Sometime last Thursday night or early Friday morning, my home network stopped working.  I discovered this first by trying to access my home network from my office using remote desktop. I kept getting connection errors. When I got home Friday night, my wife said she couldn’t get online all day. I proceeded to multitask: help feed the kids, put them to bed, and try to diagnose the problem. Navigating to any external site, “The page cannot be displayed” would be displayed.  My wife needed to get online to do research for a project she was preparing for our daughter’s class. (Artist extraordinaire: Leonardo Da Vinci, handwriting in mirror image, and Mona’s smile)

 

My home network consists of a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply battery back up power supply), a wireless access point/ 4 port router, a DSL modem, and a notebook PC that is our web site. Since I rarely have to touch these components, they sit undisturbed about 7 feet high on top of a bookshelf. I can access the notebook via remote desktop from another machine anywhere in the world.

 

I climbed up on a desk and unplugged the power to the router and DSL modem to reset them. They appeared to be fine. I tried removing our router and plugging the DSL directly into a PC, reconfiguring the IP settings, but that still failed. Around that time, I mentioned to my wife that the problem seemed to be that the DSL didn’t work for some reason. She guiltily responded that she didn’t remember paying any bills recently, although it could be on autopay. Aha! I thought that must be it. What a relief, because I couldn’t find anything wrong with our network. After working for more than 2 years, this is our first failure, and it seemed to be our fault.  So how do I confirm it’s on autopay? Well, go online of course!<sigh>

 

How do I call tech support? Go online and get the phone number. Well that option was out, so I used Outlook 2003 (local cached mode means my entire mailbox is stored locally, so I don’t have to be online to see messages. Great feature!) to look up an old message I had in a folder about our DSL. Sure enough, the message was over 2 years old, but it had a tech support phone number that worked. I dialed. “To improve our customer service, your call may be recorded. We are using a new voice recognition system to benefit our customers”…. oh great…. “Please say or enter your phone number”.  “Would you like me to test your line ? “ yes please. “This test will take up to 30 seconds”… I wait patiently while I hear advertising on the phone for their great customer service. (Did you know that you could go to xxx.com to get help online?) The test succeeds.

 

As an aside, 22 years ago, in 1982 I bought a CVSD A/D (Analog to Digital) converter. It’s an integrated circuit that can take an analog signal and digitize it. I also had a DTMF decoder (dual tone, multiple frequency) which could detect and determine which phone pushbuttons were pushed. I wirewrapped a circuit board and interfaced it to my original 8088 IBM PC running at 4.77 Mhz with a whopping 256 K RAM (that’s 1/4 megabytes!) and dual 360k floppies. I attached our phone line, and wrote a program in C that could answer the phone, play any digital recorded message, record any response and/or decode any touch tone responses from the caller. My decades old automated phone menuing system did exactly the same tasks as the automated phone system they were using.

 

After a runaround in that system and several more minutes on hold, I was finally able to reach a human being (I’ll call him “Dan’”). Dan promptly asked me the same information (phone number? Name ? etc)  that the automated response system had just asked.

 

I mentioned to Dan that our account may be past due: can you check that please. He looked up our account, and asked what my business name was.  (When I set up the DSL account 2 years ago, I wanted to have a static IP address so I could set up a web site. The provider insisted that the only way to do that is to have a “business account”. OK, then I was forced to ask them for a business account, even though it was a residential one.) Dan insisted that I had called the wrong number because there was no business name, because it was not a business, and that their support for residences was a totally different division. I quickly informed him that this was for an account with a static IP and that their business rules required that static IP accounts belong in their “business” division. They decided that people don’t need web sites: only businesses do.

 

In any case, he looked up our information in some sort of computer and said there was a “D” next to our account. He thought that indicated “Disconnected”, but he wasn’t sure. He had me proceed with his normal troubleshooting script, which has been dumbed down for the most computerphobic person’s language.

 

Unplug the modem and router. What operating system are you running? Find the “start button”. Did you find the start button yet? Click on it. Choose “Run” Type CMD.EXE….Start Internet Explorer. Click on Tools. Did you click on Tools yet?

 

I suppose they couldn’t know that they were talking to a computer professional with 33 years of computer experience<g>. I *know* how to run IPCONFIG, change IP properties or check IE Internet Connection settings.

 

In any case Dan failed to get anything working, but he did think it was a billing problem that couldn’t be solved til Monday. “Is there any thing else that I can help you with ? “ “no thanks”… “Thanks for calling us”

 

The next morning (Sat), our family was sorely feeling the loss of online access. My daughter wanted to go online, my wife needed to do some research and we missed email. So I called tech support again, even though I dreaded going through the several minute automated voice response answering system again. “Is this the first time you’ve reported this problem?”  I told it the truth: “No”.  It then responded some gobbledy gook about having a work ticket already in the queue and it hung up on me.  Yuk!  I had to dial and muddle through the system again: this time I lied and said “Yes. It’s the first time”... Have you ever lied to a machine? I felt terrible, but at least I was able to get to a live person after being on hold for a while. “Steve” then looked up our account. What’s your business name ? <sheesh>.. the same business/residential runaround. I mentioned that there was a “D” next to our account and that might indicate a disconnected account. He said that he didn’t think “D” meant disconnected: He thought it meant we had a west coast account. However, he did see that one of the fields in our database record was blank, where he would normally expect to see “DSL” or “Dialup” or something.  So that indicated to him that there might be something amiss in our account. He asked me to watch the modem lights: he would try to reset the line. Nothing happened. He wasn’t sure why. Then he guessed maybe nothing happened because the line had a static IP. Hello ???? He was working in the “Business division”. Doesn’t he work with static IPs a lot? Shouldn’t he know whether resetting the line would flash the lights? Could that be a problem indicator? If you can’t get any information from performing a test, why test?

