Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Duopolies Suck: AT&T

To continue the story from the previous post, when I dumped Charter Cable, my only other option for internet service (since they've run all the independent providers out of business) was AT&T DSL.

I am not and never was a fan of the old BellSouth, which has to be the outfit that inspired Lily Tomlin's famous line, "We're the Phone Company. We don't care--we don't have to!" We actually owned BellSouth stock for years, but divested it in disgust (before the crash, I'm happy to say) when it became clear that the "New AT&T," formed when the old SouthWestern Bell bought BellSouth, bringing the two regional monopolies under the then-abandoned Death Star logo, was just another 20th Century dinosaur intent on milking its protected territories.

The one good thing that came out of the SBC-BellSouth merger was the requirement that BellSouth drop its mandate for DSL customers to also maintain a useless, vestigial and pricey landline. We cut that cord over five years ago, and I have even less interest in ponying up $30 a month for $10 (tops) worth of minimal phone service than I do in buying cable television. But thanks to the merger mandate, AT&T was now forced to sell "naked" DSL, and so I signed up.

Or rather, I tried to sign up, and at this point the old BellSouthasaurus reared its walnut-sized brain for the first (but nowhere near the last) time. Apparently the word has not trickled up to the suits down on Peachtree Street that there is, in fact, more than one brand of operating system and web browser out there, because the only way you can sign up for AT&T DSL online is via a Windows computer running Internet Explorer. Mac user? Linux user? Tough luck--no online sign-up for you. Got a problem with that? Tough. They're the Phone Company. They don't care--they don't have to.

So, being the stubborn type, I located (with some difficulty) the correct phone number to set up service. My sign-up call was without question the most pleasant part of this entire process; the rep was not only as nice as she could be, she promised me a rate five bucks lower per month than the website was offering, plus a total of $175 in cash back for switching over from cable. She also noted that I could knock off yet another five bucks a month by informing AT&T after my service was turned on that I was already an AT&T Wireless customer (the Death Star can thank their iPhone contract for that one).

So I was happy. I was happier still when the AT&T truck rolled on the day it was promised, and my service was hooked up. My happiness, I'm sorry to say, ended right about there.

It turns out that AT&T has very recently farmed out most of its internet services to Yahoo, to include email addresses, the provider support website, personal web hosting, and etc. As a part of this change, new users are required to set up a combined AT&T-Yahoo account in order to configure their DSL modem and get their service working.

You can see this coming, can't you? Right--the sign-up process is completely broken for Mac users. I thrashed with it for a couple of hours, including trying to use the "installation CD" that AT&T mailed to me. The alleged installation program crashed halfway through setting up the account. Phone reps insisted that I had to have (wait for it) Internet Explorer working to set up an account, and to get my email turned on. Another hour on the phone was required just to get the main username set and the account activated.

After that, it took two more half-hour calls to get the Mac Mail clients on our computers configured for the new-and-not-improved AT&T/Yahoo mail accounts. In a bit of corporate customer no-service that drove me particularly up the wall, if you go to AT&T's support website and click on the most visible "Setup for Mac Mail" link, you're directed to instructions for setting up Mail version 1.0, which is a good five years out of date. There are still no instructions for setting up the current version, Mail 3.5. Fine work there, boys. We'll be sure and let Steve Jobs know how well you support Mac users when that iPhone deal is up for renewal.

Bear in mind here, I'm an engineer. I configure computers all the time. I shudder at the thought of a "civilian" trying to get all this manamana done over the phone.

But finally, my service was working and emails were both sending and receiving. I made the requested call to AT&T to get the "bundling" discount, and was promised that same was a done deal, and thank you for choosing AT&T.

You knew this wasn't going to be over, didn't you?

Then I checked my prospective first bill a week or so later. The base rate was five bucks higher than I'd been promised during sign-up, and there was no sign of the bundling discount). I called AT&T billing, and was told that there was no such $5-cheaper plan for dry line customers, and that I was essentially SOL, no matter what I'd been promised by the sign-up rep. I was none too happy with this obvious bait-and-switch, and got escalated up to a supervisor, who apologized profusely and promised to personally put in a $5 a month credit on my bill for the first six months. This was not an ideal solution, but after an hour on the phone, I aquiesced.

The bill arrived yesterday. No discounts to speak of; no $5 credit for the bait-and-switch base rate, no bundling discount, no mention of the cash back. I did apparently get credit for $125 worth of the latter, but the remaining $50 has vanished into the BellSouthasaurus's collective maw. I've left a message with the original billing supervisor, but sur-prise, sur-prise, no call back in the last four hours.

There's one more Death Star SNAFU to report here before this extended rant is through. If you've tried to click on links to my old "Will's World" proto-blog over the past few weeks, you've received a big 404, site missing. That's because Charter wiped out the old site (which they were perfectly justified in doing) when I canceled their service. No big deal, I have a backup, which I'd planned to upload to AT&T's personal web space.

Problem is, the AT&T personal web space is yet another victim of the Death Star's outsourcing to Yahoo. If you're an AT&T customer, I dare you to try and set up your web space with FTP access. You can't do it. It fails to set up an FTP account because your "@att.net" username isn't FTP-friendly, and demands that you pick a different user name. Problem is, nobody at AT&T has bothered to fix the web tool to permit you to do that. I spent two incredibly frustrating hours on the phone being transferred hither and yon (including twice to India), only to be told over and over again that nobody can fix this, and you have the wrong office, and is there anything else I can do for you?

Yes, AT&T, there is. You can get your flipping act together. You can realize that one size of XP-And-Internet-Explorer does not fit all. You can honor the rates you promise to potential customers. You can fix your own systems to work like they're supposed to work. You can return phone calls, and not cut customers off because the problem isn't covered by your "support" scripts.

In other words, you can at least act like you care. Even though, as we all know, you don't. Because you don't have to.


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