Just before Christmas, I shared my experiences with a hobbled home phone service that was delivering 1995-era dial-up internet speeds, if any connection at all. Here's how that story ended — and the very interesting lesson I learned about Telstra's PSTN in the process.
The show Life After People, which I noticed on Seven while channel-surfing, explored the decay of the world's physical infrastructure should it be left without maintenance in the wake of the disappearance of the human race. Within 200 years, we were told, reclamation of land would carpet the CBDs with massive trees and corrosion would bring the Sydney Harbour Bridge to collapse.
While the show was basically an excuse to show famous landmarks explosively degenerating in glorious CGI renderings, I couldn't help but think of how Telstra's public switched telephony network (PSTN), the backbone of Australia's home-phone and ADSL broadband services, would fare in the 200 years after people. Heck, it's not faring very well now, even with people around to maintain it.
For those keeping score, the last time I touched on my ADSL service outage, I was 12 days without broadband and counting. Turns out it was to be another three weeks before the situation would be resolved — and I count myself lucky that it even happened that quickly. (One reader noted that he had been without broadband for two months and counting — if you're out there, how did that work out for you?)
When your very living depends on having good internet access, every day without phone and broadband service seems an eternity — and every fruitless call to iiNet seemed like more and more wasted time. By mid-December, three weeks of back-and-forth with iiNet, which was in turn running back-and-forth with Telstra, had produced nothing resembling a resolution. Anecdotal evidence, and the invaluable advice of ZDNet Australia readers, suggested Telstra's pending customer network improvement (CNI) order could take weeks or months to complete, particularly in the end-of-year slowdown period.
I was, unsurprisingly, happy when I was contacted by a well-meaning Telstra spokesperson who had seen my earlier posts and wondered if she could do anything to help. Well, sure, I said, out of alternatives and curious to see if Telstra could be motivated to fix its network more quickly if appropriate pressure was applied in the right places. I neglected to tell her one small piece of information (that I had signed up to switch to an Optus cable service just two days earlier) but accepted her offer of help and started watching the clock.
As hoped, things began moving quickly. The next day, I got a call from a senior technical support person at iiNet, who had been contacted by someone high-up at Telstra and even gave me his direct line as a point of contact should I need anything at all. Tech support people don't normally give their direct phone numbers unless things are going very badly, or they have been told to treat you well, so this was a pleasant surprise. I hoped it was for the latter reason, and not the former.
Just hours later, my new iiNet friend got back to me again: was I switching networks? he asked. "Uh, yes," I responded; "why?"
Turns out that iiNet could only continue pushing Telstra to fix its line if I kept my phone service operational; once the number was ported to Optus, the entire affair was out of iiNet's hands and Telstra would let the CNI lapse. This left me with a few options:
Cancel my move to Optus, then wait for iiNet and Telstra to sort things out
Move to Optus but get a new phone number so iiNet and Telstra could sort things out on the old service
Move to Optus, keep my number, and pay for a completely new landline service to be connected through iiNet so it could keep working with Telstra to fix the landline. Some day.
If this sounds like a Hobson's choice to you, you're not alone. I really didn't need to add a change of phone number, and all its attendant time-wasting, to the list of problems I had to deal with. Since my main focus was to get back online, and I also wanted to be sure the CNI was completed so the landline service would eventually be operational if needed in the future, I chose option 3.
Yes, seriously: to get a working home phone and broadband, and get iiNet to keep pressuring Telstra to fix its network, my only option was to pony up a $69 installation fee and $29.95 per month to rent a phone service I had no intention of using.
Switching service providers shouldn't be this hard, and it shouldn't really be the customer's responsibility to pay carriers to complete repairs to their own networks. But such is life in local-loop limbo.
Switching service providers shouldn't be this hard, and it shouldn't really be the customer's responsibility to pay carriers to complete repairs to their own networks. But such is life in local-loop limbo — a place I understand to be well-populated with customers whose urgency to get a working service is balanced by Telstra's apparent policy if only fixing the PSTN when part of it spontaneously bursts into flames (and even then, only using wads of chewy and dental floss).
Amazingly enough, resolution came quite quickly. A Telstra technician paid me a visit on Christmas Eve; I was out at the time, and returned to find a card that informed me there were now no problems with my line.
By this point, however, this was irrelevant since I was already happily online, eight times faster than my old ADSL service, with Optus broadband. But it was an interesting experiment with interesting results: weeks of pursuing Telstra through the usual customer channels produced nothing, but a bit of pressure from above and Telstra was able to fix the network within a week. Without that pressure, I'd probably still be paying for both my Optus service and the vestigial landline, waiting for Telstra to slowly work its way down the CNI list.
I consider myself among the lucky ones: at least I had an alternative. Millions out there who have no access to cable, and who find themselves without recourse in the face of non-existent service guarantees — in which the only option is to wait, then wait some more — face frustrations and expenses far worse than those I incurred.
With Telstra not only confirming recently that its policy is to invest as little as possible into PSTN maintenance, but also deciding not to run PSTN connections into new housing estates, things are likely to get worse before they get better. With its clear push towards wireless and the looming NBN-induced irrelevance of the local loop, stories like this may become rarer and rarer — if only because Telstra seems ready to usher the PSTN out the door for good. Even for those that just want a reliable home phone service, it's clearer and clearer that the NBN is the only glimmer of hope on this particular horizon.