Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lock the door, innit

Here's an excerpt from an email I received from Virgin Media today. Just for the record, my new account set-up, installation, and service so far has been nothing short of smooth, painless and splendid, a vast improvement over the way things were five years ago. My only suggestion for improvement comes after the email excerpt.

Hi James Enck,

Welcome to Virgin Media! It's great to have you with us, and we hope you're already enjoying getting stuck in to your new services.

At Virgin Media, we want to make sure we give you the best customer service out there. That's why we'd really like to find out how things went for you when you joined us.

We've put together a few quick questions about joining us, and we'd really appreciate it if you'd take the time to let us know your thoughts. It shouldn't take longer than around two or three minutes to complete.

By finding out exactly how things went for you, we'll be able to understand the things we're getting right, and if there's anything you'd like us to do better. And we promise to use your feedback to make improvements where we can.

Okay, Virgin Media. I haven't been "getting stuck in to" your services, because that's too much commitment for me, and I don't want to answer your questionnaire, because life's too short. As I said earlier, ordering online, installation, and the service itself have all been perfect, and I have absolutely no complaints, apart from the three week lag time, but I guess you can't help it if you're popular, as you alone can offer an incredibly sexy average download speed in excess of 3Mbps. My one, and only, concern is that the street cabinet right outside my house is open, and has apparently been open since time immemorial, judging from the crude stone implements and charcoal drawings I recently discovered inside. The engineer who did my installation one week ago claimed to have locked it, but it is now open again, flapping in the unseasonably cold wind. Luckily, the locals seem to be too stupid or distracted to concern themselves with the obvious opportunity for vandalism/mischief, but the Theory of Evolution suggests that they may turn their sights to it eventually. The clock is ticking.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Swing low

What can you expect by way of "special treats" when you're an employee in a company which has been LBO'd more times than anyone can remember and suffered a tough couple of years in one of the worst macroeconomic situations in the developed world? Well, if that company is eircom, you should brace yourself for the worst. Evidence suggests that the company was recently "treated" to a performance by the execrable Crystal Swing (check out this charming hit, an affectionate tribute to "funny foreign people"). Here's a short video clip of the kids doing "The Hucklebuck" (a rip off of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time") in front of the eircom logo, and here's a blurry photo of CEO Paul Donovan getting down with "the yoof." This looks like a good candidate for runner-up as worst corporate entertainment ever, after the obvious hands-down winner, the Bank of America/MBNA merger hoedown.

Fiber mania - let's get ready to rumble

There's an old saying to the effect that every revolutionary change goes through three phases: universal dismissal, grudging acceptance, and finally adoption as an unquestionable and indispensable fact of daily life. I remember once asking at a conference for a show of hands of Skype users, and seeing only 10% or so raised. Now it is everywhere, established as a verb, alluded to on "The Archers", used by mainstream news media.

Around the same time as that conference, in early 2004, I started writing (dip in around page 60) about the inevitability of fiber, and the politicization of true broadband as a lever of socio-economic development policy, as well as the limited scope for the associated benefits to be captured within the narrow envelope of telco "shareholder value."

As with my earlier work on Skype, I think my sales team thought I was wandering off down some trivial, theoretical blind alley, or worse, just talking science fiction crap. I stuck to my guns. I'm mainly stating this to avoid any possible misinterpretation as a "trend-rider" by those not acquainted with my background.

Given all this background, I must say that it's hugely satisfying, and entirely unsurprising, to see the current mania surrounding fiber, and particularly the lengths some people will go to get a piece of the fiber future. As a former Memphian, I am proud of the relatively more down-to-earth and dignified appeals being made for the Memphis case for inclusion in the Google project. I will be pulling for you, Memphibians.

On the subject, I am looking forward mightily to participating in Fiberfete, in sunny Louisiana in three weeks' time. It should be a good opportunity to reignite my fiber enthusiasm.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Have you ever been experienced?

