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YAIHS - Yet Another ISP Horror Story.

-- Notes taken while watching an Australian ISP race to the bottom.

By Gerry Patterson

Your Call Is Important To Us - Please Hold And A Representative Will Be With You Shortly.

We've all heard it. It seems to be a relentless trend. "After all", the calm economic rationalist might explain, "there are only two ways for a business to be more profitable ... they can (1) increase profits, or (2) decrease costs.".

Any economic rationalist who said that had probably not just spent an extended period of downtime, waiting in a phone queue, in order to pursue a technical issue that required timely resolution ... And then having finally got through to a human ... discovered it was someone who was not fluent in the language of the caller, was not competent, did not even have the authority to solve the problem, even if they'd wanted to solve the problem in the first place (which they didn't).

Then, probably, the (hypothetical) economic rationalist would not have been so calm ...


Choosing an ISP.

In January 2002, I decided to setup my own domain. So, I conducted a search for a suitable ISP. I based my decision on Internet searches, price comparisons, and conversations with sales representatives. I settled for a Sydney-based company, TPG (Total Peripherals Group). At the time, I thought they offered the best price and overall service.

TPG supplied me with a Dynalink RTA modem with a static public address. They also delegated an eight bit netblock which I used to setup my domain. Being inexperienced and a bit drunk on the exhilaration of having six usuable IP addresses, I designed my domain so that that I could assign each entity with a separate IP address (more about this later). During the initial setup there were a few occasions on which I found it necessary to ring TPG's technical support and get assistance. When I did, I found them responsive and capable.

Overall, I was quite happy with the level of technical support offered by TPG. Apart from the fact that it sometimes involved an interstate (STD) call to Sydney, I had no real complaints.

As it turned out, after I had setup the domain, which initially included two DNS, one HTTP service (later to become two) and one SMTP service (each with their own IP address), I did not have much to do with TPG. I paid my account regularly and they rarely heard from me. Later on TPG installed a nation-wide helpdesk, and this would have been a local call from any Australian capital city. However I did not use this service very often. On a few occasions I rang to inquire about network outages. I also found these outages rather annoying, but I wrote a script to restart the Dynalink modem and that solved the problem of outages (see the bibliography for more details).

I would have thought that I was an ideal customer. One who paid his bills and did not bother them. One that was worth keeping. But it seems not.

Five years later, I found that I had to talk to the TPG technical support again. It seemed that a lot had changed in the interim. And it did not seem to be a change for the better.


An Important Message From My ISP

Late in August 2008, I found two messages on my answering machine. A female explained, in a very thick foreign accent, that she was from TPG. The gist of the message was as follows: She had been trying to contact me for a few weeks and it was urgent that I call her back regarding a change to my account because they were upgrading their system. Due to her strong accent, I wasn't quite able to understand what the change was -- but it sounded important.

So I returned her call. It appears that TPG were migrating from Layer One to Layer Two. She told me that she had been trying to contact me by sending email to my TPG account. I explained that I had never used the TPG mail because I had my own domain and gave her my email address. I explained further that the domain was, in fact, running on their very own network, and it required a static IP address, and furthermore, it was imperative that if the address was going to change, I should be notified in advance. She assured me that nothing would be altered. I was a little concerned at the poor quality of her English, and thus I sought her reassurance on this topic, twice more.

Despite the double reassurance, this whole conversation left me rather apprehensive.

I was concerned because:

After this I received four emails, advising me of changes to the network. These came from the TPG Helpdesk and TPG Customer Service. The one from TPG Customer Service arrived twice. Here is a copy of the email from Customer Service (headers, email addresses etc, have been removed):

                                                                                             
        Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 15:33:54 +1000
        From: TPG Customer Service
        To: Gerry Patterson


                                      TPG Internet Pty Ltd  ABN 15 068 383 737
                                      65 Waterloo Road
                                      North Ryde NSW 2113
                                      Tel: 1300 360 855    Fax 02 9850 0813

        Dear Customer,

        Thank you for your request to change plans.

        It will take approximately 3-5 working days for the changes to be completed
        after we have processed the payment for your plan change.

        If you have already completed your initial contract period, you will
        immediately be charged a conversion fee of $59 and the first month's access
        fee for the new pack. Later, at the time of conversion, your account will be
        credited with the unused portion of the access fee from your original pack.

