TalkTalk, customer service and how to suck at the internet

So this is going to be one of those typical "I have a blog, and so I'm going to complain about things" post right? Well yes, but I'm not normally one to write something like this, however I'm extremely fed up of dealing with it.

TalkTalk provides my parent's internet connection, and to be quite frank they're shockingly bad at it. The connection is often glacially slow (they were unable to use iPlayer until a couple of months ago because TalkTalk had some cap that they'd forgotten about, but thats another story) and once every couple of months the connection will simply die. My parent's home is in a fairly rural area, so I'm not expecting a lighting fast connection, however I do expect at least 100% uptime - it's not the middle of nowhere. Now of course, there'd be no problem if TalkTalk were able to fix this quickly and efficiently but - this is a telecomms company - they can't.

Here's what happened just the other day (and I had a mini Twitter rant about it): The connection is down for an hour or so, so my Dad rings up TalkTalk to get it sorted. He's put on hold for about 30 minutes while they "run some tests". No idea why they can't note down his number, run the tests and call him back - actually that's not true, I do know, TalkTalk is charging something like 30p a minute. Anyway, once he gets put back onto an actual person he's told that there's no problem with the connection at all. We've had no internet connection for about 2 hours by this point - it's definitely NOT WORKING! The call centre then has the cheek to ask for £120 to call out a BT engineer (who they're blaming for the problem) - £120 for a problem with their service, that we're paying for! TalkTalk seem to think that by constantly blaming BT for the problem, they can get away with it. And of course, if you ring BT they'll simply blame TalkTalk...

Anyway, my Dad gives up at this point and phones back later. TalkTalk has no record about the previous phone call... He goes through the whole "running tests" thing for the second time, and is again told that he has to pay for a BT callout (though it costs less this time weirdly). Okay, fine, we'll get a BT engineer out. When can he come? "Oh not until Tuesday" TUESDAY?!? THAT'S 4 DAYS AWAY!

Luckily for my parents the problem fixed itself on Sunday, so my Dad wasn't left high and dry (he runs his business from home). I'm simply amazed that TalkTalk treated us so badly - the total denial that there was any problem, the cheek of charging £120 for a problem with their service, the complete lack of records (they were asking about our router - a router which was provided by TalkTalk only a few months ago), not being able to send an engineer for 4 days. It's quite incredible that they can get away with this, so that's why I decided to call them on it in this blog.

I emailed my Dad about this post and he came up with a few questions for TalkTalk:

  • When phoning to register a fault, why is it necessary to be held on the line for at least 30 minutes each time while they go on and off line for several minutes at a time, "running tests". i.e. why can't they just note down the fault, allow me to hang up and then call back when they have something to say. If an engineer is required then that can be arranged then.
  • Why does it take 4 days to get an engineer to call from first reporting the fault?
  • Do they not have a policy of refunds & compensation while services are discontinued? Their call centres don't seem to know and suggest calling a different number.
  • Their call centre operatives don't seem to care or believe it's TalkTalk's responsibility when a fault occurs. They seem more concerned at getting my agreement to pay BT's engineers call out fee should the fault be caused within the house than accepting that the problem is at their end. My contract is with TalkTalk, not BT, so why do they give the impression that it's not TalkTalk's problem.
  • Why don't they keep a database of previous calls and a record of caller's equipment etc - every time you need to go through a whole series of questions giving the same answer every time. For instance, what router am I using? Well if they looked at their records they would see that it's the one they supplied a few months ago, the last time I had problems with the broadband.

For the record, my parents are probably now going to switch to BT. Good job TalkTalk...

UPDATE (20/09/2011): My dad emailed me an update which I've posted below

"TalkTalk engineer turned up this morning (interestingly he quoted £50 if they found a fault in our house). As I knew all along, there wasn't as we have renewed all the telephone wiring, sockets and router already only for BT to point out that the fault all along was at TalkTalk's end due to the speed being throttled on some computer somewhere.

