Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/10/20/gimme_that_old_time_monopoly/

Venturing online in Ireland

A personal journey

By Thomas C Greene

Posted in Data Networking, 20th October 2006 11:30 GMT

Comment I'm flattered by the number of Reg readers who have spotted the change in my byline and taken the time to ask if I've moved permanently. And for the record, yes; I and my lovely wife and dear little boy have emigrated from the USA. And yes, we're very much pleased to be here.

Naturally, for someone in my line of work, a reliable internet connection is a necessity, so that was one of the first items of business I set about dealing with upon landing. It turns out that the apartment we're leasing belongs to a cluster of new buildings that were recently wired by Smart Telecom.

Hints

I knew nothing of Smart at the time, but I did think its name, at least, had a decidedly Celtic Tiger-ish tone. So the day after moving in, I rang them on my mobile to arrange a landline phone and a broadband connection. But the call could not be completed. I tried numerous times throughout the day, but there was no ring tone, no busy tone, just static.

"Forget these losers," I thought. "What sort of telecom company can't even manage to accept a call?" So I rang Eircom, the old state monopoly. They had no trouble answering, but they did regret to inform me that, as the flats I lived in had been pre-wired by Smart, they would need €112 to connect me, and this could take four to six weeks due to complications which I rather suspected involved little more than having someone fiddle with a relay.

The charge wasn't terribly high, but I certainly couldn't wait four to six weeks to get online. So the next day I rang Smart again. After several tries, I finally got into its automated, pre-recorded menu system. But when I got through to an actual person in the sales department, I was told to leave my number. Someone would be in touch soon.

That was odd; normally, when one indicates a willingness to buy something, one is set upon and pressured and lied to and promised the moon. So I rang back, and went through the whole business with a different sales person, and sure enough, all they wanted was my number. I would be contacted, soon, by someone.

"A hell of a way to run a business," I thought.

Clarity

On the following day, Smart Telecom went tits up. Over 40,000 landline customers had suddenly been switched off due to unpaid debts to Eircom, and the company was essentially on life support.

But I was still faced with the challenge of getting online as quickly as possible. Eircom was too slow, and Smart too risky. A friend suggested Irish Broadband, a company that provides wireless access, as a temporary fix.

And that's when the difficulty started.

A call to Irish Broadband's automated, pre-recorded menu system is an experience. One is jolted to attention by the voice of what sounds like a girls' school headmistress with a gun to her head, relaying the combination to the safe. There are mercifully few menu options, and I reached sales quickly, and very much awake.

This was Wednesday, 4 October. I was told that they needed me to be at home because they had to deliver the wireless modem and I would have to sign a receipt. It would arrive within five business days. "That's inconvenient," I said. "Can't I come and collect it, or can't you just mail it to me?"

"No," they said. "We have to deliver it and you have to sign for it. But don't worry; we only say 'five business days' as a maximum. You'll have it tomorrow, or Friday the latest."

That sounded all right. I tried to arrange my days so I could get home quickly in case they rang about the delivery. But I needn't have bothered. On Monday 9 October, a woman rang and said the modem would be delivered the following day, or just shy of the "maximum" which I'd been assured never really applied. "Can you tell me approximately what time?" I inquired.

"Between 9am and 5pm," she said tonelessly.

Long days

On Tuesday, I stayed home. At about half past four, I rang to see what had become of the modem. Oddly, I was transferred to tech support. "Hello and welcome to Irish Broadband," a heavily-accented voice said. "Would you please spell your first name?"

Now, don't take me wrong. I've always wanted to visit India. I think it's likely to be an interesting place full of lovely people. But I didn't think it likely that someone halfway around the world would be in a position to sort out my shipping difficulty. The fellow who dealt with me said he would ring the shipping outfit. He put me on hold for a couple of minutes, then came back and said the driver was still out, and that I could expect him by 5pm.

