February 18, 2007

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Bad Technical Support from Virgin Media

Yesterday morning my home broadband connection went down. The little cable light on my modem was winking at me, telling me that there was a problem with the cable connection. I get TV and telephone through the same cable, so I knew there was nothing physically wrong with the cable itself.

I called the Virgin Media technical helpline, which appears to have moved to India since I last called them with a problem, back in the day when they were Telewest Blueyonder (oh, hang on, that was just last week...) But, if the location had changed, the script certainly hadn't.

"Could you try unplugging the power to your modem and then plugging it back in again?" asked the helpful lady.

"Yep. Already tried that twice." I replied. I've had the modem for 4 years, so I know the drill.

"Could you try swapping the network cable between your modem and your computer?" she ventured.

"OK." I did. "Nope, it's not that." I knew it wouldn't be.

"Have you tried rebooting your computer?" she fished.

"Nope. it's not that, though. The cable light on the modem is flashing. When it does that, it means it's not getting a cable signal, right?" said I, knowledgeably."Could you please check and tell me if there have been any problems with the cable signal reported in my area?"

"No. I have checked and there have been no maintenance requests in your area today. Your modem must be broken." she asserted authoritatively. "I will arrange for an engineer to come and take a look."

"Actually, I don't think the modem is broken. This happens every few months, and every time it turns out that there was a problem with the signal and not with my hardware. And everytime someone tells me that it's a problem with my modem or my TV set-top box or my telephone and arranges to send out an engineer, who turns up two hours late, having wasted the best part of a working day for me, drinks my tea and eats my lovely Italian biscuits and befouls my bathroom in between poking about in my hardware like someone from the middle ages trying to repair a digital watch, and then concludes that "it might be broken" and that he will need to get a replacement box, which he doesn't have with him so I need to call support and arrange a time for him to come back with the hardware that he should have known he might have needed to bring with him in the first place. He will then come two weeks later with the replacement box, plug it in, see that it makes no difference and then say "so it wasn't that, then" and piss off back to wherever it is these people go to when they're not parked on my drive having a 3-hour coffee break. (Anyone who lives in a quiet cul-de-sac knows where these phone/TV/gas/electricity/water engineers spend most of their day...)

I told her that I had seen this problem many times before, and that it was always a problem with the local network that would mysteriously fix itself within a day or three. She did not agree.

We ended up arguing about it for nearly 2 hours. I would not let it go - I had been fobbed off so many times by them in the past that this time I was going to make them acknowledge the real problem.

Her first argument was that if there was a problem with the broadband service, why had nobody else on my area reported it? I asked her if she would report the problem now. She would not, because she didn't believe that there was a problem with the broadband service. This was a circular argument. She would not report a fault with the service because nobody else had. That made my brain hurt a little.

She then tried to prove to me that my modem wasn't working properly. She game me an IP address that would allow me to connect directly to the modem. The modem generates pages that report its status and allow basic reconfiguration. She told me that the modem should be locked to a downstream signal with a frequency of 331 Mhz. The web page generated by the hardware showed a different, much higher frequency.

"Aha!" She exclaimed. "Therefore your modem is broken".

"Hang on a moment. If there's no broadband signal, wouldn't the modem scan for one?" I responded. "If I had designed a cable modem, that's how I would have programmed it. Isn't it just doing exactly what it's designed to do?"

"No." she told me definitively. "The modem should not scan for a signal on other frequencies. It should be locked to 331 Mhz. If it is not, then it is not operational."

I had to read out loud the page being generated by the modem to demonstrate that this was not true. The modem starts scanning at 331 Mhz until it finds a signal. It is simply doing what it is designed to do. The modem works! The reason it doesn't fix on 331 Mhz - the frequency of the Virgin Media broadband signal - is simply because there is no signal on 331 Mhz. The simplest, most logical explanation of the problem, I told her.

But she simply wouldn't have it. She insisted that her superior training meant that she was right and I was wrong.


A modem's configuration page yesterday. This particular modem is lying, of course.

So I dug a little deeper into this "superior training". It turns out she has never physically handled one of these modems. She has never herself been connected to the Virgin Media (nee Telewest Blueyonder) cable network, and had only been with the company a few months. I had been using their network and their hardware for 4 years. I also have a degree in Physics, and have built digital fibre optic telephone networks in the lab with my own fair hands. I am also a software designer. So I suspect I had the upper hand in diagnosing the real problem.

So would she please now accept that there's at least a chance that I might be right and report a potential problem with the broadband service in my area?

Apparantly not. She refused. All she could do - all she would do - is arrange for an engineer to come and drink my fancy Lapsang Suchong and eat my Garibaldis and foul the apple-scented air of my bathroom "some time between 12 and 4pm" (which means 5:50pm in reality, of course) in about 3 weeks' time. And she would hear no more about signals and frequencies and scanning and other vague sillinesses.

"Tell you what", I said, admitting defeat, "Let's leave it for now. If the signal mysteriously comes back and the modem mysteriously "fixes itself", will you apologise on behalf of Virgin Media for wasting my time and for refusing to acknowledge the real problem?"

"Of course", she said, confident that such a day would never arise.

When I got back from lunch with my erstwhile brother yesterday evening, the connection was back on.

Wish me luck...
Posted 13 years, 10 months ago on February 18, 2007