March 21, 2011

AT&T's T-Mobile Merger Ploy: Rewarding the Worst

Greetings. One of our characteristic traits here in the U.S. is that we seem to love big things -- big banks, big insurance companies, and especially big telecommunications conglomerates.

Quality is not usually the relevant issue. We appear to fundamentally admire -- or at least tolerate -- corporate bigness, even gigantism, even when substandard quality (or worse) are the hallmarks of the enterprise or people involved.

This isn't to say that vast scale cannot be combined with high quality -- witness Google's organic growth and overall very high user satisfaction ratings, for example.

But in some sectors, bigness prospers not due to superior quality, but simply by leveraging "too big to fail" fears on a colossal scale.

This is why the Wall Street crooks who very nearly drove us into a depression are still raking in the billions -- party time continues for them essentially unabated. They know that they are pretty much untouchable since their tendrils so deeply pervade society that significant retribution against them might be suicidal for society at large.

AT&T, in its bold move to buy out T-Mobile USA for $39 billion, believes that it has similarly become "too big to fail" -- too big to be refused by anyone, including government regulators.

In the decades since the 1984 breakup of AT&T, we've watched as Ma Bell has carefully reassembled her component parts. For many years I've used the example of the T-1000 "shapeshifter" cop from Terminator 2 -- merging its blown-apart pieces back into a solid whole -- as an analogy for AT&T's resurrection. This has now become something of a common meme when talking about AT&T.

In the case of the T-Mobile merger, the T-1000 -- oops, I mean AT&T -- has trotted forth a number of predictable supporting arguments. Better coverage. Lower rates. This time AT&T is even claiming they're being patriotic by assimilating their lower-cost competitor -- a bigger AT&T is better for the USA, they claim.

There will be much written about the technical and economic aspects of this proposed merger in coming weeks and months.

But just for the hell of it, let's explore a more fundamental aspect of AT&T and the T-Mobile transaction. This isn't Jeopardy!, but I'll put this issue in the form of a question anyway:

Must we continue rewarding the worst, simply because they are so large?

And in many key respects, AT&T is the worst. Many surveys show their wireless services as being the lowest rated in the country. This isn't just a matter of overloaded networks and wireless expansion; they have become decreasingly consumer oriented for years in virtually every respect, with their quality declining ever faster as their size has grown.

This is not a condemnation of AT&T's employees overall. In fact, some of the most frustrated people I've talked to regarding AT&T, are their own customer service reps and technicians, who have watched their support resources decline precipitously, but dare not complain for fear of losing their jobs in a terrible economy. I've seen AT&T techs bend over backwards to try deal with botched-up circuits and situations, only to be blocked at every turn by higher level management.

To be sure, AT&T was on a downward quality spiral for a long span, but once their new corporate masters in Texas got control, the quality disintegration became palpable.

This isn't just a matter of wireless either, it's across the board with AT&T. Recently here in California, they retroactively increased the cost of low-income lifeline services by about a third. AT&T reps who happened to mention this to me related how they were flooded with calls from angry or crying subscribers wondering how they were going to maintain phone service. These AT&T reps felt mortified by what they were forced to tell customers.

And pray nothing goes wrong with an AT&T data circuit. The saga of one circuit I've had for many years is unfortunately representative. It's a circuit I have to keep running since no reasonable alternatives exist at my location. At one point, it was going down every 30 days or so, just like clockwork. It would take me hours on the phone to get it built back up, every time. This went on for months. None of the normal tech support channels (neither locally or outsourced overseas) could figure it out. Basically AT&T told me "tough luck."

Finally, using high-level AT&T contacts that most people naturally don't have, I was able to reach an AT&T engineering manager (in Texas, of course) who ultimately figured it out. As I had suspected, there was a database problem in their provisioning system. But no reasonable, normal means of finding this existed. I was eventually able to get this particular problem fixed. But what of ordinary customers who don't have my contacts? To use the vernacular, they're basically screwed.

And don't assume that the circuit in question has been all roses since then. In fact, the local interface hangs routinely requiring a power cycle to restore. This can happen every few days, or multiple times a day. More frequently, less frequently, no pattern has ever been established -- other than my suspicion that higher outside temperatures increase the failure rate. It's been like this for years. AT&T can't fix it. The techs tried really hard, equipment was replaced and so on, but the techs admitted that they simply didn't have the resources to properly debug in such situations any more.

One night, fed up with the circuit hanging for hours so frequently, I went on a rampage with a soldering iron, and literally threw together a hack to monitor the interface and physically power cycle whenever the interface hung. It worked, and I'm still using it constantly over two years later. Here -- take a look at what I call the "AT&T Fail Reset Hack". It's that nightmare of wire and solder just to the right of the punchdown blocks. Your ability to read this blog posting partly depends on the actions of that silly homemade device.

How often does the data circuit still hang? Here's a link into the actual real-time reset log dating back to the original night of installation. See for yourself.

I should never have had to deal with such a situation -- and been required to build such a hack -- to keep a relatively expensive AT&T circuit up and running.

Yes, these are but individual examples, but they are emblematic of so much that has gone wrong with AT&T as they've become larger ... and larger ... and larger still.

AT&T's being again so enormous is simply bad news for wireless subscribers and users of any other telecommunications services. AT&T's anti-consumerism and massively declining quality are the opposite of patriotic.

To reward AT&T's enveloping mediocrity with the prize of T-Mobile USA wouldn't just be "unthinkable" as various observers have already suggested, but would be nothing less than a full-fledged travesty.


Posted by Lauren at March 21, 2011 12:25 PM | Permalink
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