(mis)adventures in software development...

01 September 2013

The Australian Broadband Hustle

Category Technology

ADSL dropouts and overcharging: The confidence trickery of broadband in Australia.

It got to the point I just had no choice. Had to do it. I’d had enough.

I’d had enough of the increasingly frequent ADSL dropouts on my increasingly less reliable TPG broadband service.

I’d had enough of a Telstra phone line with so much noise, static and crackling sounds that it was almost impossible to hear the person on the other end.

I’d had enough of both my phone and internet going to hell every time it rained.

I’d had enough of an ADSL line so unreliable it would drop out every few minutes.

I’d had enough of Telstra’s copper network in my area which, after years of intermittent problems, had obviously degraded to the point of being completely unusable.

I’d had enough of the frequent but futile conversations with TPG’s support drones, who would hear the noise on the line and insist it was Telstra’s fault the ADSL was constantly dropping out. After all, a line so noisy was bound to cause ADSL interference, they insisted.

I’d had enough of repeatedly reporting the fault to Telstra, only to have a technician arrive few days later and tell me there wasn’t anything wrong with the line, and it was TPG’s fault the ADSL was constantly dropping out. Or my phone’s fault. Or the line filter’s fault. Or my modem’s fault. Or the cables’ fault. So I replaced the modem, the phones, the line filter, and all the cables. Still, the same problems persisted. So then it was suddenly my home’s fault for being so damn distant from the exchange. Or my star sign’s fault. Or the fault of those pesky cosmic rays.

I’d had enough of constantly going around in circles with Telstra and TPG, each one blaming the other for the dropouts on my ADSL service and noise on my phone line.

I’d had enough of both TPG and Telstra being all too happy to take my money, while neither was willing to accept any accountability for problems with the sub-standard services they were providing.

I’d had enough of paying for a phone and internet services that had both become completely useless.

So I had no choice but to switch from ADSL2+ to cable internet. Fortunately, I am in an area where cable internet is available. Unfortunately, it’s more expensive. Fortunately, this was an opportunity to get rid of Telstra completely, as I had the option of another provider.

Yes’, that other provider.

So it was goodbye and good riddance to Telstra. Useless fuckers. They treat their customers with contempt in a way only a government sanctioned monopoly can.

I switched to cable internet, and for the first time in years I experienced a stable, reliable, and fast internet connection. And a phone line clear as a bell. Miraculously enough, the same cables and phone equipment that the Telstra technicians blamed for my ADSL woes are working fine plugged into the cable modem. How about that? Is it possible the Telstra technicians were bullshitting me?

Yes’, I believe it is.

It’s amazing what a difference decent technology makes to the user experience. This is a point that seems to have been lost in the NBN debate, which has become mostly focused on the differences in speed between Labor’s NBN plan and the Coalition’s crappy alternative. But the choice of technology is crucial to other factors — like reliability — that makes a big difference between a good and bad internet experience. No matter how fast (or slow) a broadband connection is, it’s going to be a frustrating experience if it drops out at crucial times — which is likely to happen with the Coalition’s FTTN network as it uses the existing copper network and is therefore prone to the sort of problems that the copper network is renown for.

These problems went away when I went away from the copper network and went to cable. This resolved the technical problems. But did this other internet provider manage to cause other problems?

Yes’, of course they did.

All I wanted was reliable internet and phone service. (Is that really too much to ask? In Australia, seems the answer is ‘Yes’.) But of course I had no choice but to select a “bundle”. Despite checking every “opt out” check box I could find when signing up, I still got a whole bunch of crap I didn’t want. Fortunately, they were running a promotion at the time I signed up where (almost) all the crap I didn’t want was “free”. Kind of. Once I got around to setting up the “free” PVR included in the bundle, it wasn’t hard to see why they were giving it away for “free” — it’s a device designed mainly to entice users to select any number of additional services that will be automatically added to the monthly bill.

Those extra charges are likely to go unnoticed, because the bills are a deliberately complicated work of byzantine obfuscation.

This internet provider (‘Yes’, that one) easily wins the prize for most complicated and difficult to decipher bills I have ever encountered. I suspect this is all intentional — an attempt to confuse customers as much as possible, so that they can scam as much money out of customers as possible. Although I do find it somewhat amusing that this company in question (‘Yes’, that one) has a section on their website devoted to explaining their bills. Doesn’t this represent a failure of user experience with regards to their billing?

Yes,’ I believe it does.

If they actually cared about their customers understanding their bills, couldn’t they actually just simplify their bills?

Yes,’ of course they could.

But they don’t particularly want to , because then customers would be more likely to notice any billing errors.

Like I did, after a few months, when I received a bill for $125. Since I was on an $85 plan, this didn’t seem quite right.

Is $125 more than $85?


Far be it from me to question the wisdom of large corporations. If there’s one thing I learnt from my Catholic school education, it’s that no good can come from thinking for yourself and questioning authority. But because I don’t trust my Catholic school education, I turned to Excel. Because I totally trust Microsoft.

