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October 2, 2000: i'm so nice on the phone


My telephone line has been down since Friday. I'm not sure when it went down; it was down when I checked it on Friday at 4pm, but I hadn't tried it earlier.

Currently the phone company is "expediting" the problem and will hopefully have it fixed in time for me to post this on the day I've dated it.

One of my roommates has a private line which I've been using to talk to the phone company, but for a while, it was down too.

So the subject for the day is incompetence, and various things that come in pairs.

A Tale of Two Phone Companies

Back when we moved into this apartment three or four years ago, we signed up for phone service from the new upstart local phone service, RCN. (Geek humor: I tend to refer to them as RSN instead.)

Since they were new and hadn't strung lines everywhere, they apparently leased our phone line from Bell Atlantic and delivered us our phone service over Bell Atlantic's line.

Anyone familiar with computer risks may recognize a bit of a problem here--there's twice as many phone companies who can screw up our line, compared to normal.

We had originally ordered cable as well, but they hadn't gotten around to installing cable nine months later, and we gave up pursuing it.

A Tale of Two Phone Lines

Perhaps six months ago one of my roommates had a private phone line installed. He apparently got a new account in his own name; at least, we don't get billed for it on the main account.

His phone service is from RCN, and unlike the main line, they actually installed a new line for him, so it's all RCN proper.

A Tale of Two Changes

RCN called us at some point relatively recently (mid-August) to arrange an appointment for them to come install an RCN line for our main phone, to switch us off of our Bell Atlantic leased line. My roommate arranged a time in mid-September and I agreed to be here then.

This roommate, in whose name the phone service was registered, was moving out, so we were changing the phone service over to my name. Apparently this was notated on the account, but they couldn't actually complete the process without a signed form from both of us, which they hadn't even gotten to us yet when...

A Tale of Two Accounts

...when my roommate with the private line decided to get cable modem and called them up to arrange for it.

At this point, there were two accounts:

A Tale of Incompetence

No, that's not clear enough:

A Tale of Bewildering Incompetence

On Every Side

So my roommate calls to get cable modem installed...

And they can't find his account. They can find our account, but not his account.

So he harasses them endlessly (I'm not clear why they couldn't use his phone number or his account number to find his account, unless he secretly doesn't have one because he fell through the cracks, but let's take him at his word), and finally they just add his name to our account (even though they're making ME fill out paperwork to get my name on it), and set the cable modem up on that account.

Oh, yeah, and while they've got him on the line, they ask him about this new phone line install they've got lined up.

He doesn't know anything about it, and tells them so, and tells them he really doubts that our roommate asked for a new phone line installed, since he's moving out.

So the RCN employee he's talking to cancels the new phone line install.

The one that's supposed to switch us from a leased Bell Atlantic line to an RCN line.

The one RCN called us about setting up in the first place.

So guess what happens next?


Until last Friday when our phone stops working.

We've had problems with the wiring internally before that we've fixed ourselves, or rather, our roommate who moved out has fixed, so I ended up going to the hardware store to get some alligator clips, set up a test phone, went into the basement, and tested our line. No dial tone down there, so it was an external problem.

Well, I figured, I'd wait until the next day to call them, in case it was just them working on the line or something.

While I was down there, I jostled some other wires, but they were wires that have never been in use, so I didn't even think about it.

The next day, not only was our phone line not working, but my roommate's phone line wasn't working, too! I went to a payphone and called RCN. They seemed unprepared to handle the situation of somebody with a non-working phone line and without any other phone line on which they could call back to verify an appointment.

But a guy showed up from RCN a few hours later. He took a look at the house and said that if our phone line was a "Nynex resale" (i.e. a leased line from Bell Atlantic) he couldn't work on it, it was there problem. He did fix the roommate's phone line, which turned out to be those wires I had jostled. (So I definitely was a participant in the incompetence clusterfuck here.)

So he fixed the roommate's line, said he couldn't do anything about the Bell Atlantic and I should call Bell Atlantic, and left.

That made no sense to me--I'm not Bell Atlantic's customer--but I dutifully called them, started explaining, and they said they couldn't do anything about if it I wasn't a Bell Atlantic customer. The person I was talking to claimed it was illegal for them to take a phone problem report about somebody else's phone line.


I looked out the window, saw the RCN truck hadn't left yet, went down and reported it to the RCN guy, he shook his head disbelievingly and said he'd call his dispatcher and get them to deal with it.

That was Saturday.

I didn't hear anything about it on Sunday.

Today I called RCN customer support again. The woman who took the call talked to me for a bit, looked at my account, verified with me that somebody had been there, then put me on hold for ten minutes while she found somebody who could deal with the situation.

The last person I spoke to, the one who said they'd try to expedite it, said something very brief which sounded roughly like the scenario I'd basically constructed for myself at that point: somebody told Bell Atlantic to shut the line off because they thought we'd been switched over to RCN. I imagine that explains why they sent out the RCN repair guy even though he couldn't do anything--the dispatcher's records probably showed us as having been switched over.

In other words, when they decided to switch us over, they entered in their records that we were being switched over, and they arranged our appointment, but they didn't link the two. So when one of our roommates cancelled the appointment, it didn't stop the rest from happening.

It's possible that when I found out he had canceled the install, if I had bugged RCN about it I might have avoided this. But I have my doubts. Since it was an RCN-initiated install, I'm not sure I could have reinitiated it myself. I'm not sure they'd have had their act together enough to reassociate the switchoff time with the new install date, anyway.

Even if some of the fault was ours (for cancelling), let's keep in mind that the roommate who cancelled shouldn't have had the authority to cancel in the first place; and regardless, the phone company should have checks in place to make sure that when they turn off / unlease a phone line it's not a line that's actually still in use.

Update: Wed Oct 4: They did not, in fact, manage to get it working. A new call scheduled me a repair for Thursday. However, today, a previously schedule cable modem install brought an RCN guy over. He set up our main line as an RCN line, I think--I'm not sure he was supposed to, but I have a phone line now, although maybe they'll turn it off again tomorrow.

Of course, he wasn't actually able to set up cable modem due to the crazy wiring in the house.

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attribution dammit: We Suck Lisa Germano