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Just came across this lovely explanation and graphical representation of what happens in the seconds after a new blog post is published on Wired. There’s something scary about this, but the interface design is quite nice.

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Less and Less Service in the Land of No Service

In the months that have intervened since I wrote about the horrors of getting ADSL in France, the stories just keep coming.

M., a Brit expat lost all his phone service for 4 months when he signed up (on my advice…shudder) to Free, the second largest broadband provider in France. For the first few weeks he kept calling Free who said it was the fault of France Telecom, then calling France Telecom who explained that it was most certainly the fault of Free. These infructuous ‘support’ calls cost 96€.

After a few weeks of such merde de taureau, one learns to live without a telephone because the alternatives are all serious felonies, even here in France. Rest of story: several months later, M. happened to walk by a France Telecom sales office, which are generally located in lovely historic districts of midieval cities, right next to the MacDonalds. He thought, ‘What the hell’, walked in, exposed his tale of woe to a friendly salepersonne, who called up a webpage, grumbled ‘hmmm’, clicked a box, and then said to my friend, ‘Hmmm. Go home, see if your line works now’. And it did.

Another M. American this time, had her Freebox (Free’s ADSL modem that is supplied Free with each subscription), burn out during a lightening storm. A 3€ call to Free’s hotline helped determine that the modem was indeed fried and that Free would send out a replacement right away, but it would cost 190€. Rather shameful considering that Freeboxes can be bought at any openmarket in Taiwan for about 6¢/piece, but hey, that’s global capitalism for you. M. said ‘Send it on’. She also called me.

I went by a few days later with a spare Netgear modem that we have for cases such as these, tried it on M.’s line and it worked (I am skipping a few steps here for brevity). I suggested that she would be better off keeping the Netgear and that she tell Free to shove it. It was already 10 days since Free had promised a Freebox right away.

The subsequent multi-€ call to Free support revealed one of the least surprising surprises that can occur in daily french life: Free hadn’t any record of an [tag]ADSL[/tag] modem for M. If I hadn’t showed up with the Netgear, M. would still be waiting. To their credit, the first Free support personne put M. on hold while he ‘did research’. After about 4€ of phone time he came back online, confirming that no one anywhere in their support centers in India, Morocco, Poland, or Paris had a trace of a request for a new modem. Then asked rather politely, “Is there anythng else I can do for you today?”

If [tag]customer service in France[/tag] only sucked in the ADSL sector, it would be petty to criticize such an old venerable culture with great health care and really inexpensive wine. After all, we all choose to come here as a lifestyle choice (except me, I was kidnapped and woke up in a vineyard at dawn in December), so we have to assume the consequences.

But there’s more to the story of customer service. Stay tuned.

On Being a Service Provider in the Land of No Service

or, why getting ADSL in France really sucks…

(follow up to 5 Days Without and my ISP FAQs)

The French media is abuzz today with news that customer complaints against French broadband providers are up over 50% year-on-year for the 2nd year in a row.

In a land where there are 400 different words for cheese but none for customer satisfaction it is not surprising that French customer service has the reputation of being the worst in this quadrant of the galaxy. And, if there is any one industry segment in France that has worse customer service than all the others, it is arguably the broadband supply sector.

So we are talking really really bad. Which looks like this:

The French consumer, who until recently lagged behind the rest of the so-called Modern World in terms of Internet uptake, has finally discovered the benefits of Internet, ADSL and illegal downloads, and is rushing to a) buy computers and b) hook them into the network. To spite the ex-telco monopoly, France Telecom, (“Serving France badly for over 200 years“), the French are using their new-found consumer empowerment to choose new broadband companies such as Free, Cegetel, Alice, etcetc. to supply high-speed internet. (That many of these new companies are ex-monopolies from other European countries or Old France is an unworthy detail.)

Once a frenchpersonne decides to go for it, there are 2 ways to approach getting an ADSL connection. According to where one lives, one can either choose to keep one’s good old FT line and piggy-back third-party ADSL onto it (called adsl non-dégroupé), or, heh heh, one can renounce FT altogether, and have the ADSL supplier furnish a techno-enchilada — voice services, TV, and broadband (called dégroupé).

