05 October 2007

Reflections on the Responsibilities of an Internet Service Provider

OK, so it's literally been YEARS since I've had any complaints whatsoever about my internet service provider (ISP). If you know me, you'd know how picky I am when it comes to services I pay for, and that in and of itself is a major thumbs up endorsement for Comcast, my current ISP.
My adventures into the world of high speed internet began way back in 1999 when it first became available in our area. At the time we had Comcast cable and we kept hearing that they were going to make high speed internet available through the Comcast@Home network. I signed up for the waiting list and was one of the first people to get "plugged in". I had this massive list of stuff I wanted to download that I had built up over the preceding months in anticipation of getting cable internet. I got hooked up on a Friday and by Saturday night I had downloaded everything on my list, a list that took months to compile! NO WAY was I EVER going back to dial up. I'd rather eat glass shards first! So strong was my conviction to high speed internet that it was one of the two prerequisites I insisted on when we bought our house. The other, of course being a basement since we do live in tornado frequented Indiana after all.
Over time however, as more and more people were added to the network, it kept on slowing down. Eventually, it became almost unbearable and I began to research DSL. The fact that it worked through the phone line was a plus for me because it meant that I could do a direct head to head comparison to cable. I went with Telocity. Their service was great! In head to head tests, they came out faster than the cable at the time, although just slightly. The decreasing speed trend of cable did not bode well in my mind and I made the jump to DSL and canned cable.
My service worked great and I was extremely happy with it, until… well, until they sold out… and was bought out byDirectTV High Speed Internet. Man, what a fiasco THAT was! I don't remember ever being more irate at service providers, of any kind, INCLUDING Comcast cable TV, than I was with DirectTV High Speed Internet… and I regularly got "three months free" from Comcast cable TV because of service related issues. DirectTV High Speed Internet really screwed the DSL service Telocity used to provide, at least in my area, up royally!
It was so bad, that it drove me back to Comcast Cable. I really didn't like Comcast at all at that point. I think we hadn't paid for a single month worth of cable TV for over a year by then because we had so many service issues that our "three months free" compensations piled up faster than we could use them. Of course I always made sure that the next three months was NOT concurrently serves with the existing three months. My wife often tells me that I'm a real b@$t@rd when I'm the customer calling about service issues. She's right too. I'm a service reps worst nightmare when my service is interrupted. OK, so at that point I just about had it with DSL. I remember my final conversation with the DirectTV High Speed Internet service rep as I was cancelling my account. "As much as it pains me and I don't want to give Comcast any more of my money, I'd much rather give them my money than you in a million years!"
So we were back to Comcast@Home again… as painful as that was. And that's where Comcast did something very RIGHT in my mind. They dumped the crappy @Home network. The put their own infrastructure in place and just became Comcast.net instead, for High Speed Internet. I have to commend Comcast on that move because it was the best thing they ever did. Service improved remarkably overnight. Speeds improved and the whole service quality just jumped. I know, because I was a happy man. When I don't have to call the service provider in a couple of months, they're doing it right! When we moved to our new home, I again got Comcast as our ISP.
Unfortunately, as with internet service, TV services are also monopolized in the US, as are phone services. Don't let anyone tell you there aren't monopolies in the US. If there weren't monopolies, then I would have a choice of multiple TV providers and multiple phone service providers, but I don't. They want you to believe there aren't any monopolies because several players compete in the space, but in reality, they divide up subscribers into geographical areas and each player has a monopoly in their area. That's why, in my area, I can only get Comcast for cable TV or Ameritechfor local phone service. Of course SBC later bought Ameritech and recently bought and took the name of AT&T. I still remember my experience in just signing up for SBC local phone service. It probably would have been easier to adopt a child from a foreign country than it was to sign up for service. Mercifully they stopped short of actually getting a DNA sample or demanding I sign over my first born child… I detest when companies insist on knowing EVERYTHING about you. Most of it is none of their business. I'm ferociously protective over my private information. In these days of identity theft, you have to be!
