A rock and a hard place…

I just did something I swore I never would… I just googled to see if Verizon FIOS is available locally. Luckily, it is not, so I was saved from that conflicted decision.

Long ago, we were very happy with the internet we got from our local cable company. Then they were consumed by Comcast. Shortly after that Comcast started agressively throttling our bandwidth.

We do not do P2P or illegal file sharing. However, there are two IT professionals in the household who often work from the home office and upload and download large files. Comcast did not like that. I wrote about it three years ago when it was happening. Comcast even replied, but could not unthrottle me. It was unliveable. We switched to ATT/Uverse just a little over 3 years ago.

We have been happy with the service. So much so that I have evangelized it locally and convinced many others to change over. Then came the bandwidth cap decision, which has me concerned and is unresolved.

Add to concerns of much higher charges, in the last week Uverse performance has SUCKED. I will be on the phone with them tomorrow, but this is crazy. We will be watching something On Demand or DVR and it will cut out. We either get a “temporarily unavailable” error message or none at all, but booted out to the main menu “Press OK to watch Uverse”.

This is NOT cheap service. we have a nice package and the fastest Internet connectivity available. That does not seem to matter any more.

I am feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place and it is cold and uncomfortable, with something sharp poking me in the ribs.

How bandwidth caps will hurt the economy more

I remember the days of dialup networking well. I don’t mean the old AOL/Geni/Compuserve dialup service, I mean “put your funny shaped, wire tethered phone headset down in a cradle and listen to the funny tones squeal while you wait for a handshake” dial up. When network connectivity was difficult, you saved it for important things. You did not squander precious bits without putting thought into it. Modems evolved, and then became incorporated into computers. It was easier to connect, so we shared small pictures,backgrounds for webpages ( usually tiled), animated images and silly sounds. But the connection was still slow and we paid by the hour. Some people even paid twice.. once to the service/ISP and then again in cost per minute to the phone company for the connection. Things like video and online shopping could not take off because the overhead of paying for the connectivity, and the worry that you would run out of minutes and not be able to continue with basics like email. Then came always on, unlimited bandwidth. No longer did I have to dial up to the ISP, wait for the connection and then carefully count the minutes I was online.
With a bigger pipe and free access, the business model for the web changed. Want to share all 1200 pictures from your last vacation with me? Cool. I have all the time I need to sit and admire them, and I know I will still have bits left over to read my email. Someone put videos on thee web? holy crud. Let’s sit and watch, who cares if there are advertisements on the page, these are funny videos!
Busy at work? Need to get birthday presents for your grandma who lives on the other side of the country? Here.. order flowers online- you can page through the images and select one. Not flowers? How about any one of a million other products you can order online and have easily shipped to her? Maybe you would like to buy her one of those nifty products you saw advertised while you were watching the funny videos.
Like to play games> No need to get up from your computer and go to the store to buy and install discs, just buy them over the internet and download them directly to your PC. Why not to your wii? your PS3? Your Xbox? Download them to your console and then move them to your DS or your PSP.
Too busy to go to the store, buy CDs, load them in your computer and then copy them to your mp3 player? No matter. We have many different services where you can buy music directly over the internet and then just download it. You like to buy music? how about music videos? TV shows? Movies? Don’t download it- you can just stream it. Heck, stream it in high definition- why not? Your bandwidth is virtually free!
Soon, it became easier to shop online than to get in your car, drive and interact with grumpy, rude people at the mall. The price of gas went up- you are saving money by staying home, so you can buy more. Right?
The internet is the ultimate impulse buy.
What happens when we go back to that old dial up mentality and we are worried about how many bits are flowing to and from our houses again? Will you let Spore waste your bandwidth uploading and downloading creatures? Will you continue to directly download audio books from the likes of Audible.com? How many ad-supported video podcasts will you download and watch? Will you let your video game console communicate over the net?
Last month, I spent hours and hours looking at images of dresses on the internet while I was shopping for a wedding dress. If I had a cap on my DSL, I never would have done that. Nor would I have bought the dress online from the merchant I did. What will happen to iPod hardware sales if people are concerned about how much they are downloading from iTunes or Amazon.com to put on it? What about your cell phone that uses a wifi connection when you are at home to save on your cell phone minutes? Will you still let that connect? If not, will you talk less or will you spend money on your cell phone bill instead of something else from a store in your home town?
Personally, I work a lot from my home office. Bandwidth is cheap, I can VPN into the corporate network and do my teleconferences. It saves me gas money from the commute and time to stay caught up on things like laundry. If my bandwidth gets capped, I will be driving into the office again every day to use their bandwidth instead. The money I have to spend on gas will take away from things like eating out, seeing movies, or buying new wii games for the kids.
What other gadgets and habits do you have that eat away at the bits you consume every month. How many purchases will you forgo, if you are worried about being able to read your email at the end of the month? how many youtube or 12second videos will you upload? How many will you watch? Will you Hulu? How useful is that iPod touch if you are not connected to the internet?
Will your highspeed bandwidth provider become the gas companies of the next decade, making big profits to give you virtual mobility at the expense of other businesses and sectors?