Whichever ADSL is chosen, it is always an FT technician (FT still owns the copper wires) who takes the consumer’s phone wires at the central station and plugs them into either blackbox A for non-dégroupé customers or blackbox B for dégroupé customers. Afterwards, the technician certifies the information to the ADSL supplier, who immediately starts debiting the client’s bank account for 30€/month.

This is when the complaints generally start. A huge proportion of new ADSL subscriber lines simply don’t work from the get-go, even though the customer is told that they do. To add insult to injury, many of these unfortunate victims lose their voice line in the process (which was working perfectly up til then, thank you very much).

All one can do then, is call the provider’s support line. You use a friend’s phone of course, because you don’t have a phone line anymore. You should be prepared to beg, plead, and whimper. This costs you up to 1€/minute for the call. You are put on hold for 10 minutes. You are told that you should call back another time because all the support staff has gone home for the day. Or, if there is anyone left to talk to you, you are told that a) it’s all some dumb-technician-who-works-for-another-company’s fault and you need to call France Telecom. Or, you are told that your line checks out perfectly.

You are asked if there is anything else that you wanted to talk about. Numb, you answer “But, but, but..” but it’s into a dead phone line.

Since it’s your neighbor’s phone, you don’t bang it against the wall until it’s reduced to plastic shards. You owe your neighbor 12€ for the call. You are mortified. Apoplectic. You’ll have to do it all over again tomorrow.

Dante never saw Hell so darkly as this.

Explanations?

  1. Well, we are in a country where the very words ‘customer service’ generate severe migraines.
  2. Phone calls to tech support generate a sizeable proportion of a broadband provider’s revenue.
  3. Some people theorize that the FT technician mentioned earlier plugs a certain number of the new lines into a hitherto unidentified top secret device, call it Box C, which is really made of styrofoam painted to look like a hi-tech ADSL DSLAM and is connected to nowhere. FT and the third-party supplier, split the support line revenue.
  4. I don’t know.

My best advice

1. Don’t go with FT’s service, Orange. It is expensive and dull.

2. When choosing amongst the other contenders, never ever ever order ‘dégroupé’ (which means that you’re giving up your France Telecom phone line) straight away. Not because FT is good or warm or fuzzy (they’re not) but you’ll need the voice line to call tech support for the first few months while your ADSL doesn’t work.

3. As a corollary to ¶2, if you live in a part of rural France that has only just received ADSL service, you have probably been using RNIS or Numéris phone service (ISDN in english) for your internet. In your joy about finally having broadband possibility, DO NOT cancel your RNIS line at the same time that you order a new analog line to carry your ADSL. You will probably find yourself without telephone service for months or years.

Order the analog line with ADSL, then when it all works fine, cancel the RNIS.

4. I have recommended Free for many years, and it is true that their service, when it’s up and running, is the most technologically correct. But over the last year, I have noticed that new lines ordered through Free rarely work for the first few months. You spend 50, 100€ on tech support phone calls and all the while, they’re debiting you 29.99€/month. It can’t be allowed anymore. Choose someone else.

The Reddit Effect

Every morning, over coffee and computer, taking care not to spill one on the other, I read the Guardian, the IHT, Le Monde and then I turn to Reddit.com, aka, “What’s new online?”. At Reddit, the ‘community’ posts web pages that they like and other visitors vote on these articles if they are interesting or well-received. With enough votes, a website can make it to the very first page of Reddit, which lists the most popular 25 URLs (out of I don’t know how many candidates. Hundreds? Thousands?).

The first page of Reddit is presumably the best of the best and getting your content on it is supposed to be what Web 2.0 marketing is all about.

I was meditating on all this on day before yesterday, Friday afternoon, when I had a wonderful idea. For laughs, I would post one of my own blog entries to Reddit, see what happens. I mean, I get 20-30 visits a day, mostly from curious (and/or loyal) friends, but wouldn’t it be better for the world if more people read my bons mots? What if Reddit really works???

I chose The Official French Business Calender, which I had written in August, to nominate. As the holiday seasons approaches, I had had the thought that the Calendar was On Topic again for a few weeks. If you read it, I think you’ll understand. (And anyway. I didn’t have anything totally up to date to propose 🙂 )

Anyhow, I post the Calendar at around 15h Central European Time and an hour and a half later my son, who manages the server where this blog lives, calls me to ask me “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”. He says it with a twinkle in his voice, laughing even, but the undertone of server administrator panic was there too. Turns out my article had made it to the first page of Reddit with extreme rapidity, and the result was that the MySQL database that this blog uses was getting 150 requests a second, which is about 400 million times more than it had ever received before.

