Thursday, December 06, 2007

An object lesson in poor service, and losing money: The connectivity saga of 2007

Oy... the last few days have been... interesting.

I'm going to tell you a story, that should demonstrate to you why every major ISP, Telco, and Cable company in this country is, or has recently been, in financial trouble.

Now, I'm a techno geek. An early adopter (though not generally true bleeding edge), and I have a lot of digital services in my life.

Most critical among these are my telephone service, my internet service, my mobile phone, and my cable TV. Without the first three, I can't work; and the last makes life a fair bit more entertaining.

Now, for telephone service, I've been with Vonage for four years. I love their service, and I never had any problems with it (until a few months ago). Vonage made signing up with them very easy (for me anyway. MY friend John had some major issues, but we were trying to do something the customer service people didn't know how to do), and has always been helpful when I've had customer service questions etc...

Similarly, I have T-mobile for my mobile phone provider; I've had them for four years; and I couldn't be happier. I get excellent telephone and mobile internet service; and they make things convenient for me with regards to billing and customer service.

I have had phones with Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon before, and I had MAJOR customer services issues with all of them; but T-mobile has been just great.

I've also been with Cox cable and internet for four years; and I've had TONS of problems with their service, which I very much do not love.

Over the past two years, I've seen my cable and internet bill from Cox go from $106 a month, to $174 a month; with not only no improvement in service, but a worsening.

A few months back, I started getting slow down on my net connection when I was busy, downloading, or using the VOIP. Apparently Cox has started throttling high bandwidth users; and services, like bit torrent, and competing companies VOIP (they offer their own telephone services). This has been causing me no end of trouble with my work VPN, and with my telephony.

It's not Vonages fault, but they have become unusable over Cox; to the point where it has caused me issues in getting my job done (I work all day on the phone). Not only that, but Vonage is in serious trouble financially, and legally, so I've been considering dropping the service. I don't want to, but I may HAVE to.

Now, between that, and all the rate increases, I've been looking to get off of Cox for a while.

Well, the final straw came right at the beginning of football season. I started getting dropouts, freezes, and digital artifacts when I was watching TV. This would happen on all but the HD channels, and it didn't matter whether I was recording with the DVR or not. It was actually WORSE on the standard def analog channels. It started off as a little interference every once in a while, but after a couple months it became so bad, that often TV shows would be unwatchable for several minutes at a time.

Cox sent people out twice to fix it, and twice they did nothing... in fact it may have been made worse. They steadfastly insisted it wasn't the box; but the signal tested strong and clean (100% strength, SN of around 40db) so it wasn't the signal etc... etc...

Anyway, I HATE satellite TV, because you get the exact same issues (dropouts, digital tiling), and it can take 20 seconds to change the channel, and you lose it in dust storms, and electrical storms, and high winds... I could go on. I really didn't want satellite.

Up until recently, I didn't have any other option; but our local telco Qwest has started offering what they call Choice TV and Choice internet in our area; rolling it to different neighborhoods over the last two years.

Choice TV isn't satellite, it's TV over VDSL with fiber to the node. What that means is that they run fiber optics to a neighborhood node, and then run up to 4 twisted pairs to your house with high bandwidth DSL over them. They can run the pairs as far as 300meters from the node, at 11 megabits per twisted pair.

Now, in order to get choice TV, you need to have phone and internet services with Qwest; and between the price increases and the content issues, and the tiling and dropouts... well I've been ready to get off of Cox for a while. Unfortunately Qwest didn't offer choice in my neighborhood...

Until about 8 weeks ago.

When I first found out about Qwest choice TV, I called them up and asked about it; and they weren't offering it here then; but they said they would be over the next year, and I should call them back in a few months. After the last Cox service call that made things worse, I decided to give Qwest a call; and I found out then, that they had the service available.

I was VERY happy about that, and I started the process to sign up for the new service; basically just so I could get rid of Cox.

Unfortunately, halfway through the sign up we hit a snag. I have a fraud alert on my credit accounts due to identity theft; and they were unable to verify my credit over the phone.