        If you have not completed your initial contract period, you will immediately
        be charged a conversion fee of $59 and the first month's access fee for the
        new pack. Later, at the time of conversion, your account will be charged a
        contract termination fee equal to the unpaid amount of the existing
        contract, but not exceeding $55.

        In most cases you will be changing to a plan that is based on PPPoE (Layer 2
        technology) which requires a username and password to connect. You need to
        reconfigure your equipment once the change is completed. Please check that
        your modem is able to support this protocol by visiting our website:
        www.tpg.com.au/helpdesk/ and select the appropriate operating system. If
        your modem is not listed please check with your supplier.

        On behalf of TPG I would like to thank you for choosing our services.

        Yours sincerely,
        TPG Internet

I wanted to make it clear that I did not request this service, and that I would prefer that there was no change to my existing plan. I replied to the address given for TPG Customer Service as follows:

                                                                                             
        From: Gerry Patterson
        To: TPG Customer Service
        Subject: Re: ADSL Installation Status (username pgtsadsl)
        Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 16:40:01 +1000 (EST)

        Dear TPG,

        I did not initiate this change request.

        I was told (in a phone message) that I HAD to change.

        One of your customer service people left a message to that effect on my
        voice mail.

        That is the reason I rang this morning, to confirm that I had received
        that message.

        If this change is not mandatory then please advise.

        If you check my existing plan you will see that I have a static
        netblock. I currently run my own domain (pgts.com.au) from this
        netblock. Please advise if this will be discontinued.

        I am not interested in any plan that does not include a static netblock.

        Regards,

        Gerry Patterson

        PGTS Pty. Ltd.

I received this response:

                                                                                             
	Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 16:23:37 +1000
	From: TPG Customer Service
	To: Gerry Patterson
	Re: ADSL Installation Status (username pgtsadsl)
	X-Loop: Auto reply
	Precedence: junk

	Dear Sir/Madam

	Thank you for your query. This is an automated reply from TPG Internet
	Customer Service.

	Please allow 1 working day for a reply to your email.

	Should you wish to view your tax invoices, update your credit card details or
	make other changes to your account. Please visit:
	https://cyberstore.tpg.com.au/your_account/ to make an online request.

	Should you require more information about services, procedures and technology,
	please visit our frequently asked questions:
	http://www.tpg.com.au/helpdesk/faqs.php.

	If your query is urgent please feel free to contact our Customer service
	department on 1300 360 855.


	Kind Regards,

	Customer Service
	TPG Internet Pty Ltd 65 Waterloo Road
	North Ryde NSW 2113
	Ph: 1300 360 855
	Fax: 02 9850 0813

As before I have removed all email addresses and most of the headers, I left the custom headers X-Loop and Precedence, for their entertainment value.

This was in fact the only coherent reply that I would ever get from TPG Customer Service. And it wasn't even a genuine reply. It was just an automatic response.

I would eventually discover that the words TPG Customer Service form an oxymoron. However, this would be only after a long exhausting litany of incompetence and evasiveness, which I am about to relate. By the time this epic had ended, I was left poorer and sadder but wiser. Nowadays, if anyone should put those three words, TPG and Customer Service into the same sentence, I would spontaneously burst out into peals of hollow laughter.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The next I heard from TPG was when the same person who had originally called me left another message on my voice mail. This was about a week after I had received the original messages. She told me that my account details had not been changed, because it had already been migrated to layer two.

All of which was rather puzzling. Nevertheless, I was relieved to hear that nothing had been or would be changed.

About a week later (or roughly two weeks after the initial message) my service failed totally.


The New TPG Helpdesk -- Quite Different From The Old Helpdesk.

In the evening, I rang TPG, and chose the technical support option. I got someone with minimal English skills. I explained my problem. The (so-called) analyst asked me if I was using Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows XP or Windows Vista. I told him what my system was and he asked me to repeat it.

I gathered that he had not heard of FreeBSD.

I repeated it several times, and even tried to spell it (how do you spell BSD? -- Umm well -- one usually spells it B-S-D!) He said that he never heard of it! (I'd reached that conclusion already). He then told me that TPG only support Windows systems. I started to explain that it had not been a problem when I signed up with TPG, and that I had not been advised about a change in the terms of the agreement. He said that he would have to speak to his supervisor -- and could I hold? Since the conversation was going nowhere, very slowly, I told him I would call back later (in the hope that I would get a different analyst).

