We recently had a problem with the phone. We called France Telecom and the customer service drone checked the line. "There's a problem between you and the exchange," we were told. "We'll get on to it."
The next day, an engineer turned up at our house. We hadn't asked for him, but we figured it showed admirable diligence.
He was in a bad mood. He didn't like the way our dog was barking (although Zola was shut safely in the bathroom). "Il n'est pas méchant," I said, adding that Zola is all noise and no danger. "Everyone says that," grumbled the engineer.
He tutted and fretted as I had trouble retrieving the phone cable from behind my desk. He cursed when I explained that, actually, the line comes in via another room. I showed him where and left him to it, as I couldn't stand the waves of arrogant negativity he was giving off. I waited in the living room.
He arrived to say that there's no problem with the line, that it must be our equipment. (He was right, as it happened: it turned out to be a fried base station for our DECT phones.)
He left, muttering.
And that was that, I thought. Until we got our next bill.
Most of our phone calls are made either locally (and are included in the basic price) or via Skype. Our monthly bill is generally little more than the basic package price.
This time, there was a €69 additional charge. On closer inspection it turned out we'd been charged for an engineer's visit that had not succeeded because we were not at home.
Which, of course, is untrue.
I'd hazard a guess that our grumpy engineer - possibly an anglophobe (they exist) - had vented his anger by ticking the 'not in' box on his job sheet. Trish called France Telecom and told them in no uncertain terms that this wasn't true. They said that we'd have to pay but that the sum would be reimbursed on the next bill. (How nice for them that they get to enjoy our money for a month - money they took from us with no justification at all.) We haven't had the next bill yet. We'll be checking it carefully.
I'd like to give France Telecom the benefit of the doubt and assume this is a one-off. But no.
Some friends of ours, just down the road, have been having problems with their phone and broadband. I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say that another friend, Greg, and I went to their house to help. Greg was there to speak to France Telecom (his French is excellent). I was there to provide technical support and a mobile phone: France Telecom will call you back, but only on a French mobile and our friends still have a UK mobile account.
This was on Monday.
We tried all the things the customer service rep told us to try, without success. Finally, it ended with, "we'll send an engineer on Friday".
After we'd hung up, I thought about the problem some more. Unplugging a phone from an extension line cleared up the problem. Phone and broadband service were resumed. But we decided not to phone France Telecom immediately, to cancel the engineer, in case the fix turned out to be temporary.
But the line kept working and so Greg called France Telecom on Wednesday to cancel the appointment. All well and good.
Until Friday morning. I got a text on my mobile (which is the number we'd given to France Telecom) to say that the engineer had tried to call and couldn't gain access because no-one was in. Sound familiar?
I called my friends. They'd got a call from France Telecom at 8am to say something similar. Of course, they were there the whole time. No engineer had ever knocked on the door. They told the customer service zombie that they'd cancelled the appointment. "No you didn't," she said. An argument ensued.
And France Telecom's final response? "We'll have to charge you."
And so that's two occasions within a few weeks where France Telecom is charging for a call-out, claiming that the customers weren't at home. In one case, the engineer actually gained access to the house, but presumably ticked the 'not in' box because we hadn't requested the visit and that was the only way of charging us for it. In the other case, the engineer simply didn't turn up.
What's that if not a scam?
Well, how ironic.
Yep, just logged into Facebook to find there's a new news feed. One of the new items is Facebook pushing me things it thinks I will find interesting. And what's at the top of the list? Well, let's see...
You know, they might just be right.
Coming back from holiday to find your Internet connection isn't working is bad enough. To be without that connection for a whole month is like torture.
Today, an Altitude Infrastructure engineer finally arrived to fix the problem with our wimax-based service, provided by WiBox. We'd come to the conclusion that it was a hardware fault. It wasn't. It appears, as far as I can work out, that WiBox had changed our connection settings WITHOUT TELLING US!
We've had this service for years. Throughout that time we had a fixed IP and no login credentials were needed. Now, it seems, we need to connect using PPPoE, with a dynamic IP set by WiBox. Nobody had ever informed us of this change. Sheesh!