Now get this... to resolve the situation, they wanted me to fax a copy of my drivers license, my social security card, and a utility bill in my name TO A THIRD PARTY IN KANSAS CITY.

I spent a few minutes explaining to the account rep on the other end of the phone that the reason I had the fraud alert in the first place was because I'd had identity theft; and that the most common way for identity theft to occur was employees with access to private information; and that there was no way I was going to fax copies of my ids to someone I don't know and trust.

Anyway, I told them to try and find another way, and that I would call back. Then I called up Cox and told them I was unhappy, and why, and that I was going to cancel unless they fixed the issues I was having, and did something for me on my bill.

Well, they transferred me to the customer retention department (you know it's bad when they have a dedicated department just to retain unhappy customers - actually every major telco and ISP does; and all for the same reason - they ARE that bad). I explained the situation and problems to them, and the "customer retention specialist" actually hung up on me.

Ooooh boy that pissed me off.

Anyway, about a week later, we were in Best Buy, and I saw that they were agents for Qwest choice service. I figured maybe signing up in person would smooth things out. Not only that, but when we talked about it, they offered us $100 off any computer in the store if we signed up.

...Well, Mel wanted a new laptop anyway; so merry Christmas honey, we get a new cable, internet, and phone company, and you get a new computer.

Unfortunately, we had the same problem signing up that time; but I got on the phone with the regional sales manager who promised me she would work something out the next day (it was after 8pm by that time).

So the next day I got back on the phone with the regional sales manager, and she goes through the internal connections to the accounts escalation manager at the "home office".

We spent over two hours on the phone with her, and the sales rep on conference, with the escalations manager bringing various other departments on and off line etc... We STILL ran into the verification issue; but finally we got frustrated and just put it in Mels name (she does NOT have a fraud alert).

Now, before this whole multi-party conference call began, I laid out some very clear terms and conditions:

1. I needed to save money over Cox and Vonage, on phone, cable, and internet which together were costing me $200 a month.

2. I needed to see not only no downgrade in service, but an upgrade

3. I ABSOLUTELY MUST, as a deal breaker, have an HD DVR (TiVO or something similar). Mel and I have had the DVR for two years now, and it's made us actually enjoy watching television again. We'll go without cable, before we go without a DVR again.

The regional sales manager, and the escalation manager, both agreed all of that was no problem.

1. My package pricing ended up being $150 a month all inclusive instead of $200.

2. I would actually get more channels, and more of them in HD.

3. They didn't offer an HD DVR, but they specifically said I could go and buy an HD TiVO, and they'd give me a $100 rebate.

So we signed up, agreed to a two year contract on 3Mb/1Mb internet service (in order to get it for $20 cheaper a month with a lifetime price guarantee) with the option to upgrade as high as 11Mb/8Mb, two phone lines (to replace our two Vonage lines), and the Choice TV HD service.

They scheduled us for an install three weeks later.

So, the next day, I ordered a brand new TiVO HD, and the wireless interface for it, with overnight shipping from amazon (for $90 less than list price even, and overnight is only 44 extra for us because we're prime customers). When I got it the next day, I activated it, and signed up for a one year contract with TiVO to get $12 a month pricing (vs $16). Then, I disconnected the still live Cox DVR, hooked up the TiVO (which at that point would only get the analog cable channels, and local HD channels), and started playing...

Oh my god TiVO is the greatest invention in Television since color.

Remember when I said having a DVR made TV enjoyable to us again? Well having a TiVO was as big an improvement over the cable companies DVR, as having that DVR was over standard cable.

Honestly, I can't describe to you how much better TiVO is than normal cable. I can record two programs while watching a third. I can time shift anything I want. I can search for any kind of programming I like, and have the TiVO auto record it; and even record similar programming that I haven't specifically asked it to. I NEVER miss a program I want to watch anymore, because even if I forget to program it in, theres a goo chance TiVO knows that I want to watch that program (based on my having watched it, or similar shows, previously), and auto-records it for me.