So having established that there is no fault at our end, the TalkTalk engineer has escalated the fault to a higher level (admitting that the BT engineer should have been called out in the first place!)

This is all despite the broadband coming back on on Sunday!"

The Internet in 1993

I am a huge fan of Huffduffer - a service that lets you capture audio and download it as a podcast - and I follow the feed on Twitter, mainly because it allows me to see if there's some interesting bits of audio being huffduffed. The other day, I found this great podcast through this method.

The Science Friday radio show did a podcast looking back at an episode from 1993, the first ever radio broadcast to be also put out on the internet. It's like a time capsule with amazing insights into how the early internet was viewed by the general public. It's from a time before the web really took off, when the entire internet community was vastly smaller. It's absolutely fascinating.

The topics brought up: internet communities (and how they could increase social interaction), international collaboration, connection issues, global warming, information overload (and how it's not actually that bad), democratisation of information, government 2.0, social gaming, verification issues, cutting out the middleman (i.e. the music and film industries), social curation, copyright infringement, syndication (to some extent), data filtration, and loads more. All of these are still issues today, and it's amazing to see how little it's actually changed. I think it gives hope that the internet has not negatively affected our lives, as some would have you believe.

The presenter talks with obvious ignorance of how you "work the internet", describes how to get information on the internet and speaks about "electronic mail".

Absolutely fascinating bit of audio, that (for me) shows the importance of the internet.

How To Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Internet

I've just reread this (thanks to a link from @kevinmarks), and I've probably tweeted this before but I just had to post this. Douglas Adams hits so many nails on the head

the reason we suddenly need such a word [interactivity] is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment [...] We didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head."

I've just spend half an hour writing up lecture notes for a class called Social Aspects of Computing, debating whether or not we live in an Information Society - it looks like some people need to catch up with reality. This was written 11 years ago!


(via michael_hughes)

This piece first appeared in the News Review section of The Sunday Times on August 29th 1999.

A couple of years or so ago I was a guest on Start The Week, and I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve. It is a very British trait – natural, perhaps, for a country which has lost an empire and found Mr Blobby - to be so suspicious of change.

But the change is real. I don't think anybody would argue now that the Internet isn't becoming a major factor in our lives. However, it's very new to us. Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people "over the Internet". They don't bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans "over a cup of tea," though each of these was new and controversial in their day.

Then there's the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I'm looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes "www DOT ... bbc DOT ... co DOT ... uk SLASH ... today SLASH ..." etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

This subjective view plays odd tricks on us, of course. For instance, "interactivity" is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport - the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show "normal" mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. "Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn't do anything? Didn't everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?"

"Yes, child, that's why they all went mad. Before the Restoration."

"What was the Restoration again, please, miss?"

"The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back."

Because the Internet is so new we still don't really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that's what we're used to. So people complain that there's a lot of rubbish online, or that it's dominated by Americans, or that you can't necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can't "trust" what people tell you on the web anymore than you can "trust" what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can't easily answer back - like newspapers, television or granite. Hence "carved in stone". What should concern us is not that we can't take what we read on the internet on trust - of course you can't, it's just people talking - but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV - a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no "them" out there. It's just an awful lot of "us".

Of course, there's a great deal wrong with the Internet. For one thing, only a minute proportion of the world's population is so far connected. I recently heard some pundit on the radio arguing that the internet would always be just another unbridgeable gulf between the rich and the poor for the following reasons - that computers would always be expensive in themselves, that you had to buy lots of extras like modems, and you had to keep upgrading your software. The list sounds impressive but doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. The cost of powerful computers, which used to be around the level of jet aircraft, is now down amongst the colour television sets and still dropping like a stone. Modems these days are mostly built-in, and standalone models have become such cheap commodities that companies, like Hayes, whose sole business was manufacturing them are beginning to go bust.. Internet software from Microsoft or Netscape is famously free. Phone charges in the UK are still high but dropping. In the US local calls are free. In other words the cost of connection is rapidly approaching zero, and for a very simple reason: the value of the web increases with every single additional person who joins it. It's in everybody's interest for costs to keep dropping closer and closer to nothing until every last person on the planet is connected.