150 requests a second is not a lot for MySQL, but there must have been something wrong with the way I had installed WordPress, because, for the first time ever, the Reddit rush brought our web server to its knees.

At 17h, we were obliged to a) take my blog offline and b) take off my posting on Reddit, which fortunately is possible. About 1 hour later, the rush slowed down, (3200 visits were logged in that first hour) but we kept my blog offline overnight, just in case. We all had better things to do on a Friday night than sit up with a sick web server.

Saturday morning, I looked around the web and found the excellent WordPress Cache plugin, which I promptly installed. WP-cache creates static versions of popular blog entries, bypassing MySQL, so that it doesn’t overheat when the Reddit Effect hits. It seems to have solved the problem.

Today is Sunday, all is well, and I find myself wondering if I should repost the Calendar to Reddit. Nah, I think I’ll wait.

So You Want to Be an ISP in the South of France? (Part 2)

(first published on the web, 20 Oct, 1996)
Part 2: Oh-la-la, an Entrepreneur!

Back in 1789, the French overthrew their monarchy and aristocrats and became the first country in Europe to implement democratic government.

Vive le peuple!

Two centuries later, it appears they have had second thoughts, albeit subliminally. Without going so far as to ask the Bourbons to come back to royal power, they have done the next best thing, creating and carefully feeding the concept of “l’Administration”, which is now plump and juicy, but unfortunately for France and frenchpersonnes everywhere, completely inedible. (Continued)

French Post Office Goes High Tech

The French Post Office’s (La Poste) premium overnight parcel service, Chronopost, competes with UPS, DHL, TNT, Fed Ex, etc. for the coveted high-volume business user. Like their competition (which La Poste has only recently discovered from behind the 20-meter thick bubble wrap security of their statute of an official French gov’t monopoly), they offer their own software to automate labeling, tracking, and expediting of packages. This is good.

A friend of mine, who runs a hugely successful ecommerce site, learned the rest of the story, however, when he decided to offer Chronopost delivery as an option to his clientele. He asked La Poste for the special software, so that he could install it on the dedicated computer that already manages the 600-1000 packages that he sends out every day. La Poste replies that that wasn’t a good idea because their special software only functions with Windoze 98.

Ah, oui, of course.

To their credit, they made him an offer that was hard to resist: they would come to his warehouse and install, at their expense, a separate computer of their own, running W98 and their software.

Wow! Who says the French aren’t into customer service!

A few of us have been spending idle moments the last few days trying to figure out how much it costs La Poste to troll Ebay and bankruptcy auctions, buying up every 32M RAM / 250M hard drive CPU they can get their hands on in order to obtain whatever W98 licenses are still out there. Probably a bazillion gazillion times more than it would cost them to simply rewrite the application for 21st century users.

On Privacy in a Crazed World

I’m a long-time fan of Bruce Schneier, widely known for his deep insights into the real world of computer security and publisher of the informative and readable newsletter Crypto-Gram.

His communication gifts extend well beyond the high-tech explanations, however, as can be witnessed in this wonderful essay on privacy and freedom, which puts into words why I am so much more frightened of Bush/Cheney than of Bin Laden.

The Value of Privacy

Last month, revelation of yet another NSA surveillance effort against the American people rekindled the privacy debate. Those in favor of these programs have trotted out the same rhetorical question we hear every time privacy advocates oppose ID checks, video cameras, massive databases, data mining, and other wholesale surveillance measures: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?”

Some clever answers: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me.” “Because the government gets to define what’s wrong, and they keep changing the definition.” “Because you might do something wrong with my information.” My problem with quips like these — as right as they are — is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.

Two proverbs say it best: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who watches the watchers?”) and “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — him with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers, and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time. (Continued)

I want a USB-powered air-conditioned shirt!!!

From gizmodo, the stuff that dreams are made of.

The USB shirt has two fans on the left and right sides of the back, taking in air to cleanse all the sweat off your spare tire. There’s an external switch on the USB cable to adjust the fan speed…

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