To top it all off, I can send movies and music to and from any of my pcs, as well as downloading them off the net from several sources; and the picture quality, even in standard definition, is VASTLY superior to that from my cable company set top box. I would say the picture on SD is just as good as an SD-DVD; and in HD is almost as good as an HD-DVD.

I no longer want to have cable without TiVO, that's how good it is. It's worth every penny of the price, and more.

Oh and the digital tiling, drop outs, freezes etc? Yeah, not a one with the TiVO. Everything is pristine no matter what I'm watching, when. Looks like it was their DVR box after all.

So, last Friday the installer gets here, works out in the street, at the neighborhood node, and in our wiring boxes for a couple hours; putting our two phone drops (each drop has two twisted pairs in it) on the VDSL, and swithcing our house coax (four coax drops in the house) onto the Qwest network. That all went relatively smoothly, except that they wrote the service order wrong, and he had to spend an extra hour on the phone with the head end trying to get the lines re-provisioned properly.

Then he started on the inside work, and we started talking about the service and he dropped a bomb "Oh, we don't support DVRs on this service for HD. Not only that, but they only work like a VCR in SD, and only with this one box and an IR blaster to change the channels".

Say what?

Apparently, there are TWO DIFFERENT Qwest choice services.

The first service is provisioned on FTTN (fiber to the node), and uses multiplexed signals over the twisted pair for separate TV, phone, and VDSL networking. That service uses these proprietary Motorola home gateways, which have basically no inputs or outputs, only limited video bandwidth, and no way to use a DVR with them. Some of the boxes don't even have HDMI out, just component, and the ones with HDMI, are HDMI, without sound; and they don't have a digital audio output.

Basically they are crap. Motorola aren't even making new ones, because they've switched everything to VDSL2; and they've refused to make or support any enhancements, especially a DVR, because the system has too many quality and performance issues.

All this was related to me by the clearly knowledgeable... in fact clearly expert... install tech, while we were talking about the system and it's limitations.

The OTHER choice TV services are implemented over VDSL2, at 200Mb; with full digital IPTV, IP phone, and networking. THAT service looks great, and offers full cable card support, so you can either use the DVR box that Motorola builds, or use your own TiVO.

Yeah... we don't get that service here. Oh, we will eventually, but not for at least another two years.

So at that point, Cox was already physically disconnected and canceled, I'm already out $300 plus a contract to TiVO... and as I said, I don't want to have cable without TiVO. Now here's this guy telling me not only don't I get my TiVO, but I don't get ANY DVR at all.

I was irritated to say the least.

I wasn't able to get the sales manager on the phone, but I left her a message, and the installer suggested he just connect everything up, get it all working; and if I was unhappy with it I could always convert over to DirectTV HD (which does offer actual TiVO, branded as DirecTVbuilt into the satellite tuner).

Of course, as I said, I REALLY don't want satellite; and I don't want cable without TiVO.

... and, under federal law, cable companies which require digital set top boxes have to provide customers who request it with cable cards...

I did actually give the Qwest ChoiceTV package a shot; but after watching it for only an hour, it was so bad that I just couldn't put up with it. The picture was awful, there was audio noise and no surround sound (the TiVO HD outputs Dolby Digital), the programming guide was crap... even the remote sucked.

Even worse, the internet service that I depend on for work? It was intermittently failing. Several times an hour it would drop connection for no apparent reason, for about 3 minutes at a time; sometimes requiring a reboot of my router to regain connectivity.

This was clearly unacceptable, so I pulled the Qwest choice off the main TVs coax drop, reconnected Cox (the drop was still live), hooked my TiVO back up, and got Cox on the phone.

I left the office drop on Qwests network to keep the DSL internet working; and by reconnecting Cox to the living room TV, I at least got working cable again, with TiVO.

I got to a GOOD customer retention specialist this time, and they cut my HD cable package price down from $120 without internet (as it was before) to $80 without internet; and 3 months at $60. They ordered up a reconnect with a free technician visit, and two cable cards.

Then I called up Qwest, and told them to get out here, take off the TV, and fix the internet; or I was canceling the whole shebang. They told me that they could only send one tech out, to do one of those jobs at a time, so I had them send the guy out to fix the internet (which was a lot more critical).