Another problem with the net is that it's still "technology", and "technology", as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is "stuff that doesn't work yet". We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn't worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often "crash" when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I'm sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for "productivity".

But the biggest problem is that we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don't really get it. In "The Language Instinct", Stephen Pinker explains the generational difference between pidgin and creole languages. A pidgin language is what you get when you put together a bunch of people - typically slaves - who have already grown up with their own language but don't know each others'. They manage to cobble together a rough and ready lingo made up of bits of each. It lets them get on with things, but has almost no grammatical structure at all.

However, the first generation of children born to the community takes these fractured lumps of language and transforms them into something new, with a rich and organic grammar and vocabulary, which is what we call a Creole. Grammar is just a natural function of children's brains, and they apply it to whatever they find.

The same thing is happening in communication technology. Most of us are stumbling along in a kind of pidgin version of it, squinting myopically at things the size of fridges on our desks, not quite understanding where email goes, and cursing at the beeps of mobile phones. Our children, however, are doing something completely different. Risto Linturi, research fellow of the Helsinki Telephone Corporation, quoted in Wired magazine, describes the extraordinary behaviour kids in the streets of Helsinki, all carrying cellphones with messaging capabilities. They are not exchanging important business information, they're just chattering, staying in touch. "We are herd animals," he says. "These kids are connected to their herd - they always know where it's moving." Pervasive wireless communication, he believes will "bring us back to behaviour patterns that were natural to us and destroy behaviour patterns that were brought about by the limitations of technology."

We are natural villagers. For most of mankind's history we have lived in very small communities in which we knew everybody and everybody knew us. But gradually there grew to be far too many of us, and our communities became too large and disparate for us to be able to feel a part of them, and our technologies were unequal to the task of drawing us together. But that is changing.

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn't even know to have names for them.


How can the internet help Haiti

Taken from this post on Inveneo's plan to connect Port-au-Prince

First of all Wired Magazine started the Haiti Rewired community to collate on and discuss issues in Haiti, not only on connectivity but also on crowdsourcing translation projects, earthquake proof construction plans and emergency toilets ideas. Their mission statement has five simple principles aiming to not only provide relief in the short term, but to provide information to help Haiti pull itself out of poverty in the much longer term. I definitely urge you to check them out.

Part of Haiti Rewired's mission statement is to help the crisis using the power of the internet. To do this, I believe that Haiti needs some connectivity infrastructure. Internet connectivity across the island would enable aid workers to communicate with each other and with a central organising body. They could use smartphones or computers to flag locations that require assistance to a central database, so that a relevant organisation could provide it. For example if a road or other tranport link was blocked and flagged by an aid worker. This would then be wirelessly transmitted to a database so that all aid workers could see it. The road blockage could be seen by, say, the US Marines so that they could clear it. Areas, even streets or houses, that require food or water could be flagged so that Oxfam or the Red Cross would provide it. Hospitals could flag to show which drugs are needed, or whether more doctors are needed.

Secondly I heard about the Ushahidi project through the BBC podcast Digital Planet. Ushahidi is a crisis mapping project that grew out of the Kenyan election violence in 2008, allowing people on the ground to report incidents through the web and SMS. This has been extended for Haiti, allowing food and water shortages; incidents of violence or looting (though I hate that word for desperate people) and infrastructure problems to be mapped. This precisely the service I describe above, so good work internets.

The other day Google posted on its Google Voice blog that all calls to Haiti would be free. Now this is evidently a good thing - allowing relatives to get in contact with those in Haiti. But with connectivity across Haiti, relatives could contact each within the country - something that is often forgotten, but is desperately wanted by disaster victims.

So as you can see internet connectivity is a really good idea for the long term and short term in Haiti. Read more on "What use is WiFi in Haiti?", from Haiti Rewired.