Friday, January 7, 2011

The Failure of AT&T

THE other night, during the relentless stretch of rains that hit Los Angeles around Christmas, I was awoken just after 1 a.m. by pounding on my front door. Stumbling to the door in my bathrobe, I was greeted by two uniformed members of the local police department, one of whom shined his flashlight into my eyes.

         The reason for this unexpected visit? In large part this was caused by the idiocy and selfishness of AT&T. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

         “Is everything alright in there?” one of the cops asked. Apparently my phone line -- which had shorted during the storm -- had dialed 911.

The two asked if they could come in, and as my wife walked out of the bedroom rubbing her eyes, the officers went into my 4-year-old son’s room to make sure he was safe and sound.

         I was several days into having no phone or Internet service – the fourth time I’d lost my connection since mid-November. The rains made life difficult for a lot of people, but these problems go back long before the bad weather. David Lazarus, in his excellent column in today’s LA Times, points out that AT&T still has 70,000 “trouble tickets” in Southern California.

I work, of course, as a journalist and blogger; losing my connection is serious business. I had to speak to a very rigorous New York Times copy editor from a loud coffee shop where I spent most mornings getting a few hours of WiFi for the price of a latte. I ran to the local library – grateful for its presence but cursing the shortened hours – so I could email articles to the LA Times and LA Weekly. I became much harder than usual for my editors to contact.

And since the only consistent line I had to the outside world was my cell, which does not work very well from my hilly neighborhood, it was almost impossible to have a conversation for longer than about a minute. My Christmas calls to my family back east did not exactly benefit from this.

I spent hours calling AT&T, punching my land line number into my cell phone, waiting on hold for 30 minutes at a time, getting passed from one customer service person to another, having to retell the story each time.

Lazarus spoke to the company’s technicians, who argued that the problems were aggravated by bad weather but did not have to be nearly this bad:

"The company hasn't kept up with maintenance and upgrades for the network," one said. "That's why the problems are so widespread."
The technicians said cables and phone lines wouldn't have been so waterlogged if their casing and insulation had been inspected and repaired at more regular intervals. Both cited hungry squirrels chewing on lines as a key reason water gets in.
They also said flooding of underground vaults and pipes wouldn't have caused so much damage if the facilities had been regularly maintained.

Eerily, everyone who came out from the phone company was friendly and seemed competent, but in every case but the last (knock wood), my service was down again in a matter of days.         

         By the time the cops came back a few days later, after another errant 911 call, it was more stupid than scary. (Though a serious waste of the police’s time. And if another emergency call came in, the officer told me, I’d have to pay for their appearance.)

Here’s Lazarus again: I'm not telling AT&T how to run its business. But for a company that pocketed $12.3 billion in profit in the third quarter of 2010 alone, maybe it wouldn't hurt to have a few more techs on hand.

         It was only Sunday, TWO FULL WEEKS after I first reported the trouble, that my service was restored. Since mid-November, I’ve been without phone and Internet more often than I’ve had it. This is the worst customer service I’ve had in my life, proof that companies cannot regulate themselves. Here’s hoping AT&T does as better job in 2011, or it risks losing a big chunk of its business.

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