Friday, June 25, 2010

AT&T service

AT&T gets all kinds of grief for how badly it has handled the load imposed on its network by data-hungry smartphones like the Apple iPhone. It deserves that grief.

However, give it credit: AT&T does its best to discourage you from signing up for its service in the first place.

A while back, circumstances required that I sign up for AT&T wireless service. (UPDATE: actually, the provider was Cingular, then being absorbed by SBC. However, Cingular definitely had its roots in AT&T.) The company encouraged prospective customers to enroll on the Web for reasons that will become clear in a moment. The Web site walked me through a number of pages and took a while, largely because the servers took f-o-o-o-r-e-e-e-v-e-r to respond to input. In fact, my first attempt appeared to fail; my hazy recollection (this happened more than five years ago) is that the client-side software decided the transaction had timed out. I went through the tedious signup process again and appeared to succeed.

A week or so later, I got invoices for two new wireless accounts. Clearly, my first attempt hadn't failed as far as AT&T's servers were concerned. I'm sure there was an option to clear this up on the Web site, but I had had enough of those overloaded servers: it was time to talk to a human being on the phone.

Five solid minutes of phone-tree hell later, I understood why the company wanted would-be customers to use the Web. I had managed to avoid natural language-interpreting software until then; I mourn my loss of innocence. I speak unaccented American English and modestly claim that I do it well, yet every attempt to "speak" my needs (because, of course, there was no support for such a primitive mode of interaction as pressing one of the buttons on the phone) utterly baffled the software on the other end of the connection. Worse, every attempt to interpret my answers required two or three seconds of what I'm sure was intensive computation, and while a few seconds isn't long in general, in interactive terms it is an eternity.

Eventually I got to a dead end: the software was responding in a way that suggested it wasn't going to route my call properly on its own any time soon, and I couldn't imagine trying to walk back up the decision tree to a point where talking to an operator was a supported operation. I gave up and called in again, enduring another five minutes of disgracefully inefficient and gratingly cheerful promptings to speak my request. (Why the devil that software couldn't respond the way the marginally less annoying keypad-oriented software does -- meaning that the software is ready to acknowledge your response as soon as the prompt is being read -- is beyond me.) By the time I managed to convince that never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed software that I wanted to talk to flesh and blood, it felt like the seasons had changed -- multiple times.

Years went by, and the time came to order DSL for a new residence. Once again, the Web was my first stop. Once again, I found myself unimpressed by AT&T's servers. After several minutes of comparing available options, I made my selection -- except I didn't: I got back a "Systems Unavailable" error. I waited, tried again, and things appeared to succeed, except for a small problem in which I had to fill out a form twice. A little more time passed, then I got email informing me my order had not succeeded and I had to call customer service. It turned out that when the Web site noticed my error in filling out the form, it had saved all of the information I had typed in (a good thing), but had inexplicably reset a pull-down menu to its default (empty) value. In advising me of my own mistake, the server software introduced one of its own and thus dished my order. Wonderful.

During the customer-service call, I had occasion to walk through AT&T's Web site again to verify the company's service offerings. It turns out that if you make a mistake filling out the form asking for your address (a fallback if the search-by-phone-number doesn't find DSL is available), the server doesn't handle the error at all well. It prompts you for the same information again (in an apparently unformatted form and without having preserved the information you had already entered), but is unable to process the form: every submission simply results in the server presenting that form again. I had to restart at the top of the site.

Hey, Ma Bell (yeah, you've gotten big enough that the old moniker applies once more), listen up. Your so-called high-speed Internet offerings are only palatable because your only competition, my evil cable provider, offers exactly one expensive tier of service that is overkill for my needs. I'd like to save some money and you're the beneficiary of my parsimony. But if you can't get your act together so that contracting for service with you isn't a colossal waste of my time and an exercise in raising my blood pressure for no good reason, you can take your crummy offerings and choke on them.

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