It's been a frustrating month. Just getting to the point where we could talk to a WiBox engineer involved getting the local council and certain well-connected people to kick some WiBox ass. It was while chatting to that engineer that I was given the PPPoE login details - but that was only for the purposes of running tests (which, strangely, failed. At that point I was unable to make a PPPoE connection).
We made do with an expensive substitute - a 3G+ connection via a mifi unit fitted with an SFR mobile broadband SIM. And while that was fast, and relatively good value as far as mobile broadband goes (no data cap at all for 4.50euros a day), it had its irritations. First, the connection would drop to 2G just when we needed it most. Recharging the account every other day was annoying (the deal is 9euros for 48hrs). But worst of all, we found that there is a limit on how much you can recharge the account in each calendar month. In effect, you can only get 18 days of connection per month. If we're ever in this situation again, we'll buy a second SFR dongle in Trish's name.
I did check out mobile broadband offerings by other suppliers, such as Orange and Bouyges, but they're all stupidly expensive. Ditto Orange's tethering deal for my iPhone.
So it's just as well that engineer turned up today.
It seems that WiBox contacted three local installers in an attempt to get someone to us. But they turned out to be unavailable or no longer qualified. So sibling firm Altitude Telecom sent someone instead (delayed by a day due to snow). He quickly pronounced the connection to be in perfect working order (and with an impressively strong signal, to boot). Yet my attempts to connect, either via our router or with the laptop connected directly to the IDU, failed.
Then the engineer admitted he was using a test account setting, via PPPoE. I remembered the PPPoE settings the other engineer had given me over the phone and tried them. Success.
So, it was working all along, it's just that no-one from WiBox had thought to tell us that we needed to change our settings. I feel a letter coming on...
The Orne département of Normandy is a beautiful place. We love the gentle pace of life. But it has ambitions to be more than an agricultural backwater. And among the business initiatives supported by the Conseil Général and other bodies is a push to make it a home for teleworkers (télétravailleurs).
It seems like the perfect place. The department’s low population density and distance from … well, pretty much anywhere, mean that property prices are fairly low. Here, you can have the space and tranquillity you need to work productively at home while enjoying a high quality of life and a beautiful environment.
There’s a problem, though. The Internet.
Like many rural areas in many countries, broadband coverage is patchy to say the least. Some time back, the French Government made a commitment to provide 100% broadband access across the country, but it soon became apparent that ADSL wasn’t going to be up to the task.
Enter wimax. This is a radio-based technology, not dissimilar to wi-fi. By dispensing with the need for cable connections, it provides broadband connections to anyone within line-of-sight of a transmitter.
Now for the bad news - the way it has been implemented. Technically, Wimax is capable of speeds of up to 40Mb/s. But WiBox (nee Altitude Telecom) - the firm that has an effective monopoly on wimax services in the Orne - offers just a measly 1Mb/s. Still, we took it. What else were we going to do? ADSL didn’t reach our house and there were no viable VSAT offerings available to us at the time. The WiBox service is expensive, at 39 euros a month (with no TV or VoIP telephony thrown in). But we signed up anyway.
We’re regretting that decision now.
We’ve just come back from holiday to find our Internet connection is down. That discovery was made on a Saturday. But there was no-one we could call until Monday morning. Since then, we’ve made call after call. Many times we’ve been promised that someone would call back. No-one ever has. Our calls are inevitably greeted with what I can only characterise as complete disinterest.
As of today, we’ve been without an Internet connection for 12 days, and still WiBox doesn’t seem the least bit interested in resolving the problem. When Trish rang today (for the eighth time) she was told that the problem had been escalated to the second-tier tech support. These are the people who we were told (four times) would call us back and never have. Trish asked if she could speak to them. “Non,” was the firm answer. Trish asked why not. “C’est comme ça,” was the smug response.
Trish called later, explaining once again that we need a technician to contact us. At this point - after we’ve been asking for this for nearly two weeks - we were told that we could indeed have a technician - providing we upgrade to a professional account! Apparently, ordinary customers aren’t worthy of support.