ComCast? Take Notes.

Yesterday was the much anticipated ATT install. I was both excited and nervous. Part of me was actually scared silly that they would get here and something would prevent the install ( old lines, noise in the lines, something stupid).

I had an appointment for the install to begin between 8 and 10 am. At 8 am the tech called to check and make sure I was expecting him and to tell me he was going to be there in about 20 minutes. He showed up about 24 minutes after that. He came in the office and the first thing he did was slip little boot covers over his shoes to prevent tracking mud into the house. It was overkill, but it was a really nice gesture. It was not overkill later when he was out in my muddy yard doing the outside work and then came back in the house. There was not a bit of dirt or a track when they left. Maybe I need a box of those hanging at the doors for all the kids this spring?

I walked him through the house, explained what I was hoping to get, what our current setup was, etc. He boggled a little at the number of computers in the house. He was a little concerned about the fact that I wanted one of the settop boxes hooked up to my computer, not a TV ( he had only done 2 before) and when I told him some of my computers were Linux, he admitted he had no idea what that was or how it worked. They normally check every computer ( wired and wireless) for connectivity before they leave. I told him I was not expecting that, or that he re-configure the wireless on my linux boxes. As long as I had one computer talking to the wireless, I knew their part was running correctly, the rest was my responsibility to reset. And so he left to go do the outside work first and would be back in after a bit. After a while, he was joined by a fellow tech and they finished up the install together in a team fashion. They worked well together, they did not in any way mind me getting into the middle of what they were doing and asking questions (I am the sys and network admin at home, if they did not tell me, I would have to tear it apart later to understand it) and they were UberPolite.

I was told by ATT corporate that the install would take 5 to 8 hours. I found out later that they had a personal goal to get me finished in 3. They missed it by 40 minutes, mostly because I interrupted them, asked questions and slowed them down. But they never got impatient or tried to rush me through anything. We ran into some snags trying to get the settop box configured with SageTV software, but again- that was my weird add-on, and not really their responsibility. We got to proof of a signal coming through to the computer, and I let them go– letting them know that debugging the rest of it was my problem, not theirs. They encouraged me to call tier 2 support for assistance, if I needed it. ( I have debugged it as far as getting WinTV to work via composite input on my own, but would like to get to the point of using the able input with the software able to do channel changes and use it as a PVR. But that is all candy icing–and with my Buffalo drive blown up, I have no place to record to right now, anyway……)

After a long philosophical break with Sam, I decided my mind needed less challenging things to work on, so I started exploring the web management tools ( I can set shows to record on my DVR via a web interface? Cool!) and set up sub-accounts. You get 10 sub-accounts ( which makes a total of 11 accounts with the main), so everyone in the family will get one- plus some left over for fun stuff. Plus, in starting to explore the TV Channels, I noted that ATT has added some interactive channels.. including one that was supposed to be able to display my Flickr photos on the TV- I needed to figure out how to configure that one, and I needed to locate the pop info on my main email, so I could add it to gmail and pull my email from a single interface. Lots of little silly configuration stuff that should not take too many brain cells.

I started with the sub accounts- at least for Ogre. I was going to disable Comcast, which meant his email accounts would be dead, unless I got him set up and running first. I went to the web page and went through the form. ATT is BIG on security, they have security prompts that they call offline ( which I set over the phone when the account was set up) and online ( which I set up on the web page- traditional prompt and response type questions). You had to use both sets of data to set up a sub account. I clicked the “submit” button and got an error. ” Partner returns data error”. Hmm… maybe I had typed something in wrong? I retyped my security answers to avoid typos. Same error. I sat and stared at the page. I punched submit again. Same error. Hrmmm.. Knowing that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results ( unless you are a quantum physicist), I decided to call tech support. I had a sneaking suspicion. One of my offline prompts was a 4 digit numerical pin. But one was alpha chars. What if they person at the other end had a typo? I had not thought to check it when she input it.

1-800-288-2020.

