News Flash to Broadband Service Providers: Internet Service is a Utility, Not a Game of Magic 8 Ball

I am a subscriber to the Angry Charter Users list server. This list server is intended for users in a different geographical area than my own, but I follow the postings because it helps me understand the extent to which my service problems are local, regional, or national. And because the postings often amuse me.

I am frankly amazed at the number of users who are “angry” with Charter because of “cable leakages” (whatever the heck that is) and excessive ping times. These users are clearly a level or two above mine with regard to their technical expertise and expectations. We’re talking about users who claim to have rewired their cable modems to solve problems that Charter could not solve.

Recently, after receiving a barrage of messages like this from the Angry Charter Users group, I replied as follows:

“I’m glad you all have time to be worried about performance. While I too am not thrilled with my download speeds, I find that my valuable time is fully consumed with a more basic level of complaints — keeping my service up and running. Perhaps if I ever receive a few months of uninterrupted service, I too will turn my attention to performance issues.”

I did receive a reply from one Angry Charter User, the gist of which was that “excessive ping times were an important issue to serious gamers”. I guess this refers to people playing games on the internet. I don’t know…’s clear these folks and I speak different languages, but they all seem like nice, although frustrated people, and I enjoy reading their posts.

While I am not thrilled with the performance of my cable modem connection when it is working (I am averaging about 40KB a second download speeds), I am willing to cut Charter some slack in this area because my problems are much more basic, such as not knowing from day to day, hour to hour, or minute to minute whether I am going to be able to send or receive e-mail.

And this brings me to what I think is an industry wide problem. I know from my conversations with both Charter and Bellsouth that BSP’s (broadband service providers) tend incorrectly to think of users like me as an exception. By that, I mean users who really expect reliable 7 by 24 broadband service (except for scheduled down times for maintenance.) I know of at least four other people in my neighborhood who like me have home offices and rely on their internet connection for their bread and butter. But BSP’s seem to be under the mistaken notion that people don’t care or don’t mind if their service is not reliable. They think of their users as casual users who are willing to “try again later”.

But internet service is not a child’s game of Magic 8 Ball — its a basic utility. (I guess the phrase “basic utility” is somewhat redundant, but you get my point.)

Until BSP’s realize that internet service is a utility, and that it must have the same reliability as any other utility, they are providing services under the wrong business model. And they will continue to feel the pain from users such as I who will go to any lengths to get their service restored.

Such as…..

The other day, I called Charter’s corporate headquarters. I wanted to speak with one of the executives at Charter (or, at least, one of their secretaries) about my six-day e-mail problem. But Charter’s operators are very, very well trained at screening such calls. Heaven forbid a customer should be allowed to speak directly with the CEO, COO, executive VP, or even one of their secretaries. Instead, I was shuttled to Monique at Corporate Customer Care. Monique told me that she is one of three people in Corporate Customer Care. (Makes me wonder if all three are working 24 hour shifts.)

But I do have to admit that, by filing a complaint with Corporate Customer Care, I did hear back from several new Charter people. None of them could tell me what was causing my e-mail problem, or give me any assurance about when my problem would be solved. But at least I have some new names and phone numbers of people to pester, and that is always useful, because I know from experience that the more pain I can inflict on more people at Charter, the faster my problems get solved.

But I would still give anything to have an hour conversation with Charter’s CEO, Paul Allen, of Microsoft fame. You can learn a lot about Paul Allen on the web. You can learn about his interests and enterprises (the Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trailblazers, etc.) his business strategy, and his charitable foundations. You can learn everything except his e-mail address or direct phone number, because like many CEO’s, Paul apparently chooses to insulate himself from real customers with real problems. Paul and his army of trained operators choose instead to deflect real customers with real problems to “corporate customer care.”

In fact, I question whether if Paul is even aware of the magnitude of the problems his customers are experiencing. I have to believe that he isn’t aware of the problems, because the other two possibilities — that he is aware and doesn’t care, or that he is aware and doesn’t know how to fix the problems — make me shudder more than I did when I first saw Night of the Living Dead when I was 12 years old.

Performance? Who has time to care. Just give me a service level consistent with a utility. Then we can talk about performance.


Alan Luber