Earlier this year, Altitude Telecom changed its name to WiBox at the same time it was taken over by Luxinet. Since then, Normandy-based support staff have either not had their contracts renewed or have been moved up to level 2 support. The hotline support is managed by Luxinet’s Lyon-based staff who clearly don’t give a stuff about customers in Normandy.
I’m no novice with this technology. I’m a technology journalist and edit two technical journals relating to computer security. I know my way around a network. I can tell that this is no "switch it off and back on again" problem.
This service disruption has been a nightmare. We’ve had to turn away business. We’ve had to pay for (expensive) alternative and highly inconvenient methods of connecting to the Internet (some of which you can read about here). We’ve been able to do some work, thanks to mobile broadband, but the 3G coverage is also patchy and unreliable. Today, we’ve had an Internet connection, via the mi-fi, for maybe a third of the time. It’s badly affecting our ability to work.
Yet WiBox’s response is a gallic shrug and an apparent total disregard for paying customers.
We are looking at alternatives. Orange now provides a reasonably priced VSAT service, but so far I’ve been unable to get any information on uplink speeds or if there are data caps (we send and receive a lot of data). My hopes aren’t high.
If the Orne really is to become a great environment for teleworkers, it needs better support from its telecoms infrastructure. A wimax service with speeds better than a pathetic 1Mb/s would be a start. And a wimax service provider that actually cares about and supports its customers would be a good idea, too. Better 3G+ coverage would also help, as would ADSL connections pushed further out into the countryside.
The Internet is the central nervous system of business. Without better connections, teleworking in the Orne is always going to be a trial and the department will never be more than a business backwater.
UPDATE (02/12/2010): Having rechecked WiBox's website, they now seem to claim that the service is 'up to' 2Mb/s. But our connection never achieved anything more than 900Kb/s - when it was working. The company offers an alleged 4Mb/s service - for an extra 20 euros a month. A somewhat limited VoIP service costs yet more.
UPDATE (18/12/2010): Nearly a full month now and still no connection. Just under two weeks ago, we finally got some help. A guy who runs a teleworking group in the Orne and a member of the Conseil General (county council) both contacted WiBox on our behalf and kicked ass. (I won't name them in case they don't want to be named, but we're very grateful for their assistance.) That afternoon we finally got the call from an engineer that we'd been asking for and had been promised several times before. Having run through some tests, he concluded what I'd been saying all along - that it was a hardware fault. He raised a new ticket and said an 'installer' would call. (It seems WiBox doesn't have its own engineers.) After more chasing, the installer finally called 10 days later. He's promised to come on Monday - which will be the one-month anniversary of the service going down. We'll see...
We've spent much of the past week in the dark ages. Thanks to crappy support from our ISP, we've been thrown back into the terrifying isolation of pre-Internet days.
Or not quite, thanks to a fabulous little gizmo - the mi-fi.
For those not familiar with the concept, a mi-fi is a small, battery-powered device into which you slot a SIM card for a mobile broadband service. In France, such SIM cards are normally sold by the likes of Orange & SFR as USB dongles. The problem with a dongle, though, is that it gives Internet access to only one device. The mi-fi acts as a wi-fi hotspot and allows up to five devices to connect simultaneously.
I bought an unlocked 3 device from eBay (the Huawei E585 which you can also get from Amazon) and used it with a Vodaphone Pay As You Go (PAYG) SIM while in London - mainly with my iPhone. I'd only just got the phone and Orange hadn't yet enabled roaming. Fortunately, with the mi-fi, I could use Skype.
We also used the mi-fi while on a week's holiday in Brittany. This time I used the SIM from an SFR PAYG mobile broadband dongle. I bought 500Mb worth of bandwidth which lasted most of the week. SFR also offers 48hrs of uncapped access for 9 euros - something we've been greatful for the past few days, as we'll see. The mi-fi allowed us to use both laptops and the iPhone at the same time.
We returned from the holiday on Saturday afternoon to find that our Internet connection at home - a 1Mb/s wimax service provided by WiBox - was down. We couldn't do anything about that until Monday: being a French company, WiBox's customer support keeps office hours (I feel another blog coming on about this).
In spite of repeated calls, here we are, a week later, and still no wimax connection. So we've been reliant on the mi-fi - and that's where the fun & games started.