Well, I have. And I'm not even talking life experience here. That would be a much longer post. I'm thinking here of user experience, on which one always overdoses when moving into a new house, which I have just done. Countless calls to customer service centers for thankless exchanges, invariably with people possessing either unintelligible accents or preposterous speech impediments. It's all part of the fun. Today I tried to inform an insurance company of my change of address, only to be told that it had to be done in writing. "How about email?" I optimistically asked. "Sorry sir, it has to be in writing, on paper." I pointed out that if I sent them an email and they printed it out, it would be in writing, on paper. I think you can guess how that little exchange ended. I just got back from posting the letter.

Anyway, on to the telecom-related angle here. I signed up to Virgin Media on the day I moved in, using their online registration site, which I must confess was amazingly smooth and well-designed. Nine out of ten so far. Installation date was estimated at the time at 19th March, i.e., 15 days after placing the order. I then got an email (and courtesy call) a couple of days later to tell me that my installation would take place on the 24th, or 20 days after placing the order. I know that Virgin's "fibre optic" service is blazingly, blindingly, orgasmically fantastic, and I was a satisfied customer previously, but can they really be seeing such astonishing demand that it takes three weeks? And why an estimated average install time of two hours? There is an existing cable drop and phone line in the flat, so it should be a simple case of plugging in the modem and router, job done. My guess is that their databases may not be all that hot, or maybe they're allowing for extra clean-up time after their invariably techno-blaring vans run over some poor cyclist, as nearly happened to me recently. Oh, and while the tech is on site, I might ask him to look at the street cabinet just in front of the house, which is, predictably, open for all the world to see.

So, in the meantime, I am using a "mobile broadband" (/irony) dongle from Orange. The house sits at the top of a hill, so reception is great throughout the house at all times, though it is a bit flaky with what seems like a lot of latency on the uplink. Anyway, it works fine for what it is, but I got curious about data usage and went on the Orange site to look at my account. I have both a handset and a dongle, so two separate SIM cards, and I was pleased to see that for the handset, I am able to get near-realtime updates on data usage. Stupidly, I expected to be able to do the same with the dongle, but no cigar. For some unknown reason, Orange doesn't log this in any way that anyone can see, not even their own call center staff (believe me, I have asked them). The usage only becomes visible if the dongle goes over its 3GB limit, at which time overage charges (I have been quoted everything from 5p to 15p per MB, all from the same call center, clearly on Tyneside, though the actual charge is 2p, confirmed) kick in.

The first person I spoke to in the call center erroneously told me that the overage charge for data was GBP3 per MB, which alarmed me, which is the only reason I became interested in this issue in the first place. I was also told that, as my first generation dongle doesn't have a built-in data meter, I should download one. So, I downloaded NetMeter, which seems to yield erroneous readings (for example, when I plug my handset into the laptop to charge it, it registers a download of 50MB or thereabouts, which is plainly absurd).

Apart from the obvious training issues in the billing help section, I am baffled as to why Orange meters usage on one product in a granular way which is helpful to the user, while having a complete lack of visibility on the other, despite the fact that both are just SIM cards connected to radios on a common billing system. On a fourth call to the company to clarify what is going on, my agent kindly offered me an additional 2GB free for the next three months, in recognition of the confusion and misinformation I had been fed. It also slipped out that overage charges are capped at GBP30 - 40, depending on the contract, no matter how much overage, and they won't shut the user down, at least not on the first offence. The things you learn when you call the Orange call center four times on the same subject...

So, last stop on my rant is the Facebook IM function. It astounds me that a company which has built itself up so impressively by understanding (and arguably, transforming) the way people connect and communicate, can apparently be so complacently satisfied with this primitive POS. Recently, I have missed a number of attempts by friends and family to chat, because I was either in a different browser tab and didn't notice the pathetic text-flash in the Facebook tab, or I had the sound turned down so that I couldn't hear the single impotent little "pop" that accompanies a new message. The Facebook clan, if they thought about it at all, probably thought they were clever in making the chat notification unobtrusive, but there was a reason that rotary phones had a loud metal bell inside, so why ignore the lessons of history?

Gee, this blogging thing is fun. I may have to try more of it sometime soon. I could even start a disaffected consumer blog. Too bad that Hank Williams has already taken the most appropriate blog title ever for that sort of thing - "Why Does Everything Suck?"