 

He proceeded to give me the same general purpose troubleshooting script: “Unplug the …”  <sigh>. After going through the whole rigamarole again, we still had no success.  It “might” be an accounting problem that couldn’t be solved until Monday, but again, he couldn’t confirm it.. “Is there any thing else that I can help you with ? “ “It *really* seems important that the tech support people should be able to confirm that an account is active and not in arrears and not force people to wait several days until billing division opens”… “Thanks for calling us” (Good thing it wasn’t a holiday weekend.)

 

After that, I unplugged my network entirely, moved the DSL modem to the other room to another machine and DSL jack. This removed the router and wiring from the situation, but yet the problem persisted.

 

Sunday, I thought I‘d take the family to the zoo: at least they didn’t expect to be online there<g>. Later, I tried using dial-up connections. Wow, was it sllllllooooooooooowwwwwww!!! and unreliable. Sure make you appreciate faster connect speeds!

 

Late Sunday night, my sweet wife is feeling guilty about perhaps not paying the bill, and asked if she could help by taking the task of calling the billing department in the morning. I said sure (mischievous grin: one less time I’d have to experience that automated phone system) and gave her the phone number.  The next morning, my wife is exonerated because the billing department said everything was just fine. They said they had received a payment a few days ago in the mail. Then they said ‘oops’, it didn’t come in the mail. Then they weren’t sure. But the ‘D’ didn’t mean disconnected, but they weren’t sure what it meant. (It seems to me that the billing department should be able to more accurate. It also seems to me that the meaning of ‘D’ is not well known in the company.) Apparently our autopay (my spelling dictionary insists that “autopay” is spelled wrong: should it be “autopsy”?<g>) has been paying regularly: that’s why my wife didn’t remember paying a bill. They offered to credit my account for the down time: they put me on hold about 4 minutes, then said “We’ve credited you for $6.00”. Great. Then they refer me to tech support <groan>.  I hang up after being on hold quite a while, because morning family duties call.

 

I tried figuring out the problem again, with the added ammunition that the accounting was all ok and the line was supposed to be live, and thus the problem was my fault. I fiddle with the IP addresses, the DNS, WINS settings, switch computers, switch cables..

 

I give up and call tech support yet again. It must be a termite had eaten our cable or something. Another runaround through the automated voice system. I lie yet again “Yes: it’s the first time I’ve reported the problem”. I feel terrible: I try to teach my children to tell the truth.

 

I reach another tech support person “Fred” To help me diagnose the problem, Fred asked me to unplug the DSL modem, unplug the router, wait 30 seconds, check my IP addresses, etc.  He keeps asking me to hold so he could refer to a supervisor and ask for other things to try. Try IPCONFIG /release, /renew. I had already done so, but these didn’t do anything for static IPs. It was obvious that they were grasping for straws.

 

Fred then asked me to try another computer. I told him I already had, but he insisted that I do it anyway, so I started to get my Tablet PC (great invention!), but then he gave up and said he’d call and have a CO come to visit. To the uninitiated, I found out that CO means Central Office by asking him.

 

So Kevin came to visit with his own laptop (running a 4 year old OS: Windows 2000<g> ) and DSL modem. He was from the phone company and HE asked to borrow our phone! Apparently he was on hold a lot too. He wasn’t informed that we had a static IP, and thus didn’t know what the IP address was and thus wouldn’t have succeeded anyway. I told him our IP address and he tried configuring his machine’s IP settings, although he needed a little help. After a long time on hold and talking with the CO, he gave up. He gave the phone to me and I talked with somebody who said that sometime recently, a whole bunch of new hardware was installed. I asked him when ? (because our failure happened Thursday night or Friday morning)  and he said he didn’t know, but just “sometime recently.” It seems to me that the date of a large hardware change should be well known to technical support.

 

Kevin kept saying he was sorry that he couldn’t fix it, that he’s rarely walked away from a customer without solving the problem. Especially a “business” customer.  He left, still muttering apologies.

 

We received a phone message later that day saying  “we had router problems” and they should be all fixed. Sure enough, I plug in the DSL and everything’s working.<sigh>

 

In review, the amount of time I’d spent diagnosing the problem was probably a total of 4 hours. I probably used about an hour of phone tech support time and a site visit was about an hour. At the going rate of about $100/hour, that’s a total cost of roughly $600.00. (I can just see my 7 year old daughter’s eyes pop out of her head when she reads these rates<g>)

 

Much of the anguish and cost could have been avoided if:

  • Tech support can confirm or deny a disconnected account without having to wait until Monday
  • Tech support knows what the ‘D’ means without a Doubt <g>
  • Tech support is informed of the date/time of a major hardware change.

 

I sure hope that our customers don’t get such runarounds when they seek help (although I’m sure that some do<sigh>)