Searching for the sweet spot
I tried every spot I could think of in the house to get a connection. Most places the mi-fi reported 'no network'. Sometimes it said 'SMS only'. Occasionally it would report a 2G connection though only with a single signal bar. Hopeless.
So we got in the car and toured the local countryside. We tried our nearest town. Not a sniff of a 3G connection. (The iPhone, on the other hand, using Orange, reported good 3G connections everywhere. But Orange's tethering service is horribly expensive.) In the end, we wound up in a bar in Mayenne, 30km away from home, where we got a reliable & fast 3G+ (HSPA) connection. We worked for a couple of hours, typing furiously to catch up with our work. The locals looked bemused. Two people working on laptops in a cafe wouldn't raise eyebrows in London or Paris. But out here in the boonies you could see the looks of puzzlement: some people were wondering how we were getting Internet access; others were confused by our mysterious tapping on magic boxes.
Our next attempt involved going to another local town. In spite of rising high above the surrounding countryside, Domfront turned out to have lousy 3G signals - with SFR, anyway. We spent some time in the local computer shop, which offers Internet connections (via Ethernet) rented by the hour.
Desperate for a connection closer to home, we tried touring again - and found the perfect spot. It was at the junction of two country lanes running through crop fields miles from any town. At the junction is a calvary. These crucifix memorials are a common sight in rural France. I've seen hundreds of them but had no idea that they operate across the cellphone network. Clearly, god needs decent bandwidth.
Parked near the calvary we could get a superb 3G+ signal. It must have presented a strange sight - the two of us, at night, sitting in the car with the hazards flashing and our faces lit by the glow of the laptop screens. Several people passed by (mostly farmers driving tractors) but nobody stopped to ask us what we were doing.
Then, this morning, a miracle happened. Daunted by the prospect of having to get dressed just to drive up to our local hotspot for a bit of browsing, I checked around the house again. And in one corner of the bedroom, in the air above my tallboy, I found the sweetspot - a 3G+ connection. Some parcel tape, a leather thong and a drawing pin soon had the mi-fi set up. And it's been working reliably since.
Now a word about pricing for mobile broadband. The SFR tariff of 9 euros for unlimited access for 48hrs is starting to look very cheap. On its French website, Orange makes it virtually impossible to find out how much it charges for top-ups for PAYG mobile broadband. But it seems that just 12hrs connection might cost 25 euros. That's around 10 times what SFR charges.
I also have an, as-yet unused, T-Mobile SIM sourced for me by my good friend and mobile guru Steve G. It's a UK SIM but I figured I'd check their data roaming prices anyway in case they were competitive. In fact, in T-Mobile's literature the company is very excited at just what a good deal it offers - at £1.50 per megabyte! (It'll be handy for my next trip to the UK where T-Mobile's offering is very reasonable.)
While researching deals, I've found that all the mobile service providers drastically underestimate how much data you might consume. In one session up at the calvary, we used 80MB of data - no filesharing, video or image transfer involved. Admittedly, that included emailing a 1.2MB PDF, but even so...
This morning, I'm testing whether SFR really does mean 'unlimited' data. While checking emails, sending a few files, writing this blog and surfing the web, I'm also downloading some podcasts into iTunes and the iOS4.2 update for my iPhone. So far we're up to 800MB of data transferred. That would have cost £1,200 with T-Mobile!
Oh, and by the way, for the hackers - yes, we did try wardriving. Seems that everyone is sensible around here about securing their wi-fi hubs. Good for them.
It's sad to see the blossom fall, but it's a beautiful effect
Trish's new book tells you how to create delicious and nutritious meals on the most meagre budget
This weather at least provides us with a clue as to what the local wildlife is up to
Wishing you a happy holiday season from all at Montcocher
Our smallest cat has found a new place to snooze
My father did it to get into the Army and fight in World War Two.
There is so much we take with us when we go.
What would happen if those devious clients tried their tricks in the real world.
Minerva couldn't eat the whole rabbit, so she left us the legs
This has to be the most unlikely looking Jane Eyre ever conceived. What was the BBC thinking?