Days of Our Lives

Something I've harped upon in this column is consumer responsibility, how corporations would not so readily despoil the planet and milk the public if they were faced with vigilant consumers.

So it pains me to admit what a flaming marshmallow on a stick I sometimes am as a consumer.

"What," my new wifely component asked one recent day, "is this?"

"This" was a $6.95 monthly credit-card charge I'd been paying for more than four years for the Internet service Microsoft Network (MSN), which I had not used in all that time because within weeks of signing up, a glitch arose that wouldn't let me online.

I find that if you ignore a problem, it will sometimes solve itself. For instance, if I'm not sure food in the fridge is still good, I put it back in for another couple of weeks until I'm sure it's bad and then throw it out. So I gave my MSN account a few months to sort itself out before calling them to cancel. I was told I could cancel only by logging onto my MSN account. Otherwise, they said, I might be just any Tom, Dick or Steve Case calling to mess with someone else's account.

Like probably most persons, I go through life feeling a vague yet constant sense of guilt. Faced with the paradox of not being able to cancel MSN because I couldn't log onto it, which was the reason for canceling in the first place, I rationalized that I must owe Bill Gates $6.95 per month for something and proceeded over the years to tithe $380 to him for a service that was of no service to me.

The wife thought otherwise, and she spent hours on the phone with various MSN personnel and credit-card reps to get the billing to stop.

I'd also been paying for and using AOL all that time, which is okay if you don't mind being interrupted by ads and program crashes every nine minutes. But I wanted to switch to DSL because I like to stay on the cutting edge of technologies I can't comprehend. We opted to go with Sprint ION, which offered a package of DSL, two phone lines and other amenities for the flat monthly rate of $119.99, plus $5. That is $124.99, but phone companies are physically incapable of expressing such things in a single number.

"Experience blazing bandwidth!"

"Expand your online identity!"

"Listen to your dead phones make European police siren noises for weeks at a time! To hear the sirens in stereo, pick up both phones!"

Curiously, their ad copy didn't include that last paragraph. That was pretty much the reality of our exhilarating brush with the future, however. The Ion installation took six and a half hours, somewhat longer than it took Alexander Graham Bell to both invent the phone and to show Watson why he needed him so. And from that day, July 9, everything got squirrelly.

The new second line they gave us had a Valencia area code, which would have been good if I'd needed to call Magic Mountain several times per day. As it was, that number somehow cross-linked with our old phone line so that we couldn't even call our next-door neighbor on either phone without dialing 11 digits. The DSL started crashing all the time. The voice mail either wouldn't work or would deliver messages days after the fact. Sometimes an obliterating static would wash over the line; other times voices would echo.

Well, we weren't going to take this one lying down! We called the Sprint Ion service center in Atlanta, Georgia, and talked with Artie. And with Margie, Mark, Barry, Bob, Eddie, Kiewan, Abid, Emily, Carlos, Robert, Brian, Isaiah, Corey, Carl, Gerald, Debra, Barbara, Sylvester, Tom, Jeanette, Michael, Randall, Dan, Adam, Allen, Shavonne, Lynette, Hawk, Cornell, John and others.

We cumulatively spent days—and I mean days—of our lives on the phone with these folks or on hold. We couldn't call on our phones but had to use a borrowed cell phone or my wife's work phone because our system began crashing entirely, voice and data, leaving us with a sub-Dixie-Cups-and-string communications package.

Every time we called Sprint, we had to bring a new technician up to speed on our problems. They would open a "trouble ticket" on us. They'd "change some parameters." They'd send techs to the house to probe for hours. They'd pronounce it fixed, and it would crash all over again.

Before long, we were getting familiar voices when we called Sprint, or getting new techs who had heard of the evidently legendary number of pages accruing in our trouble-ticket file. We'd been escalated to "Severity One Status," one tech told us. Another said, "You have to appreciate that the technology we have in your home is 100 years ahead of what your neighbors have."

"But they don't have to wait 100 years to dial 911 if their house catches fire," Leslie the Wife responded.

Our phone and DSL access began going dark for periods of a week or longer. It was peaceful in a way, but as a journalist, I find it handy to have some form of contact with the outside world, to be able, say, to access the Internet during the most horrendous event of our time, or to receive calls from editors who might want to give me work. On the personal side, an old friend died, and I didn't get word of it for days, thanks to phones 100 years ahead of their time.

Though assured we wouldn't be billed until everything worked, during the windows when we could check our online billing, it showed charges double the $124.99 rate, and we could never get anyone in billing to return our calls or e-mails.

"Sprint Ion's a great service," pleaded one of the Atlanta techs. "Please don't give up on us." And we didn't, having already invested so much time and frustration in it. It was sort of like American involvement in Vietnam, except Vietnam had working telephones.

Another reason for hanging in was that many of the Sprint techs and service folks we dealt with were genuinely nice people who strove diligently to solve our problems and who remained enthusiastic about the service. I suspect this enthusiasm was due to Sprint Ion wisely putting its headquarters in a state where its service wasn't available. A couple of the California-based techs who were spending two- to five-hour slabs of time at the house, however, told me they used other Internet providers in their own homes.

Usually, they'd leave defeated. I considered opening a tourist attraction, the Sprint Ion Mystery House, where DSL techs from around the world could come to be baffled and amazed.

One thing techs and others in the industry told me is that there is considerable antipathy between these newfangled services and local service providers because they were taking away the local companies' customers. Sprint and others would contract with the locals to provide lines to our homes, but it was alleged to me that in many instances, local providers would sabotage the service so that customers would give up and return to them. Little did I know that I was signing up for the digital version of Manon of the Spring.

In September, the Sprint techs finally determined that there were impediments on the line of my local service provider, Pacific Bell—impediments that had to be removed. Problem solved? No, because the communications giants disagreed over which of them would pay to fix the problem. Meanwhile, of course, we still had no service.

Finally, on Oct. 12, some 95 days after the service was installed, it was fixed and started working like a charm. You see how standing up for your rights pays off?

There is a postscript: three days later, via our now-working DSL, we received word that the entire Sprint Ion system was being killed. The corporate honchos didn't want to wait for the enterprise to become profitable and were giving loyal, diligent Jeanette, Margie, Kiewan, Shavonne, et al. the old heave-ho, while we now get to scramble for a new service provider.

But first, I'm putting our DSL hub in the fridge for a few weeks to see if that sorts things out.

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