I waited a couple of hours and tried my luck again. This time I got someone whose English was slightly better. After we had established that I was not using Windows and that he had never heard of FreeBSD, I made about as much progress as I had previously. Readers who are not very technical, and who don't know about FreeBSD should check the bibliography.

By then it was getting late, and I decided to get some sleep.

The next night, I tried again. This time after listening to the calm dulcet tones of a recorded message assuring me that TPG understood that my time was valuable and how highly they appreciated me as a customer. I was put through to someone with minimal English skills, and I decided to negotiate quickly through the question of operating systems. ... In order to skip the inevitable question of "How do you Spell it?", and then having to battle with the fact that he didn't understand me anyway. I told him that my computer was using a Unix operating system "like Linux". When he pressed me for more details, I said it was Linux.

Of course this little "white lie" was a cop-out. If I'd had a few hours of spare time, I could have embarked on delivering an impromptu but basic English lesson and expanded on the fact that BSD stands for Berkly Software Distribution ... perhaps even gone into a brief history of the Internet. But life is too short for that. I just said it was "Linux" (he had heard of Linux). After which I had to wait until he had finished telling me that their official policy was to support only Windows and then I waited while he talked to his supervisor ... Then he confirmed that despite the telephone messages to the contrary, my account had indeed been changed to use PPPOE, as the original email had warned me it would. He also said that the account included a netblock and that the netblock was different from my previous netblock. This was all part of the migration to Layer Two.

Now, you (Dear Reader) may be thinking that this whole sad and sorry tale is starting to sound like a chronicle of ignorance, ineptitude and lack of communication. And you would be quite correct. But it was about to get worse. So I am going to explain in advance that when I asked for the IP address of the netblock, I misunderstood him. This was due to his poor pronunciation. Now by itself this would have been bad enough. But it gets worse. Because I read back the IP address and asked him to confirm, and he confirmed it. As I said I didn't pick this up till much later. However one thing that made me suspicious of his technical expertise, was the answer I got when I asked him for the modem's public address. He insisted that it was 192.168.1.1. Those readers who know about IP will of course understand that this is a private address, and cannot be routed over a public network. I didn't bother arguing since, I reasoned I should be able to discover the address on the public side, but I did want to confirm that it was static.

I spent a considerable amount of time trying to get PPPOE working on BSD. I tried upgrading the firewall from 4.5.1 to 6.2, but I was not able to get the computer system to do the authentication for me. Eventually I was able to get the modem to authenticate for me.

So now, I was able to establish a connection to the Internet. However, I could use it for browsing only. I could not get anything on the Internet side to follow a route to my modem when looking for the netblock that had been assigned to me. At the time, I thought this may have been because the netblock had not been delegated to me.

After several late nights and still being no closer to getting the netblock working, I rang TPG Technical Support and got another analyst. I went through the rigmarole of Operating System etc. I then asked him to confirm the netblock that the previous analyst had given me and he told me a different netblock. I did not keep notes of these conversations, so I have lost what the actual values were. He was able to confirm that the modem's public address was static. Which was progress of sorts.

I asked "should I replace the modem?". In fact I asked this several times over the next week or so. But the helpdesk staff seemed to reluctant to confirm that I had to replace the modem, when it was mentioned that TPG had supplied the modem to me.

By now, I had formed the opinion that TPG, despite what their official correspondence said about North Ryde, were running their entire helpdesk from a South East Asian Country (See the bibliography for more information). And I was willing to bet London to a brick that this decision had probably been taken on the overall cost of the operation.

I went back to trying to get the domain running with the (latest) netblock that I had been given. But I had no luck.

Once again I rang their helpdesk and told them that I thought there was something wrong with the way the netblock had been delegated. I sent them a traceroute from a remote site which showed that it went nowhere near to my modem's public address (See the bibliography for the URL of the website I used). I copied the text of the traceroute and sent it in an email from my work email account (since my own domain was not working). I received another automated reply from their helpdesk.

When I next rang TPG, and asked them what they had done with the traceroute, the analyst said (after consulting his supervisor) that I had to include a traceroute from my own computer before they could action the request. Despite the fact that this was totally unreasonable, I ran a traceroute from the firewall (basically it was a traceroute to itself), and sent it to them (from my work email account). I received another one of their automated replies.

Note: I was able to connect to the Internet. However, nodes on the Internet side could not connect to my assigned netblock. I was not convinced that any of the helpdesk personnel I spoke with understood this.