Excel screenshot

So tell me Excel, is an Australian telecommunications company trying to rip me off?

Yes.’ Indeed they are.

Imagine my complete lack of surprise at this point. So this is the choice I have in the marketplace as a consumer of internet services. I can either pay for an ADSL service that just doesn’t work, or I can pay a premium for a functional cable internet, including extras I don’t want, and get overcharged at every turn. Free market competition at its best, I’m sure.

I called up their helpline and spoke to someone from the Land of the Distant Call Centre, who might have said her name was “Mary”, although I somehow suspect it wasn’t.

Turns out I was being charged for the supposedly “free” crap I didn’t want in the first place, backdated to the time I switched over to this new cable internet service.

Mary” (if that was her real name) agreed to credit back the amount overcharged. So all good right? No harm, no foul? Maybe. At this point, after my experiences with Telstra, I have no goodwill left for telecommunications companies. At this point, I choose to take the most cynical and sinister interpretation of events. At this point, I choose to believe the overcharging was intentional. It’s all part of standard operating procedures for telecommunications providers in Australia — create deliberately over-complicated plans/bundles, with lots of extras customers probably don’t want, confuse/distract the customer with ridiculously complex bills, then deliberately overcharge them and hope they don’t notice. Worst case scenario, the customer calls and complains, and maybe gets a refund. But for each time this happens, there are probably far more cases where they customer doesn’t realise they’ve been ripped off, which means these corporate con artists get to keep their ill-gotten gains.

Although calling them con-artists is probably an insult to accomplished con-artists everywhere. It would imply that there is some “artistry”, or craft, or at least competence, to what the internet companies are doing. But there’s not even that. The telecommunications industry in Australia is less an elaborate confidence trick, and more a simple forthright fraud. It’s like a street shell game where there is no ball, no prize, and the moving cups are just a momentary distraction before beating the unsuspecting mark to the ground, stealing their wallet and phone, then calmly standing there as if nothing happened, knowing there will be no repercussions. It’s less con artist and more highway robbery.

I’m not sure what’s worse. The fact all Australian telecommunications companies routinely fuck their customers over any chance they get? Or that they fuck their customers in such an obvious and artless way? It’s as if they’re not even trying! If I’m going to be fucked over by an uncaring, unethical, unscrupulous corporation, I’d like them to at least put some effort into it. If I’m going to be fucked over, I’d rather be fucked good! Saying something will be included in the price then charging extra anyway and hoping the customer won’t notice? How unoriginal! Put some imagination into it! Do it with flair!

Of course, screwing their customers is hardly confined to the telecommunications industry. (I should at least mention Australian banks, if only in passing.) But what’s most disturbing is just how common this kind of corporate laziness and contempt for customers and has become. This culture of mediocrity in Australian business has gotten to the point of making a mockery of the whole concept of running a private sector business. In recent months, we’ve had a car company extort the government, threatening to stop manufacturing cars in Australia unless it gets more government handouts; we’ve had an electricity company demand the government pay them to not produce electricity.

And here I was naively thinking the idea of a business is to provide an actual product or service in exchange for money from customers. I guess I should stick to software development, as I’m obviously missing something about modern business practises.

Although maybe I’m being a bit too harsh. After all, if the government is stupid enough to give out free money to corporations who don’t deserve it, why shouldn’t those corporations do their best to get as much cash out of the tax payer as possible? Surely it must be hard to constantly compete and innovate and carve out a competitive advantage in a free market? So why bother if you don’t have to? Why should Australian car companies adjust to changing market conditions and consumer preferences, when they can just continue making the same old crappy cars no one want to buy anymore, safe in the knowledge the government will continue paying them to do so, even if consumers won’t? Why should electricity companies produce electricity if they can get idiot politicians to pay them not to produce electricity? It’s much easier that way. And more environmentally friendly too. Just think of the reduced carbon footprint? And what do we need electricity for anyway?

And why should Telstra fix the copper network near my place when they’ve got a monopoly on the network? Why wouldn’t Telstra’s competitors deliberately overcharge me, just to see if they can get away with it? They no doubt realise that if I’m a customer of theirs, it’s because I’m out of other options, so who else am I going to churn to? Telstra? Ha! And it’s not as if the regulators are going to do anything. So the telecommunications companies can do whatever the hell they want. (How much to charge for international roaming? As much as they fucking well can!)

So it’s against this backdrop of corporate laziness, and culture of mediocrity, we have the Labor’s National Broadband Network.

Tony Abbott’s initial reaction to Labor’s FTTP NBN proposal was to say if he was elected, Labor’s NBN would be ripped out of the ground. He angrily insisted broadband infrastructure should be build by the private sector. Really Tony? The private sector? The same private sector unable to provide me with a clear analogue phone line? The same private sector unable to provide me with a reliable ADSL service? The same private sector unable to maintain the current copper infrastructure? The same private sector that finds the prospect of billing me the same $85 amount every month too difficult? The same private sector that can’t provide me with reliable mobile internet? (I’m looking at you Vodafone.) The same private sector that routines charges customers for a service that doesn’t work? (I’m looking at you every single ADSL provider.) The same private sector that’s concerned only with fucking over their customers?