The Qwest guy was here Tuesday morning, and I had him take out the TV service anyway, and reconfigure our service as phone and internet only; which works just fine with no phone noise, and no dropped internet connections. And hell, it's a lot faster than Cox was, even though they are both rated as 3Mbit services. He took the Motorola gateways out, disconnected from the house coax, dropped in a DSL modem... and again spent over two hours on the phone with the head office trying to get things re-provisioned properly.

So now, instead of $200 a month between Cox and Vonage; I'm paying $170 a month ($20 less for the frist three months) between Qwest, Cox, and TiVO ; and I'm getting better service. Unfortunately I'm not getting the simplification I was hoping for, but oh well.

So, anyway, the Cox guy gets here this morning, sees that we've got the new TiVO HD box and says right off "Oh these things don't work with our cable cards".

He then spent the next hour, as we configured the system together, talking about how they never worked, and it was TiVOs fault etc... etc... Also Cox was saying that multistream cards (which can decode up to four streams) didn't work and that even if we COULD somehow get a card working, we could only use single stream cards (the TiVOHD has two slots for providers that only support single stream cards), and it would be a miracle if we got two working.

Well, I knew that Cox had issues with their cable cards, and everybody else, never mind TiVO; but I also knew they DID work, you just had to massage them properly, AND make sure they were provisioned properly at the head end.

So I went in and worked the Tivo to the point where it recognized the card, and did a firmware update; then did a hard reboot on the TiVO. When the box came back up, we were able to get the hostid for the card, and call in to have it provisioned.

After over an hour on the phone with several different departments, they finally provisioned the card; and we were able to get some channels, but only basic cable.

At that point I knew they had provisioned the card improperly, and went back into the service menus to show the installer what they had done wrong (there's a LOT of diagnostic info available in a TiVO. They are Linux boxes after all). He got them back on the phone, they reprovisioned the cards on the account again; and three minutes later I had all 240 channels working, with HD, surround sounds, AND my TiVO service (on a multi stream card no less).

The sad part is, this installer was the MOST experienced they had; and the one they specifically sent out to deal with cablecard installs. The problem isn't with the TiVO, it's with Cox. They don't want to support cable cards (because it costs them revenue in lost box fees. $17 a month for an HD dvr, vs $1.50 a month for a cable card; and cable cards don't support pay per view on demand) so they make it as difficult as possible, and they give their techs bad information, and no troubleshooting tools, or training.

It took THREE damn hours just to get the cable card installed and configures; a process which should have taken 20 minutes.

Actually, what's obscene is the time I spent on the whole process:

1. First Qwest signup (failed): 1 hour
2. Second signup (failed): 2 hours
3. Third signup (succeeded): 3 hours
4. First Qwest install: 3 hours
5. Qwest fix: 3 hours
6. Cox cable card install: 3 hours

That's 15 hours of my time, as in the time I spent directly involved with these processes; never mind the time of the install techs, the provisioning people, the sales reps etc... which was several more hours on top of that (oh and the almost exactly 2 hours it took me to write these 4000 words doesn't help either; but I need to vent here).

I would guess, conservatively, that Qwest has now put 30 man hours into this account. Over the course of all my problems with Cox, they have put at least 15 man hours into it.

All that time costs money.

These providers wont be seeing a profit out of me for years at this point; and all because they havent' upgraded their customer service and service delivery systems to work with each other; and they don't give their people the proper tools and training necessary to resolve these issues when they come up.

...and yet, they wonder why cable companies, telcos, and ISPs taken as a group, are the third most hated group of service providers we as consumers deal with (behind banks and airlines); and why they can't seem to make a profit, no matter how high their revenues are.

How many customers have they lost because of situations like this? Because I assure you my story isn't exactly uncommon. How much good will? How much potential revenue have they not realized, simply because they are inefficient, and provide poor customer service?

When are they going to realize that the only way they are going to make money at this game, is to be both efficient, and convenient?

Unfortunately, if experience is any guide... never. They'll all go out of business first, and then Google really will buy up the internet and rule the world.