I just has the distinct displeasure of trying, unsuccessfully, to help a friend obtain AT&T DSL service at his home. Right now he has phone service from a competitive phone company, but what he wants to do is get the least expensive DSL service that AT&T offers (the variety they have been advertising on TV, that does not require the customer to have their dial tone), then use VoIP for his phone service — but he doesn’t want to disconnect his current voice service until everything else is up and working. Apparently, he might as well be wanting a flying car or a time machine. Even putting aside the issue of the competitive phone service, the first thing that needs to be done is to get the DSL installed, and if ever a company acts like they don’t want your business, it’s AT&T.
On his first attempt, he picked an AT&T number out of the phone book and called that. That attempt apparently came to a screeching halt when AT&T told him they could not install DSL as long as he had phone service from the competitive phone company. Actually, there’s no TECHNICAL reason that you can’t provide DSL from one company and voice from another on the same pair, but for whatever reason it’s apparently just not done. I wasn’t listening in on that call so I don’t know all the details, but after that we did a three-way call to see if we’d have any better luck (and honestly, I wanted to hear if it was as bad as he’d described it).
The first thing we did was to call the number that is advertised on the AT&T commercials for $19.95 DSL. That, apparently, is your ticket into the seven circles of telephone hell. If I’d been playing a drinking game, taking a drink every time we heard the phrase “your call is important to us”, I would not be drunk – I’d likely be quite dead. We heard it from female voices, male voices, and disembodied voices that sounded like they were continents away. I’d guess we were transferred at least half a dozen times, sometimes by voice response systems that didn’t even wait for a response and just seemed to randomly transfer the call. The last time we were transferred, it was by some guy with a distinct accent — it sort of sounded Indian, but by that time the quality of the connection was so poor it was hard to tell — who told us that if we got cut off, we could call the AT&T DSL department directly on 877-722-9337 (my friend repeated the number back TWICE to make sure he’d heard it right, and I copied it down also). That number may have belonged to AT&T at one time, but now it apparently belongs to an “enhanced” directory service (that has a web site at http://www.callingten.com/). When their recording first answers, it almost sounds like you are being charged $4.95 (or some amount, it was hard to hear) for the call (I think you actually have to call a different number for that to happen, but it wasn’t really all that clear).
Anyway, when we got cut off after talking to the guy with the accent, and then getting the recording at the directory service, I finally went prowling around AT&T’s web site and found another number for Internet service – 1-800-288-2020 – and again we had to go through a voice response system and several minutes of wait. Finally we reached someone who actually tried to be helpful, but it took her several minutes to find my friend’s address in their system (he lives in an apartment complex, but still, they do offer service there, so it shouldn’t have been a major undertaking to find the address). Then she asked a bunch of questions about his phone, Internet, and television usage (I would have probably politely declined to answer, but he went along), and from that she deduced that he should order a triple play package that, if I recall correctly, would have cost over $70 a month. When he said he was just interested in the basic low-speed DSL, she then (after some more time passed) said that they could not put the DSL on the same pair as the existing phone service (well, she didn’t exactly say it that way, but that’s what we figured out that she meant, after some conversation). At least she didn’t say he couldn’t get it at all.
But the real deal killer was that apparently she wasn’t at all aware of a promotion my friend had seen online. According to him, the deal was that if you made a one-year service commitment, you got a free DSL modem and $100 back (I’m a bit skeptical about the $100 for that class of service, but I could see the free DSL modem as a possibility, given that AT&T probably buys them in bulk). However, this representative basically said he’d have to commit to service for a year or pay an early termination penalty if he dropped the service before the year was up, and she couldn’t give him anything free or in any way sweeten the offer — he’d still have to pay about $50 for a DSL modem, plus a shipping charge! It sounded as though she had no idea what deals might be offered on the web site. My friend wasn’t willing to set himself up for a possible termination charge, if for some reason he had to discontinue service (and I’m betting he wouldn’t — he’s the kind of guy that doesn’t like change much, so once they had him as a customer they’d likely have him for years — but in an apartment situation you just never know. If there is a fire or a pipe breaks or something, he could be forced to move out with very little notice). After having been on the phone for over three hours, and being told that “your call is important to us” when clearly it was NOT, his sense of humor had long since evaporated and to basically be told, “this is the deal, take it or leave it” was just a bit too much to take under the circumstances.
I don’t know if my friend will ever get DSL service now or not. He was somewhat enthused about it before this morning, but that certainly wasn’t his attitude by the time he was going into the fourth hour of phone hell. I am SO glad I don’t personally live in an area where AT&T and Comcast are the only viable choices available (my friend lives in Gaines Township which is near Wyoming, Michigan, in the Grand Rapids metro area, but not close enough to downtown to be within range of any inexpensive wireless services, as far as we know).
Why does AT&T bother to advertise the service if they don’t want people to get it? Is it just bait-and-switch – you can call in for the $19.95 offer but if they can’t upsell you to something more expensive then they don’t care if you take their service or not? I might be inclined to actually believe that, but then I realize that most of the “phone hell” occurred before they had even determined why my friend was calling.
I have three takeaways from this: First, if Comcast would just offer an entry-level DSL service for people who are, shall we say, not wealthy, they could clean AT&T’s clock. I know a lot of people don’t like Comcast and there is probably good reason for that, but I have a feeling that if my friend had been willing to pay their rate, he wouldn’t have been on the phone with them for more than ten or fifteen minutes tops. He certainly would not have been transferred all over creation because a particular rep didn’t handle Michigan, or DSL, or whatever the excuse was. Now, I have no way to know what his actual installation experience might have been, but at least trying to sign up for the service probably wouldn’t have seemed something akin to a root canal. Comcast really shoots themselves in the foot by doing that “introductory rate” nonsense — by now everyone is on to that (ironically, in part due to AT&T commercials) so what they really need is a low rate option with limited connection speed, for people who don’t do much more than check e-mail and go to a few web pages.
Second, after all this time, AT&T still acts like they are the only game in town, and that they really don’t need to give a damn whether ordering a service is a pleasant, or at least non-painful experience. In my opinion, any time a customer hears a recording saying “your call is important to us”, that’s a massive fail on the part of a company. If you really thought the call was important, you’d answer it, and to tell us the call is important to you when it clearly isn’t is a massive insult. And you wouldn’t put numbers in your television ads that go to people who have no ability to help the customer with ordering service, and who must transfer them several times before finally losing the call completely (actually terminating with a bust of hold music played at about four times normal volume, just before the call dropped entirely). And speaking of which, I thought AT&T was originally a phone company – so why is their own phone service so dreadful?
Third, the phone companies still do everything they can to inhibit competition. As I said earlier, there’s no TECHNICAL reason you can’t have voice service from one company and DSL from another on the same pair (and the plan was to drop the existing voice service anyway, but only after the DSL was working). But apparently AT&T can’t make that happen, for whatever reason. My friend doesn’t know how many usable pairs are run into each apartment (in particular, whether there’s more than one) and due to family circumstances it would be pretty difficult for me to go over there and trace out the wiring for him right now – it’s just a bit too far away, and I can’t be away that long right now.
I know from reading sites like The Consumerist that dealing with companies like AT&T is getting to be a really horrible experience, but until I listened in on my friend’s attempts to get DSL service this afternoon, I had no idea it was that bad. Now I understand why the iPhone users are so upset that Apple forged an exclusive deal with AT&T in the U.S. – based on what I heard this afternoon, the “AT&T experience” is almost the exact opposite of what Apple users have come to expect from Apple. Does AT&T have a death wish, or are they really just that incompetent?