The next night I rang them to find out if a human had read my email. The analyst that I spoke to, promised that he would ring me back at a specific time, later on.

The next night, having written down the analyst's name this time, I rang to ask why they had not rung me back at the specified time. I was told that he had consulted with his supervisor and he'd been told that he could not ring me back, because it was TPG's Official policy not to ring customers. So, I asked if they would send me an email when they had established what the problem was. He said that they would.

At this stage, Dear Reader, in case you have forgotten, I should remind you that this whole ridiculous saga had been initiated by two phone calls from TPG. And yet I am now told that it is TPG's Official policy not to ring customers!


It's Hard To Get Good Help These Days.

The next night, I rang them to ask why they hadn't sent the email they had promised to send. And I was told (by yet another person) that the traceroute was not a screenshot and it did not have the words "traceroute ended" at the bottom of the traceroute. The analyst said he had spoken to his supervisor and they would not action the request ... This was (he said) "official TPG policy".

Now as I said, I have not kept an accurate diary of these telephone conversations. But I was quite gobsmacked to hear that they could not action the request for this reason. In all my experience as an analyst, I have never heard a more wishy-washy excuse (i.e. official policy not to respond to an email with traceroute unless it had "traceroute ended" at the bottom of it). This particular artifice would have to be the biggest "whopper" of them all.

Perhaps I should explain that my firewall, an ancient Pentium with only 128MB of ram and 1GB hard disk, was running the leanest, meanest, most reliable OS in the world (BSD). It did not have a GUI, and never would have (even had it been capable of supporting a GUI). There never would be a screenshot from my BSD system. And unless I added the words myself, the BSD traceroute would not print "traceroute ended".

I admit that I did think of fudging something ... of writing the words "traceroute ended" and re-sending the email. But I was beginning to lose my patience (why so long you ask Dear Reader? -- good question really). If I wanted to resort to sarcasm, I could have made the comment that an Internet Technical Support Analyst, who had not heard of BSD, was like a self-professed expert in Atomic Physics confessing that he had never heard of Neils Bohr.

In any case I was now willing to admit defeat. I had decided that the only way I might get my domain back would be to go through the HTTP processes (running on the Apache server) and remove all references to individual IP addresses. And then to place all of the servers, HTTP, SMTP, and DNS on the same static IP address (using port redirection to the local subnet).

Most of the work would be in re-engineering the Apache config files and searching through the various CGI scripts for individual IP addresses. Regrettably I might have to abandon the BSD firewall and the BSD SMTP server. I figured that there would be more support for PPPOE on Linux. And these days most ISPs would use PPPOE. I decided to consolidate the firewall, SMTP server and DNS server into a single Linux machine. I figured that all this would involve about thirty hours of work.

Also, if I had to embark on this process, I decided I would be doing it with another ISP. I had not kept up with the latest charges. It seemed that I could get a much better deal elsewhere. Even though they had changed everything on my initial connection, the TPG had not changed the price from what I had negotiated with my original my contract. And as documented here, it was plain that TPG's helpdesk was simply dreadful. Whatever else one could say about them, they were definitely not helpful.

In addition to this, I was running out of time. It was looking as if I would not get the problem solved before my holidays. Perhaps now I should mention that I had already made accommodation bookings for a driving holiday with my family, which would entail several thousand miles of driving. My domain had been offline for two and a half weeks. If the problem was not solved and I went away on holiday it would have been down for five weeks.

I tried for three more days to get the connection working. With no success.

Then I went on my holiday which was very enjoyable. It included a week in Sydney and another week touring around NSW. I spent the next 17 days not thinking about TPG, catching ferries back and forth, taking photos of the "Old Coat Hanger" (Sydney Harbour Bridge) taking the kids to Luna Park, etc, etc. Snapping photos, and generally relaxing. And then being appalled at the extent of the drought in the Riverina (which we drove through on the way back to Melbourne via the Newell Highway -- Truck Route 39).


Goodbye TPG.

When I returned, much refreshed, I started searching the Internet for ISPs. After a while I decided that Netspace seemed like a good choice. The reasons were much the same as the reason that I had chosen TPG, five years previously. The sales representative understood what I wanted. (He said) they had no problem with people using Open Source computers to connect to their network. And they could supply me with a static IP address.