2 minutes to navigate through the voice prompts to a human being. I explained my problem, my error and what I suspected was wrong. She ran me through all the verification prompts and challenges. I proved I was really me. She checked and Yes, sure enough, their was a typo. She fixed it. She stayed on the line while I filled in the form again and hit submit. Same error. Hrmm.. She looked something up in her KB. She asked permission to put me on hold for no more than 10 minutes. I agreed. In the meantime, I started poking around on the website to figure out how to configure my Flickr. I found the link , but before I could start, she was back. (on hold this time- 4 minutes). She apologized and told me she had to transfer me to the next level of support to help with this. Could she put me on hold for no more than 10 minutes while she got the next level of support on line? Sure. I navigated on the web to the link to configure my Flickr. Ahh, it was a simple “associate this ID with your Flickr Yahoo ID and you are set”. Cool. She came back on the line and introduced me to Justin. ( on hold? 2 minutes) I explained the issue to Justin, and he asked permission to reset my password so he could try in my account himself. Sure, I can reset it when you are done. Have at it. While he was doing that, I attempted to associate my Flickr IDs. Fail. Sigh. He got the same error I did from his side on creating the sub-account. Frustrating, but a good sign I was not incompetent 😉 We talked through it, he was poking on the website while we talked and remembered another link into sub-account setup. He tried it from there. In the meantime, I was working on the Flickr issue ( he did not know this)and got to where I could get a ” your Flickr ID is already associated with this Yahoo ID- do you want to use that?” message and it failed to associate the ATT. I had the sneaking suspicion this was a one to one and not a one to many association… He completed the form from the other angle ( remembering most of the data and only needed a couple of prompts, I might add) and got a difference error message. This one made sense. We needed a different ID. Picked, form filled.. correctly created. He entered a bug report for the bad error message on the other page and noted they needed to be linked to the same code, not split. I asked him about the Flickr ID issue. He said the feature was just released 2 weeks ago, so he was uncertain. Would I be willing to walk him through? Sure. We got to the Flickr log in point and he asked if I could log into Flickr, temp reset my password and let him use that to try it. OK. Again, I can reset the password when we finish the call and you never know any of my personal password info. He got to the same error I did. I explained to him that I was a legacy Flickr user (pre- Yahoo) and when Yahoo bought them, I had to link my Flickr ID to a Yahoo ID. So, my Yahoo ID was already associated with something.. how do I associate my ATT id into the mix as well? I did NOT want another Flickr account- something the system was more than willing to do for me. He poked around some more. While he was poking, I decided to set up gmail. Rather than searching the website for the pop info, I just asked Justin. Without blinking or stopping his search for ideas on the Flickr issue, he told me. Authentication failed. “Did you use your whole email as your ID?” he asked me. Oh, no- just the ID. “Do I need to use the whole thing?” “Yep” “OK”. sure enough.. success. “what about transferring between Yahoo IDs?” He inquired. “Well, I have done it”, I replied,”but how does that help with the att.net ID?” “That IS a Yahoo ID as well…” Ah ha, that was the piece of info I was missing to make some sense. Attempted and Voila! Not only could I log into Flickr as my new ATT identity, but 2 remote control button presses and 15 seconds later.. there were my pictures on my TV!! Coolness.
He asked permission to document the case and I talked with him for another 4 minutes as we worked through wordings and explanations of the problem and solution and made suggestions for changes to the sign up process so that other legacy Flickr users are directed to the correct steps and do not have to get the right answer from Tech Support. I was out of issues, we parted ways.

We are dealing with technology here. I do not expect it to be perfect or without bugs. I help create technology, I know how messy it can get. But the win? Short Short on hold queue times, talked to real people fast, who listened to me carefully and quickly escalated when needed. Once I got escalated, I got an intelligent human who was a good troubleshooter AND could multi-task with me. I am hooked. This is what it takes to create a satisfied customer.

And Justin’s boss? In case you are reading this? Give him a raise.

Comcast gets Marching Orders

There was a lot of buzz in the Blogosphere and Twitterverse yesterday because Michael Arrington got his Comcast issues resolved quickly by creating a Twitter storm that was being monitored by a Comcast executive. Shawn Morrissey noted that a quick Twitterscan showed that lots of people were complaining about Comcast yesterday ( and every day, apparently). Brandon LeBlanc summarized a lot of people’s feelings yesterday when he noted that the “famous” folks got their Tweets responded to, but the “little people” were ignored. This resulted in a highly read TechCrunch post that is recommending that people skip the 45 minute customer service phone queue and just Twitter a lot. Good advice if you are Michael Arrington, but apparently not so helpful if you are a “regular” customer. Hey, no hard feelings to Michael, if I had the leverage and it worked to my advantage in a very annoying situation, I would use the hell out of it. I wonder if Michael could create Twitterstorms for all the other outraged Comcast customers as well. Unfortunately, the more I look into this, the more convinced I am that he would have to abandon TechCrunch and take on “Comcast user advocate” as his new full time job. There are a lot of pissed off people out there.
Include me in their ranks.
Here in Indiana, we used to have Insight Cable. They were wonderful. Now, don’t get me wrong- they have had glitches and problems, issues and outages. But their people are friendly, helpful and responsive. The longest on hold queue I ever sat in was maybe 15 minutes and that was in the middle of a major outage. Our bandwidth was great and very stable.

