Going to the Dark Side, or How We Got Uverse

If you’ve followed the technology posts on this blog, you’ll know that I occasionally get a little miffed at ATT and their DSL service and Motorola modems. I’ve had my share of technical issues, which I’ve tried to chronicle in hopes that they can help others out, and judging from the number of hits I still get, that must be true.

Lately, we’d been having issues with how slow our DSL connection was. We were paying for 3 Mbps and getting 1.5 on a good day. We had also gone through the experience where ATT turned off our service to try to convince us to switch — they had given us notice, but we ignored it as a sales pitch — and forced us to call in and decline Uverse in order to get our DSL back. We were told DSL wasn’t being supported in our area and soon we would have to switch, but couldn’t get a definite time-frame. Maybe we had a couple of years left, but it seemed obvious that those would be a couple of years of crappy service. We didn’t want to switch at the time, because we didn’t have time to work out all the issues that would arise. My wife and I both teach, and we don’t want any interruption to our internet during the semester.

So this summer, when we weren’t quite as busy or at least when we could take a day or two to get things taken care of, we made the switch. I called, set up an appointment, and worked out the best deal we could get. Because we’ve been customers with ATT for many years (and Bellsouth before it got bought out), we were able to get free installation. I made sure to get the bundle that worked best for our needs: we went with 18 Mbps, though we would have been fine with 12. 18 turned out to be cheaper when all charges were considered — the bundle included the modem fee, whereas it wasn’t included in the quoted price for the 12 Mbps rate, according to the salesperson I spoke with at the time.

The day arrived, and a very nice technician came to hook up our service. They put a new box on the outside of our home and  ran a new cable inside, but used the existing phone lines leading up to the house. Because we had had our DSL serviced recently, the cable from the street to the house had been replaced — often this is replaced with a new Uverse installation. But I was interested to find out that the existing phone lines are used. It’s not a completely new network, so some of our old problems haven’t gone away.

In fact, it took the technician 5 hours and a helper to get our service up and running. He went through 2 modems trying to get one to work, and in the end, he couldn’t get us 18 Mpbs, but could get close: 14.4, I believe is what we officially have, though he said it might be more like 15 or 16 on a good day. (And it is notably faster than our old service — about 10 times faster than what we actually got, and 5 times faster than what we were supposed to get). Changing the speed meant changing the billing, though, and I had to wrangle with customer service a little to make sure we hadn’t lost some of the terms I’d worked out. In the end, i was satisfied, and we were paying about the same for 14.4 Mpbs as we would for 18.

The reason we couldn’t get the level of service we’d been sold (and they tried to sell us a higher rate) is at least in part due to a “bridge tap” on our phone line somewhere between us and the phone company. We were told this was underground and they couldn’t get down the manhole to replace it. As I understand it, a bridge tap adds a phone line off an existing line and effectively increases the distance between your location and the phone company by however long that other line is. It’s not a good thing, in other words, but they can’t take it out.

Still, we were happy with the new service. The problems were with billing. We had DSL and DirecTV bundled (and received a bundle discount). Switching services dropped that bundle. We called to get that put back together right away, but it still takes a month or more to get combined billing (even though or maybe in part because ATT finally bought DirecTV about the time we made the switch —they’d been planning to for months and it finally went through).

We also had autopay set up on our account, and because Uverse billing is separate from other ATT billing, when we switched, we lost the autopay on the ‘new’ account. No one told us, so we were late paying our first bill. We have electronic billing and didn’t realize we had been billed because we tend to ignore bills we know will get paid. The amounts we were billed were also confusing —DirecTV billed us for two months and then we were to get a credit because we’d already paid on the ATT DSL account. It took hours on the phone to figure out what was what and be sure that we were being billed correctly.

To top it all off, about a month after we got the service, it went out. We had no internet and no phone service at the house, and it took me all day to get it restored. At first, I thought it might be due to the billing error, though they assured me it was not. I had to call several times to troubleshoot the modem, in part because they wouldn’t tell me what to do. Because I had no home phone (and my cell phone battery was dead), i called from the office, but they would only tell me to turn the modem off for 30 seconds (the first time they told me 10 seconds). When i called back, they told me to reset the modem using the reset button on the back — if I had been told that when i very pointedly asked what I could do before I called back, I could have saved 10 minutes of a phone call while I waited for that not to work. ATT also used their usual tactic of warning me there could be a $99 service fee if the problem turned out to be in my wiring. Since it had just been installed, I was confident that it wouldn’t be the issue.

As it turned out, the service guy was very nice. He came in and replaced our modem, telling me that about half their modems are junk and need to be replaced (two out of the three we’ve had were no good — let’s see how long this one lasts).

All in all, when Uverse works, it’s great — much better than our DSL (though not that much better than DSL when it actually worked). I don’t like that fact that internet and phone go out together (it’s phone over internet, so that makes sense), but I guess I’ll have to live with that. I don’t like living in fear that my modem will die, but maybe if it lasts more than a month or two, I’ll start to trust it again.

What was really annoying about the whole process was the billing, and this is something ATT needs to figure out. There’s no reason to force your customers to redo every aspect of billing when they switch services. It was worse than setting up a new account. I would rate them a -10 out of 10 on this aspect of Uverse. It would have been easier to switch to cable than to go through the nightmare of ATT billing (though I know cable companies are just as bad—otherwise, I would have been tempted).

The other negative aspect of the switch was ATT phone support. Though they are always very friendly, I didn’t find technical support very helpful. We had one guy who was very good helping us set up our new account after we had to redo everything for the slower speed, though even he forgot about autopay and he couldn’t help us with DirecTV – we had to be transferred to someone else for that. But calling to get help on the equipment is a nightmare. First it takes you forever to get to a real person (tip: dial 00 at any point to get to a representative), and then they don’t answer your questions or give you full advice. They seem to just follow a script one step at a time, and they want to discourage you from calling out a service technician when you need one. I’m happy to troubleshoot and try to fix things myself, but don’t threaten me with exorbitant service charges when the fault is clearly in your crappy equipment.

If there were an alternative, I would probably switch again. But our local cable company is as bad or worse, and despite their claims of being up to 10 times faster (they can’t do math, so why should I trust them—they offer “up to” 50 Mbps, which is not 10×15 — I hate to break it to them), their customer service is notoriously awful. So for now, we’re stuck with the devil we know, and can only hope that the modem doesn’t die every month or two.

My takeaway — if you have DSL and it’s working, I wouldn’t switch yet (unless you can get TV and want it—we don’t have Uverse TV in our area). Let them at least work out their billing nightmare after the acquisition of DirecTV before you bother switching, and maybe the modems will get better, too. But if your DSL service sucks and you can’t get it repaired, then it might be time to think about going over to the dark side. In the end, we’re happy with the service, but it’s been a nightmare getting here at times.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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