I'm not prepared to say that he pretended to make the call. I will say that I'm in no way convinced that he did. But I continued waiting, and of course, no driver appeared.

On Wednesday morning, I rang again. I was told that since the driver had not completed the delivery - "an extremely unusual event" - the modem would not be on the truck that day. It would "have to be re-sorted and re-scheduled", which sounded like a load of bollocks to me. But it would absolutely arrive first thing in the morning on Thursday. The person dealing with me even gave me the direct number of the dispatcher to prove his sincerity (and to get me off his back). So on Thursday morning I rang the dispatch office directly to confirm that the modem was actually on the truck and scheduled to be delivered.

"Yes, it is on the truck for delivery today," I was told.

So I stayed home all day, again. At about 4pm, I rang the office. "It's on the truck for delivery today," they insisted. "The driver will be on his rounds until 6pm. He'll ring you very soon."

I know that was a lie, because I later discovered that the dispatch office closes at 5.30pm. I was told 6pm so they would be gone by the time I rang again, in a rage.

Remember, I'd been told that I'd almost certainly receive it on Friday, 6 October. On the morning of Friday the 13th, I rang again. But this time I didn't get the standard response. The dispatcher rang the driver and reported his whereabouts to me in specific language of the sort that I'd never heard from Irish Broadband before. She estimated that he'd be in my neighbourhood in about three hours' time, and indeed he was. You see, that was the first day the modem actually was on the truck.

The customer is always right

Apparently, Irish Broadband has a policy of telling customers what it thinks they wish to hear. Only they're very poor at guessing what that might be. A sane person wants to hear, "sorry, we can't make it today". But they prefer to string you along so that you waste entire days for no reason, and come to despise them deeply.

Now, if you think it's a coincidence that the modem arrived on Friday the 13th, guess again. It was an omen.

I've got a spare bedroom that I'm using as an office. It faces south. I brought the modem in there and placed it on the window sill, and nothing. So I opened the window. Nothing. Finally, I lowered it from the window to the balcony deck, and nothing.

So I brought it to the opposite side of the apartment, and nothing. Eventually, I discovered that it would get a signal only on the north balcony. Naturally, I don't have a cable long enough to reach from there to the office, so I had to buy a wireless NAT router. I hated paying for it; I've already got several, but they're in a shipping container somewhere in Dublin, due to be put "on the truck for delivery" some day in the not too distant future, along with the rest of my worldly possessions, and I needed this thing to work as quickly as possible.

So, finally, I'm online again. The modem has got to stay out of doors. I cover it with a plastic bag when it rains. The service, while optimistically called "broadband" seems as slow as I recall dialup having been, and it goes dead frequently for hours at a time. I also get disconnected briefly every hour or so.

The router, made by Belkin, doesn't have a very strong signal. It drops out if I close the office door. Having a 15-month-old boy, who is magnetically attracted to shiny things and buttons and flashing lights, I'd find it a lot easier to work with the door closed. I'd find it a lot easier to work if my internet connection stayed up for longer than an hour at a time as well.

Capitulation

Irish Broadband's service is intolerable, so it's back to Smart Telecom for me. It's made a deal with one of its investors, Brendan Murtagh, who has already sunk more money in the company than he can afford to lose, so he's going to sink in more until the business turns around, or implodes taking him with it.

I'm not optimistic about Smart. It had wished to sell its landline and pay-phone service as a separate outfit but, after Eircom suddenly pulled the plug on so many customers, that venture is looking less attractive, and will no doubt sell for less money than Smart had hoped. Which Eircom no doubt intended. Lately, a creditors' "action group" has formed, dedicated to ensuring that every cent of Smart's liabilities shall be paid. You can guess who's behind that.

So I'll see how Smart works out. Perhaps it will remain afloat long enough for me to get onto Eircom without an interruption in service. I think of it as a temporary bridge between Irish Broadband and my inevitable embrace of Eircom - because, when it comes to old state monopolies, we all know that resistance, ultimately, is futile. ®