legionnaires' disease-free since 1990

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Thu 17

Max vs. Telstra

Max The other day I lost my internet connection. All the lights on my cable modem turned off except one, the Receive light, and it just blinked at me. I wasn’t worried because this has happened before and each time it turned out to be a general fault in my area: koalas chewing through the cables, for example. Well, actually I’m just guessing there. It could have been koalas. I never bothered to get into the specifics.

I called up Telstra, my ISP, and after wading through layers of “Press 2 if you want to express your frustration with automated telephony systems,” I got a recorded message saying there was a nationwide problem. I was invited to press 0 to speak to a human about it, and since I wanted to know when it would be fixed, I took them up on this.

Now, I knew this wouldn’t be easy as it sounded. Telstra has an excellent “Network Status” web page that displays problems with its service; if you visit this, you can see if there’s an area-wide outage at a glance. But if you can’t visit this page—if, for example, you’re suffering from the effects of an area-wide outage—you have to call them up, and they refuse to tell you anything until you have exhaustively checked your own computer. Their attitude seems to be that while they accept it’s possible that there are koalas chewing on their cables, it’s much more likely that koalas are chewing on your cables. Or have crawled inside your computer. Or, I suppose, the problem is the result of some more technical issue unrelated to koalas. Anyway, at first I used to have conversations like this:

Max: “My modem’s doing that blinking thing that means there’s a problem with your network, can you tell me when it’ll be fixed?”

Tech: “First I need to confirm everything’s working at your end. Can you tell me what error message you get when you try to connect?”

Max: “No, because I don’t use Telstra’s connection software. It kept crashing so I use the open source replacement. But that’s not the problem; the problem is the modem doesn’t seem to be getting a signal.”

Tech: “Uhh… okay. Can you check that the cable connecting your modem to your computer is plugged in?”

Max: “Well, I could, but whether it is or not, my modem’s still not getting a signal.”

Tech: “Can you check that cable?”

Max: “Hang on… I have to crawl under my desk… ow! What the… so that’s where my favorite pen got to. Okay, yes, the cable is plugged in.”

Tech: “Can you check the cable from the modem is plugged securely into the wall?”

Max: “Fffffff…fine. I just have to move some furniture… urrrrrrghhhh! Arrrrrgh! Okay. Yes it is.”

Tech: “Okay.” (keyboard sounds) “There’s an outage in your area. It should be fixed by two o’clock. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Then I got smart. This time, when Andrea the tech support person came on the line, I shamelessly lied. “I already checked my cables before I rang, and they’re all plugged in.”

Andrea: “Okay, good. (keyboard sounds) There’s no outage in your area. What I’ll do is book a technician to come out and look at your modem. Because you’re out of contract, you’ll be charged $66 plus $18 per 15 minutes. Is that all right?”

Max: “Uhhh… I thought there was a nation-wide problem. There was a recorded message just before I got you.”

Andrea: “No, I’m not aware of any nationwide problem.”

Max: “Well, that’s what the message said.”

Andrea: “I’m looking at the screen and there’s no outage. When your modem is blinking like that, it usually means there’s a problem with the actual modem. So the technician may need to sell you a new one.”

Max: “But every other time I’ve had this pattern of blinking lights, it’s been a fault with your network.”

Andrea: “It’s more likely to be your modem.”

Max: “The Power light on, the Receive light blinking, everything else off?”

Andrea: “That’s right.”

Max: “…”

Andrea: “Do you want me to book a technician?”

Max: “I think I’ll wait and see if it fixes itself.”

Andrea: “Okay. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Now, let’s pause to review the “facts” I received here. At first I thought there were only two:

  1. There is no outage
  2. My pattern of blinking lights suggests a fault with the modem

But later I realized Andrea had buried a third one in there as well, and it was waiting to bite me.

The next day my modem still wasn’t working, so I called up again. Tech support told me:

  1. There is an outage
  2. My pattern of blinking lights suggests a network fault
  3. It will be fixed by 1pm

This was a relief, because I didn’t want to shell out for a new modem. It was also reasonably satisfying to confirm my suspicion that Andrea had no frickin’ idea what she was talking about.

Sure enough, internet access was mine again after 1pm—but only for a few hours. Then the modem started doing that blinking thing again. I couldn’t bring myself to call Telstra again, so I decided to re-try an earlier strategy: going to bed and hoping everything fixed itself overnight. Alas, this proved unsuccessful. In the morning I sucked it up and called Telstra again. Now tech support told me:

  1. There was an outage in my area yesterday, but that was fixed
  2. That pattern of blinking lights could mean anything
  3. A technician needs to come out to my house to see what the problem is

Then commenced a heated five minute argument about why a technician needed to come to my house. This came to a halt when I finally articulated a key assumption: “… so I don’t see why I should have to pay for a technician to confirm there’s a problem with your network.”

“Oh,” the tech said. “You don’t pay for a technician unless the problem is with your computer — like if it’s got a virus and that’s why you can’t connect. Otherwise there’s no charge.”

Thus, Andrea’s third and final piece of misinformation:

  1. If a technician comes out to see me, I get charged for it

The soonest a technician could visit was the next day. “I can book him in for between 7am and noon,” tech support said.

“Okay, sure, any time in there is fine. Say, 9am?”

“No, I mean, that’s the booking time: between 7 and 12. We book in five-hour windows.”

Fortunately I don’t have a real job, so this didn’t require me arranging time off work. Instead I merely had to postpone showering in case that was when the guy knocked, and, of course, he finally dragged himself to my doorstop at 11:30am. He came upstairs, unplugged my modem, and plugged in an orange doohickey. It went KRRRRRSSSSSSSHHHHHH, like an old man blowing his nose. The technician repeated the process at the wall socket: same deal.

“Hmm,” he said, “When I drove up, I noticed a Telstra van on the corner, digging up the road. I wonder if they’ve disconnected the amplifier.”

He wandered out the front door. I heard these blokes shouting to each other. “Oi! Did you cut any optical cables there?” “What?” “I said did you—” And so on. After a few minutes, the technician wandered back. “Yeah, they’re doing some work. They reckon they’ll be finished in about twelve hours.” With that he packed up his orange doohickey and left.

This strikes me as an interesting, even innovative, business process. A traditionalist like myself might come up with something like this:

  1. When a Telstra bloke unplugs part of the network, he records that fact in the system.
  2. If a customer calls up with connection problems, tech support checks whether any Telstra blokes have unplugged things in that area.

Telstra, however, prefers:

  1. Telstra blokes arbitrarily unplug sections of network; wander off for hours or days.
  2. When customers call up unable to connect, tech support makes them check if their computer cables are plugged in.
  3. Technician is booked for some vague time period in the future, during which customer is required to stay at home and avoid going to the bathroom.
  4. Technician drives to customer’s house, checks modem, wanders streets looking for any Telstra blokes who might have unplugged things.

That must be why they’re Australia’s largest telecommunications company and I’m a chump trying to make a living out of writing novels. That and their koala expertise.


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