After my experience with TPG, I specifically asked if their support staff were fluent in English. I was assured that this was the case. Their support centre was in Camberwell, Melbourne, only a couple of kilometers from me. The sales rep told me that it would take at least 5 business days to convert the line (this was due to Telstra -- who did the setup of the line). Just to be on the safe side, I called up their technical support, ostensibly to get some information about my phone line, but it was actually to verify that the Sales Rep had been completely honest (we all know that Sales Reps are prone to embellish the facts somewhat). And was greatly relieved to hear a reasonably well informed Support Desk Analyst, speaking with an unmistakable (ethnic) Australian accent. However, there was one interesting piece of information that came out of this preliminary stage. Apparently it was not possible to convert my number to layer Two. This was a network constraint! The Sales Rep, told me that Netspace could offer me an upgraded Layer One connection. I confirmed this with another ISP. The number could not be converted to Layer Two.

I decided to have the phone number cancelled altogether and sign up with Netspace using a different phone number.

I sent TPG an email (from the online email service) saying that my domain had been down for over 5 weeks, and I had not received a single sensible communication from them. I told them that they no longer had authority to use my Express Credit Card Number. And they should cease all transactions on that card. Finally, I got a reply which seems to have been from a person:

                                                                                                               
	From: TPG Helpdesk
	Sent: Wednesday, 10 October 2007 2:23 PM
	To: Gerry Patterson
	Subject: Re: Website Form (2007-10-08): Your Connection


	Dear TPG Customer,

	Thank you for writing to TPG Helpdesk.

	I believe you contacted us about concerns with your IP subnet last September.

        Kindly confirm the configuration of your firewall and network as
        traces to your subnet seems to timeout right before your modem.

	traceroute to 220.245.141.244 (220.245.141.244), 30 hops max, 40 byte packets
	 1  vlan250.lon-service6.Melbourne.telstra.net (203.50.2.177)  0.291 ms  0.222 ms  0.245 ms
	 2  TenGigabitEthernet8-1.lon55.Melbourne.telstra.net (203.50.80.65)  0.338 ms  0.326 ms  0.254 ms
	 3  g0-2-0-0.bdr4.mel.connect.com.au (203.8.183.122)  0.502 ms  0.47 ms  0.551 ms
	 4  ge-0-1-1.dst1.mel.connect.com.au (203.63.170.189)  0.574 ms  0.492 ms  0.44 ms
	 5  so-2-0-0.cre1.mel.connect.com.au (202.10.0.129)  0.481 ms  0.609 ms  0.404 ms
	 6  so-5-1-0.cre1.syd.connect.com.au (202.10.0.252)  15.408 ms  15.46 ms  15.523 ms
	 7  so-1-0-0.bdr5.hay.connect.com.au (202.10.4.100)  15.411 ms  15.795 ms  15.34 ms
	 8  203.111.3.249 (203.111.3.249)  15.548 ms  15.398 ms  15.38 ms
	 9  202.92.102.66 (202.92.102.66)  15.487 ms  15.536 ms  15.673 ms
	10  syd-nxg-ibo-zeu-pos-8-2.tpgi.com.au (202.7.162.1)  27.641 ms  27.49 ms  27.4 ms
	11  nme-nxg-ibo-zeu-pos-2-0.tpgi.com.au (202.7.162.126)  63.809 ms  27.381 ms  27.534 ms
	12  nme-pow-ibo-zeu-pos-1-2.tpgi.com.au (202.7.162.133)  27.342 ms  27.296 ms  27.372 ms
	13  nme-pow-ibo-are-1-ge-0-1.tpgi.com.au (202.7.176.201)  27.93 ms  27.673 ms  27.537 ms
	14  * * *     -> This hop should be your modem
	15  * * *
	16  * * *
	17  * * *
	18  * * *
	19  * * *
	20  * * *
	21  * * *
	22  * * *
	23  * * *
	24  * * *
	25  * * *
	26  * * *
	27  * * *
	28  * * *
	29  * * *
	30  * * *

	Should you have any other issues, concerns, inquiries, or any other
	problem with regards to our product or service, please feel free to
	contact us at 1-300-360-855 or visit our Helpdesk website at
	http://www.tpg.com.au/helpdesk.

	Thank you for choosing TPG Internet.

