (I was waiting outside), declared my phone “loop” sound, and then Covad came in and would have probably installed the DSL fully had I had my Windows 98 disk. Later that night a friend came over with it and finished the job. Before midnight, my wife was already leaning into what promises to be a juicy Napster addiction.

But since then, she has called tech support nearly every day, wondering why the thing shuts off all the time and then doesn’t come back on for 20-30 minutes. Mindspring suggested it was a configuration problem, or maybe the router was “too hot,” or maybe the line was no good, or maybe we had too many electronics devices all bunched up nearby.

Finally, last week they broke down and ordered Covad to come back out to see what the problem is. The Covad operator said he’d try to get a guy out on Saturday, and that he would “call me back for sure tomorrow.” The next day, at 4 p.m., I called Covad to ask what was going on, and was told politely but firmly that it was “impossible” to check on my status, because “you have to go through the ISP after the initial installation.” I called Mindspring, and they told me Covad would be here Saturday at noon.

I waited until 3 p.m. Saturday to lose my mind. “You people are atrocious....” I typed in an e-mail. At 3:45, the Covad technician finally called, saying he’d been waylaid elsewhere, and that besides, it was “noon to five window.” So a little after 5 he showed up, replaced the router, and said he couldn’t check the line because the phone box was locked.

Well, it wasn’t the router, which means PacBell might have to show up again, and now I’m off to jury duty.

I have lived in post-communist countries where every transaction more complicated than tying your shoes required two-hour torture sessions at the local post office. I have haggled for days on end with the erudite police goons who issue press credentials in Cuba, and have helped start a business in a country whose language I didn’t remotely comprehend. And yet nothing compares to the incompetence encountered while trying to get DSL installed into my apartment in Los Angeles, California. If they make it this hard for me, living smack dab in soon-to-be-incorporated Hollywood, what’s it going to be like in Peoria, let alone Persia?

So you can make your bets on broadband, but don’t go asking me to lend you money. Maybe it’s no accident that the Digital Entertainment Network and Boo.com bit the dust this year. As long as monopolists run the wires into our homes, and incompetents handle the rest of the set-up action, the broadband revolution will not be televised, because it’s not going to happen. z

 

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