DIRECTV: Well HERE's Your Problem, Ma'am...

Summary:Shortly after I posted my diatribe on my problems with my DIRECTV HD receivers and the company's horrible customer service, I was contacted by Stuart Sweet, a moderator on a popular Satellite TV forums site, DBSTalk. Apparently, my post had created quite a stir  and I was asked to register on the site in the hopes that the online community could help me out.

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Shortly after I posted my diatribe on my problems with my DIRECTV HD receivers and the company's horrible customer service, I was contacted by Stuart Sweet, a moderator on a popular Satellite TV forums site, DBSTalk. Apparently, my post had created quite a stir  and I was asked to register on the site in the hopes that the online community could help me out. Given that I was ready to smash my equipment against the wall, it seemed like a viable option, because DIRECTV itself wasn't helping one bit. They were in fact, quite content to cancel my account on my behalf and charge me a termination fee rather than resolve my issues or escalate based on the information I was giving them.

Frequently, hobbyist sites and discussion forums are the best places to seek out information on sophisticated equipment such as satellite receivers. Back around 1999-2000, I briefly ran one myself, called UltimateTVtalk.com, which was dedicated to the late Microsoft UltimateTV receivers, until Microsoft pulled the plug on the product and declared it as a dud. I eventually changed it to DVRtalk.com and at some point let the domain lapse, when someone else grabbed it. I was more interested in forming food discussion sites at the time. Ah well, 20-20 hindsight and all that.

So after explaining my problems to the folks over at DBStalk.com, we went through the process of "Peeling back the onion" where we went through a number of diagnostic procedures. One of things that immediately jumped out was that during the signal tests for satellite 103(c), also known as DirecTV 10 was that on my bedroom receiver, I was getting weak or zero transponder reception on one of the dual tuners. 103(c) carries virtually all of the high-definition content, so this explained why some of my HD recordings that were not related to over-the-air broadcasts were coming up as "black screens".

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

The community identified this as either a cabling or a multiswitch issue. When we swapped the cables on the unit, the other tuner would be the one with the problem. We didn't rule out the actual cables themselves going bad, but the evidence pointed towards it being a bad B-Band Converter (BBC). What's a BBC, you ask?

Without getting too technical into satellite technology speak, here's a quick summary.

DIRECTV calls up the satellite development division of  Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

"Hey, can you launch us a satellite? Oh, great. It's gonna cost us how much money to engineer us a new Ku-band design for Hi-Def transmission and put it into an optimal orbital slot? Uh... how bout dis... can you give us one o 'dem 702 jobbies that you made for the SPACEWAY Internet thingamabob, and launch it into the same orbit, but can you jigger 'dem software so it uses up all its bandwidth for one-way transmission instead of bi-directional? Oh, yeah, we know all about our current HD receiver and DBS dish design and the 500mhz frequency block issue. We'll just give the customers this dongle whatchamacallit that does a signal conversion from Ka band to Ku band. Yeah, we know it's a major kludge. No problem. When can you launch it? Great."

"Hey Clyde, call up them fellers in China, we gonna need a couple million dongle thingies real quick!"  

So with the information gleaned from DBSTalk.com and transponder diagnostic outputs as ammunition, I call up DIRECTV customer service again. This time I ask for an immediate escalation. This time, I actually got a tech that knew what the hell he was talking about and could understand my issue. After talking him through my problem and being as informed as possible, we determined that the BBC -might- be bad, but they were going to send over a technician Saturday morning anyway.

Late Saturday morning, the technician gets here. He swaps out the BBC's on the upstairs DVR that is causing issues. No effect.

We then scratch our heads and run diagnostics on my other DVR and watch the transponders on 103(c) for about an hour. It seems the second DVR is also having issues. We look at the cabling on both units, everything looks fine. So then, it's the multiswitch, right?

Well, as it turns out, the multiswitch is actually embedded in the newer DIRECTV "slimline" dishes themselves. So the entire LNB assembly of 5 separate antennae had to be ripped out and replaced. After that was done, I was happy to see we got 95 percent plus signal on all the active 101 and 103(c) transponders on all the tuners on both HD DVRs. The LNB assembly "just went bad", it seems. No sign of lightning damage or anything like that. Just plain died.

What is the lesson learned here and what is at fault? I think it can be boiled down to a number of separate issues.

DIRECTV had a customer base that was happy with the TiVo platform, and when the company moved to HD technology, they chose to develop their own software and hardware in-house in the hopes of bringing down the cost of the platform rather than continue to partner with TiVo on HD units. Unfortunately, this means had to re-invent the wheel with the HR series of DVRs, which was naturally going to introduce problems.

When the original standalone SD TiVo's first came out, they were problematic -- I beta tested some of the original ones, didn't like them, and used ReplayTV units for a few years until the Microsoft UltimateTVs came out, then eventually migrated to DirecTiVos. With the DirecTiVo Series 2 the software was pretty much mature and stable. That being said, at the very same time the DirecTivos were as stable as they could be for a Standard Def DVR, DIRECTV rolled out HD service. So when you go from a very stable platform to an unstable one, the natural customer reaction is going to be negative. The software is under constant development and an end-user can even enter DIRECTV's "Cutting Edge" program if they learn about it on sites like DBSTalk, but most people aren't going to go through all this trouble to get a consumer electronics product working. These aren't computers where it is supposed to require a certain minimum level of end-user expertise -- they are supposed to just work, period.

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The BBCs introduce an unnecessary layer of complexity . This problem should have been solved by having the LNBs engineered with the necessary Ka to Ku conversion circuitry embedded from day one. All HR-20 and HR-21 customers that are currently using BBCs should be given new LNBs with the signal conversion electronics embedded to correct the issue. Apparently, BBCs will not be required with future generations of DIRECTV HD DVR equipment and the newest dish models such as the SWMline, but that leaves the early adopter and current loyal customers in the lurch and having to deal with flaky dongles that burn out. As it happened, it wasn't my specific problem, but it's a huge pain in the ass for a lot of people.
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The customer service representatives are poorly trained, have terrible bedside manner, and do not know how to escalate issues properly to technical support. They didn't take my first requests seriously. "Oh, it's a known issue, here's 10 bucks a month until we resolve it" -- and they should have sent a tech out there immediately. Not offer to disconnect my service after 8 years of customer loyalty after I got annoyed with them on the phone and make me incur a $250 fee for the privilege of severing my relationship with them.

When you do get escalated, the quality of technical support representative you get at any one time is also completely random. It's taken us a number of calls and being milled thru the system a few times to get a technician out to the house and perform diagnostics and make the necessary repairs. This should not be happening. Period.

DIRECTV is apparently instituting verification procedures  on its new installs to mitigate some of the typical headaches that happen to HD customers.  This is a step in the right direction, but at the end of the day, it was the customer service experience overall that nearly put me over the edge and calling up my local Cable TV company.

Do you have your own DIRECTV horror story? Talk Back and let me know.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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