	Kind regards,

	Rey
	TPG Technical and Email Support
	Ph: 1300 360 855
	Fax: 02 9850 0813

By this stage, I had already signed up with Netspace. My modem and the firewall were switched off, since I thought I might as well save the electricity. As the traceroute above shows, my modem did not work without electricity. I would have been concerned if it had. But ... Have you noticed something about the above email, Dear Reader? Goodness Me! It seems that TPG Technical Support sent me a traceroute that was not a screenshot, and did not finish with the words "traceroute ended" ... But <sarcasm>surely that would contravene TPG's official policy, wouldn't it?</sarcasm>

Now if I'd been a TPG support desk office, I would have refused to answer this email, because it didn't have "traceroute ended" at the bottom. Not being that thick-headed, I composed the following simple reply:

                                                                                             
	Date:  Wed, 10 Oct 2007 15:02:09 +1000
	From:  Gerry Patterson
	To:  TPG Helpdesk


	I have given up on getting a resolution to this problem.

	I have asked Telstra to disconnect the line 03 9888 0117.

	They have scheduled the disconnection for Friday morning 2007-10-12.

	I have signed up with Netspace on another phone line.

	They have commenced allocating ADSL to this number.

        I have advised American Express that I will not be accepting any
        further charges from your company.

	Regards,

	Gerry Patterson

Note: This was the second time I told them that I would stop further transactions from them. Nevertheless, TPG still debited $69.96 from my Amex account. This was a disconnection fee, on top of the amount they had already debited for the previous six weeks when they had not supplied any service, plus a conversion fee, for conversion to Layer two (which several other providers, including Telstra, have told me was not physically possible).

I should have disputed the $69.96, and all the other charges. Since I had already notified them, I would have been within my rights to ask Amex to reverse the final transaction (at their cost) but I didn't get around to it. I spent the time writing this small document instead ... It's sort of my way of wishing TPG many diminishing returns and an Unhappy New Year.

My new ISP, Netspace, accomplished in six days what the TPG collection of drongos and numbskulls were incapable of doing over the previous six weeks. Finally, my domain was up and running. There were a few minor problems, which were all resolved. Whenever I rang Netspace (my new ISP) and asked for the helpdesk, I got the impression that I was talking to someone who actually wanted to take ownership of the problem not find a way to push the problem away, and pretend that it did not exist. This was the same impression that I used to have of TPG (in 2002). Since I got everything working in October, I have only rung Netspace once.

The speed of my connection is now many times faster than it used to be. There are no excess charges, and it costs me less than I had been paying TPG on a monthly basis.

I had to rebuild my firewall (using Linux rather than BSD). And my SMTP service is now postfix rather than sendmail. It is also running on a much more powerful modern machine with 512MB of RAM and 200GB of hard disk and which uses probably four times the electricity that the old (perfectly good) BSD box did. The old machine has been mothballed for the time being. It still works (has done reliably and almost constantly for well over thirteen years -- and never skipped a beat). Considering its' vintage, it may never be used again. Such is life!

The new Linux firewall and Netgear modem brought several complications. For instance, I had to re-write the script that re-boots the modem, when a network outage occurs. I documented the new script here.


Summary.

There were many other emails sent to and from TPG, that I have not included above. Generally I have picked the most representative. And as I said before, I did not keep a log of the phone calls. However in all my dealings with TPG regarding this issue, I think I only received two emails that were genuine messages from a real person. The rest were automatically generated or general purpose form letters.

At no stage did any (so-called) help desk support analyst offer any help. I have tried to list all of the pretexts they gave for not doing anything, but I may have forgotten several. I would have preferred it if they had just said "No - we don't offer any help", and left me to swing in the breeze. Instead they left me waiting on hold for hours, wasted my time with a Kafkaesque collection of the most unconvincing, flimsy excuses I have ever heard, and then left me to swing in the breeze.

TPG seem to have embarked on a course of action that is quite common in the communications and IT sector. However, IMHO, Technical Support should be considered a core business component for an ISP, not an ancillary component that can be outsourced, without any thought or planning.

However, today's C&IT sector seems to run on the assumption of "churn". It seems that the cost of constant churn has been built into their business model. As long as there is growth in sales, most companies will tolerate loss of customers.

Furthermore in an effort to compete with BigPond, TPG have decided to deliver even worse technical support than BigPond does. This is a truly audacious attempt to lower costs. BigPond seem to have recently acquired a reputation for delivering the worst Customer Service in the Australia (See the bibliography). And yet TPG seem determined to equal the remarkable low standards of their giant rival. Have they succeeded? Well, judging by the many matches in Google (see below), they have. The sad parody of helpdesk that they have created probably delivers a lower level of service then the extraordinary levels of under-achievement attained by BigPond.