Anyway, Comcast came out and installed my service at the new home. We've been in this home now for 4 years and I've only had to call because of internet service issues once… just once! That's a freaking miracle! GOOD JOBComcast!!!
So I got up this morning around 2:30 AM and tried logging onto the internet. No DNS. OK, I figured, time to reset the routers. Our house is wired and I have two routers, one in the basement by the cable modem and one upstairs for myReplayTV and Xbox Media Center. The two WRT54GL routers are hard wired together and sometimes need to rebooted to clear the cob webs. I reset both routers and still nothing. Then I noticed the cable model was offline. I reset it too, but still nothing. OK, time to call. To their credit, Comcast was fully aware of the outage and their automated service told me so while I was waiting for a service rep. Of course they didn't say how long it was going to be down. The service rep told me the outage was scheduled for 6 hours between midnight and 6 AM. I briefly debated the fact that I wasn't notified of the outage, but the service rep was very good and we ended the conversation with me asking that management be notified that these kinds of service interruptions should come with pre-warning to customers. An email noting scheduled outages like this would be nice, and don't tell me you can't do it! You do it for marketing spam every day!
That got me thinking though… with high speed internet and cable providers pushing their bundled product, like Comcast's Triple Play, where they would bundle your TV, high speed internet and telephone (through the use of VoIP) service together, what responsibility does the service provider have?
Think about it. Some people don't have a cell phone and in order to economize they might have the bundle. When the service provider then takes the service down on a scheduled outage WITHOUT notifying their customers, how irresponsible is that? Picture this…
Jane Doe, a single mom working two jobs to support her two girls, wakes up in the middle of the night from a window being broken in the front part of the house? She's frightened and reaches for the phone to dial 911. There's no dial tone. Why? Because the ISP scheduled an outage and didn't notify their customers. Instead, she wastes precious seconds or minutes trying to get the phone working to call for help rather than knowing there is no phone service tonight and being prepared with an alternative plan… such as getting out of the house immediately! Instead, the frustration of not being able to get a dial tone and the panic of the situation could paralyze a person and things could go from bad to worse very quickly. Now I hate lawyers and I believe we live in way too much of a litigious society where everyone sues for just about everything. It's not right, but neither is the careless way in which companies neglect to consider the consequences of their actions. The service rep told me that he'd had the same conversation (about not being notified ahead of time) that we were having, as he put it "a million times before", each time they schedule an outage. Doesn't that mean anything to management? Shouldn't you learn from your customer's feedback?
Unfortunately, it might have to come down to a law suit sometime in the future, after a scenario like I pictured above played off and tragedy struck, before management would learn to take their responsibility seriously.
911 is a lifeline for people in crisis. Taking that lifeline away without notice, is a mortal sin in my mind. I don't want to discourage service providers from offering the service, but I do think they need to consider more thoroughly the responsibility they have when providing the service. In the very least, educate your customers and warn them when it's not going to be available.
Of course, as individuals we can also do our part. Being in the computer industry, I'm all about redundancy. I have RAID5 redundant drives in my computers. I buy multiple game controllers so I don't have to interrupt a game night to go and get a new controller etc. Phone service should be the same way. If you can afford a cell phone, it's probably the best insurance policy for a case like this. If you have a cell, it won't matter if the VoIP phone is down. If you can't afford a cell, you might want to think twice before placing your 911 lifeline in the hands of just one company…
Well it's 3:52 in the morning and I'm tired. I've rambled a lot here and now I'm going back to bed… with my cell phone by my bedside! ;-)
OK, to their credit, the internet came online just after 4 AM so that's why I can now publish this… ;-)
Drat! Well, their "maintenance" killed my IP that I've had for years. Now my domain (cjvandyk.com) and blog will be offline until the DNS records replicate… at which time this post will be published…

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