Then at the beginning of this year, we were the loosers in a bounty divide between Insight and Comcast, which resulted in all our connectivity being owned by Comcast. I had heard some of the horror stories, so I held my breathe. But then people like Arrington and Dvorak constantly praise their Comcast connectivity, so maybe it was going to be OK.

It is SO not OK, and I am not the only person in the area to think so. Everyone in town is complaining about how their throughput has slowed. Think about this… this is the exact same hardware and field infrastructure. Comcast did not come out, tear up old wire and lay new stuff. They never touched our boxes or hardware. All that changed was that our traffic is getting routed through their switches and software now, instead of Insight’s. And it sucks.

I telecommute from home most days. It is a wonderful thing, especially being a Mom. The alternative would be to be on the road ALL the time, which would be very expensive and time wasteful for my company as well. I can handle most issues via teleconference or netmeeting, gathering enough information to do architecural designs and estimates. There are exceptions and some travel does happen. For the most part, I am camped out in the home office. With a VPN connection into the corporate network. It does NOT generate a lot of traffic. We are not yet advanced enough to be video conferencing over the corporate network ( don;t ask me why not- that is an entirely different rant). This is text and data and file exchange only. But I upload files into coorporate sharepoint systems, and ftp data into servers. This must be some kind of comcast flag. When my fiance is here, he is also dialed into his work and often uploading large files into supercomputers. This is NOT a change in how we behaved under Insight. We were not bringing down the town and preventing anyone from being able to send emails to their great aunt Mary. Insight never had a issue with this. Comcast is throttling the hell out of us. They will not admit it, but our bandwidth has dropped significantly, with our avg upload speed often at 500Kbs or less. This has started to impact the speed and effectiveness with which I can do my job.

They are not just throttling uploads, they are also throttling downloads as well. We are having a good day when we get 1.5 Mbs download shared across multiple computers. This is a drop from what used to be an average of 6-8 under Insight. If you have a single computer connected to the internet and are cruising the web, or watching a youTube fest, 1.5 is probably just dandy. But we have a household where when everyone is here and plugged in, we easily have 8 computers or more connected at once. Sharing 1.5Mbs across that is painfully slow. Even my 13 year old starting complaining about the internet being slow, thinking something was wrong with her computer.

I started watching the alternatives, and thinking about Dish. The problem with Dish connections is that we get a lot of weather and weather tens to interrupt the satellite link. I was concerned about the alternatives, but actively pondering it. I even found that there is a customer advocacy site for Comcast users ( not run by comcast), their service and support is so notoriously bad. You can check it out and see the long running list of service problems that have not changed for years. One customer gets an issue resolved, but another has exactly the same problem. Comcast is living in firefighting mode and has no intention of changing the fundamental way they do business. I really did not want to get caught in the middle of that.

Then last month, a friend who was also switched from Insight to Comcast had her service interrupted, with headaches and slow action to resolve it. As a fellow telecommuter, this meant a trip out of state to stay with her parents just to keep working. Comcast just does not care. She dropped their Comcast and switched to AT&T. That was when I found out that AT&T potentially had their new uVerse TV service available in our area. I made some calls and sure enough we can get Uverse as well as the DSL Max ( 10 Mbs down, 1.5 Mbs up) for the same price as out current Comcast bill. This actually gives us more channels- which if we do not watch, I can downgrade and save 8 bucks per month) and three receiver boxes. This means the TV connection into the bedroom computer can now include a box and get all the good channels, the Main living room TV will have the DVR box and the old TV downstairs which had been just a game console can get connectivity as well. Who’da thunk?

I got my confirmation over the weekend that the technician will be here on Wednesday morning, and since they are NOT contractors like the Comcast folks are, I have high confidence they will actually show. At that point, if everything is installed and running smoothly, I will be calling Comcast and giving them Marching Orders ( once I get past the 45 minute onhold queue) no questions asked.

Edit: ( 4/10/08) Update: I was out of town on Monday and Tuesday, and when I got home, there was a voice mail from the executive offices of Comcast. Since I had to be concentrating on ATT in the morning, I intended to give them a call and explain this to them in the afternoon. Before I had a chance to call them back, I got a call from them. I explained to a very nice lady in the executive offices that our bandwidth had significantly decreased, that I was not pleased with the customer service levels and I felt I was placing myself at too high a personal risk if I stayed with them as a provider. I explained that even if they could make my pipe whizzy fast again, I could not support Comcast in this way. She apologized, took my order to discontinue service and I went on with my day. About 40 minutes later,i got a call- from the Comcast executive offices, asking about my email. I explained that I had just talked to someone and explained it all- but that I was willing to explain again. She commented on how this was odd, as there was no note on my account that anyone had spoken to me. ( why am I uncomfortable again???) I went through the whole explanation again, she apologized again. I will be taking the box back to the offices later today, anyone want to bet if my service actually got discontinued yesterday or not??