The current arrangement might be good for you, if you are a Windows 2000/XP/Vista user, and the only support you require is the instruction to turn your modem off/on and/or restart your computer, and you don't mind waiting half an hour for those instructions. In this case, TPG may be just what you are looking for ... By all accounts, they are quite cheap. But only if you are a new customer. It seems that the best way to get a good price in Australia is to churn every two to three years.

A word of warning however. If your requirements are trifle more technical, you will find TPG's level of service unsatisfactory (to put it mildly).

TPG might try to blame the third-party to whom they outsourced the operation. But the real responsibility lies with their management in Sydney. If it really does make economic sense to do this (and I'm not entirely convinced that it does), then the staff in the Philippines should have been given adequate training (including where necessary, coaching in English and Australian culture). And having been trained adequately, they should have been given authority to act upon and resolve problems independently. And if it still made economic sense when all that training had been paid for, the whole operation should have been properly managed by genuine, experienced managers that understood the process, not petty bureaucrats, autocrats and/or accountants. From my experience as an end-user it seems that that none of this happened. Wherever there was a corner to be cut ... it was cut.

All of these faults can be directly attributed to TPG Sydney's management (or lack of).

So, if any of you corporate outsourcers want a classic anti-pattern ... An example of how not to outsource your operations, take a long hard look at the TPG fiasco. Quite apart from the sensitive politics of outsourcing, it is obvious that the whole thing was a cheap penny-pinching stunt, and the fallout is still settling.

As to how this new "race to the bottom" (with BigPond) turns out for TPG? Well, that remains to be seen. It will be interesting to compare TPG's overall performance with the smaller ISPs who have decided to give their customers genuine technical support. The miserable cost-cutting that TPG have indulged in may turn out to be the penny's worth of tar that sinks the whole ship.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The following are some links I used, when I wasn't tearing my hair out with frustration.

WebSitePulse

Free Online Ping and Traceroute. There are lots of these. Just search for them in Google. I used these guys, they seemed to be fairly reliable. Plus they give the option of of starting the traceroute from USA (Seattle), Germany (Munich) or Oz (Brisbane).

Google

TPG Australia sucks Google Search Results. When I did this in January 2008, I got 87,000 matches. Note that there are other organisations around the world called TPG -- so you need to add the word "Australia" to your search". When I tried the phrase TPG sucks, I got an impressive 221,000 matches. That's a powerful amount of dissatisfaction! Is the Telecommunications Ombudsman aware of any of these? Not surprisingly many of the people who complain about TPG, cite their appalling "helpdesk" as one of the least impressive of TPG's services. To be fair, some of these hits might say that "BigPond sucks" (or broadband in Australia generally sucks) and they are switching to TPG -- so there!. And if so -- I'd have to say "Don't Do It! -- It would be like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire!" Of course to say that "Broadband in Australia sucks", would be quite an understatement -- but a lot people say it. Have been for years.

Smarthouse

Telstra BigPond Sucks And That's Official. On the other hand, there are many links online like this article that quote a consumer survey carried out by the prestigious Choice Magazine. According to this survey, BigPond was voted the worst ISP in Australia. More worrying is the fact that BigPond also have the largest market share. Which is a bad omen indeed for broadband, telecommunications and infrastructure in Australia.

ZDNet

TPG sheds staff to Asia. According to this article in ZDNet, TPG relocated their helpdesk to the Philippines. The author claims that TPG's Manila-based partner, Orchid Cybertech Services, placed numerous ads seeking helpdesk expertise. Really? Looks like they didn't find any ... Perhaps they should have advertised in Sydney? There was a rumour going around about some unemployed ex-TPG Help Desk Analysts in that city.

Wikipedia

Brief History FreeBSD. If you are non-technical, and have never heard of BSD ... Or, if you are a TPG support analyst, trying to improve your English and your understanding of the Internet, here is a brief summary of the history and pedigree of one of the world's most robust and reliable Operating System.

FreeBSD

Official FreeBSD Home Page. On the other hand if this wetted your appetite, you can read more about the current FreeBSD project at the official site. It is also possible to download the latest stable version of FreeBSD.

PGTS Jan 2004

Great Expectations. The original article I wrote describing how to restart the Dynalink modem that TPG supplied me. Since then I have had to create another script to restart the Netgear modem that Netspace supplied.