Thursday, 4 August 2011

a field student of ISPs

As Field Study’s Man in E17, I do not like to think I am only because I blog. However recent on-line technical difficulties have occupied and preoccupied me to such an extent this existential state could be uncomfortably truthful, as for more than two weeks now my home broadband connection has been virtually useless due to a fault with the internet service provider’s facilities. I have been virtually incommunicado. I will not name the ‘provider’ however some small items of information - cable, up to 50MB, - might serve as clues towards identification. I have wasted a lot of time trying to clarify and resolve the various inadequacies with this service via telephone. The service provider has, in my opinion, a loathsome telephone customer service with which I have felt frustration and annoyance and to such a distracting degree I have concluded these negative qualities form the (unstated) mission of the service. My experience of the company is of incompetence in terms of their maintaining a consistent, reliable connection between ‘internet’, ‘service’ and ‘provider’.
A library Wifi user in exile
This post is linked to the previous post which expressed some issues about library use and proposed closures in Waltham Forest. Until February this year I used the Wifi at Walthamstow Central Library 3, sometimes 4, times a week. I was increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the Wifi connection there and other difficulties using the library, especially the reference library. The other difficulties included not being able to get a seat, conduct of other users regarding food, drink, music, mobile phones, attitude of some to library staff and other library users. An aggressive threatening response to a polite request to a neighbour to turn their music volume down, followed by a refusal by a member of staff to act on the disruptive behaviour lead me to a broadband (and other media) shop on Selborne Walk - a decision I regret immensely. I have continued to visit the library though not for the internet.
How low can this ISP go?
I subscribed to a 50MB broadband connection, costing £35 a month. The subscription is based on a one year contract and incurred an additional installation fee. Within minutes of the first installation engineer leaving, the broadband connection was faulty. Following hours of calls and incorrect technical advice, more engineers were eventually booked to visit. New hubs/cables were installed. There was some improvement for a brief period only for the connection to fail again. Again, hours were spent on the phone attempting to negotiate dates for engineers to visit and financial recompense for the virtually non-existent broadband connection. The initial installation was made in February and it was April before something like the ‘up to 50MB’ service was established. I am aware 50 MB is rarely what is provided and what can be expected is something between 35-45MB when the service is working well. If there is peculiarly high usage in the service area (area 22 in this case) lower speeds can be experienced. How low can this provider justify going?
A case of virtual dissonance?
Several weeks later the broadband connection stopped working again. The tedious process of trying to rectify this problem ensued - again. Another engineer visited. Cables were changed. The hub was checked. The result was, amazingly, a relatively good period of broadband connection - until mid July. Yet again the service crashed. Yet again more soul destroying telephone conversations with and seemingly interminable waits for ‘customer services’ ensued. What sort of customer service is this? The ‘customer service’ is oxymoronic as far as this customer is concerned.
When I first reported the new fault I was told the problem would be resolved within 24 to 48 hours. It wasn’t. I called again. I had to wait another 3 days for an engineer to visit. The engineer checked the local junction box and diagnosed ‘the amplifier’ as being faulty - resulting in fluctuating signals. This could not, according to him, be sorted out for at least a week because there was ‘a big job on in Enfield’. One week later I was getting miniscule connection speeds of e.g. 0.02MBps. So poor was the connection it took several attempts to open the same company’s online customer service feedback form. How risible is that? Obviously with speeds like that there was no useful internet connection and mostly ‘unable to connect’ notices were the order of the day, evening, night and morning - despite being told by technical services connection speeds would improve during off peak hours. I called again and I was informed the area fault would not be resolved until the 25th October - over 3 months.
To Cancel a contract?
I called again, this time asking the company to call me back. I explained I had had enough and wanted to cancel the contract without a penalty fee for doing so. I explained the service to me had been lousy and unreliable from the start and I was not content to pay even a reduced charge of £15 per month for a miniscule connection speed which makes internet connection nigh on impossible. I was batted about between customer relations and technical services. Customer relations wanted to me to downgrade to a 2MB connection and pay £18.97 per month for it. In exasperation I repeated I was getting miniscule connection speeds and no useful internet connection - and technical services had said this would be so until October. How can they consider charging anything for this? The customer ‘relater’ resorted to writing an email to her manager and kept me waiting until she had completed it in order to give me a reference number. Many days later and I have not had any follow up from customer relations.
Consequences and implications.
The loss of the broadband connection has disrupted a variety of projects I’m involved in; some of them personal and others more community orientated. It’s likely I will return to using the library Wifi/internet service. Returning to the issues of library services, service reductions and closures, I wonder about the efficacy of participation in the public sphere via the internet - a tool for conviviality, to refer again to Charles Leadbeater and Ivan Illich. In my experience, internet use in libraries appears to be oversubscribed and is often disruptive in terms of behaviour, whilst a prominent commercial broad band provider seems (at least) unable to provide the service where I live. How, if at all, has public policy concerning library and other information services been determined by assumptions about the efficiency of commercial internet service providers? If there is to be a push for and reliance on public/political participation via the internet then the cynically exploitative ‘up to’ should not be permitted.
Here are some links to news and discussions concerning broadband provision in the UK:

Lessons learnt?
It might be useful to draw up a set of questions to ask when making enquiries about broadband connections, e.g.
What if the 50 Mb service (costing £35 a month) fails and reduces to 0.01 MBps for several months? Will I have to continue paying and how much?        
How long should I expect to spend on the phone to customer services trying to sort out the broadband connection problems?
How much will the calls cost me?
How long will it take for engineers to visit and should I rely on their punctuality and technical expertise?
How flexible in terms of customer convenience will you, the provider, be when making appointments?
When your facilities and services fail what do you think you are depriving or excluding your customers from? How does the Internet Service Provider take responsibility for failure to provide internet services? 

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