For starters, there’s the obvious question of why the private sector hasn’t built a decent broadband network by now? Why are we still stuck with this ancient, crumbling copper network for our communication infrastructure? Abbott can’t blame Labor for this. The Liberals were in power for 11 years under John Howard’s leadership, during a period of great technological growth and innovation in other parts of the world. But for their part, it seemed the Howard government thought Australia’s role in the great internet boom was comic relief, appointing a series of clueless and incompetent IT ministers, and making us an international laughing stock in technology circles. Worse, the Howard government privatised Telstra without structural separation, so even privatised it still remains essentially a government sanctioned monopoly. This not only prevents proper competition in the sector, but also goes a long way to preventing proper investment, making it difficult, or even impossible, for a private company to get a reasonable return on any investment in broadband infrastructure.

Saying the private sector should build a next generation broadband network is all well and good, but if it hasn’t happened by now it never will. Which makes Tony Abbott and the Liberal’s position on broadband so frustratingly naive, short-sighted and stupid. They’re meant to be the political party that most represents the interests of business, yet they don’t seem to understand the current culture of mediocrity that pervades the Australian business landscape. Australian business leaders seem determined to prove themselves incapable of even wiping their asses without government assistance. Yet Tony Abbott expects any of them to have the forward-thinking vision, initiative and ability to build Australia’s next generation broadband infrastructure? What kind of dreamworld is he living in? Telstra can’t even maintain the current infrastructure to a working standard!

It also represents a deep misunderstanding of the Australian telecommunications industry — in that we don’t really have one. Australian telecommunications companies — from Telstra and the various ISPs to the mobile phone providers and pretty much everyone in between — aren’t in the business of providing phone and internet services. That’s just a side-effect. They’re actually in the business of fucking over their customers in the most direct ways possible. It all a scam. A confidence trick. A hustle. And not a particularly clever one at that. The fact any “telecommunications” are happening at all is probably just because a few competent people accidentally got hired once. Or someone didn’t get a memo. The last thing any of these companies want to do is build communications infrastructure. (Just look at Vodafone’s 3G network!) In fact, they would rather not, if they can help it. Building infrastructure is a unwelcome distraction from their core business model — screwing their customers. (And sometimes screwing the Tax Payer.)

Labor’s NBN plan, for it’s faults, at least takes all this into account. Labor seems to get it. They understand the private sector will never build a decent broadband network. They understand the copper network is well past its use-by date, and needs to be replaced by something better (i.e. fibre). They understand that for better or worse, the internet is becoming increasingly ingrained into the fabric of society and business, so it’s vital to our future economic prosperity that fast and reliable internet services are available. They understand the problem of Telstra as the monopolistic elephant in the room, which therefore requires it to be structurally separated for the good of the industry and the country — even if it risks replacing one obnoxious government sanctioned monopoly with another.

Malcolm Turnbull might have managed to do the seemingly impossible and softened Abbott’s hardline stance on the NBN (although losing an election partly because of a misguided and unpopular broadband policy stance probably also helped), with the Coalition now grudgingly promising to build some kind of half-assed broadband network. I suspect Turnbull sat down with Abbott and explained to him using small words and visual aids that Australia’s telecommunications industry was actually one great big fraud perpetrated on the Australian people, and the natives were beginning to catch on and get restless. Since Turnbull has experience as a lawyer, banker and ISP chairman, he no doubt knows all about defrauding the public. A little too well, perhaps.

The problem with the Coalitions NBN policy is that it shows no understanding of the realities of the current state of play that Labor’s does. Labor’s NBN acknowledges that the current scammy system has become obsolete and therefore big (and expensive) changes are needed. Malcolm’s NBN is predicated on a convenient fiction that the existing copper network is still good enough — which it is not. Labor’s NBN is an acknowledgement that broadband in Australia has become a scam and need to be replaced (albeit with possibly grander scam, but at least one that revolves around working, modern technology). Malcolm’s NBN is just a continuation of the current scam. Malcolm’s NBN will be just another chapter in the great Australian broadband hustle — where corporations get rich, but consumers get screwed. The same scam, except with big green node cabinets on every street corner.

With the Coalition’s NBN, it’s likely to be the same situation we currently have, with Telstra as a government sanctioned monopoly without corporate accountability, and no particularly good choices in the marketplace for consumers. We either get a crappy service that barely works, or pay exorbitant prices to get anything even half decent — and no proper competition in the market to keep the corporations honest, leaving them free to continue their scammy ways. Which means the consumer of broadband services in Australia is much like a pornstarlet in a gangbang scene — no matter who they turn to, they’re going to get perfunctorily fucked. One way or another. Because that’s the whole idea, isn’t it Malcolm?