CULTIVATING LIBERALISM
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The New AT&T
Outsourcing Obscenity

Thanks for using AT&T. How may I screw you?

Friday afternoon we got one of those Promethean thunderstorms here on our Floridian coast. The electricity didn’t go out, which is unusual, given Florida Power & Light’s third-rate, fourth-world infrastructure. But when it was over, my DSL connection was done for. What followed was an odyssey through the hell of outsourcing, mergers, and the new era of Screw the Customer. Welcome to the New AT&T.

My connection, incidentally, is still out. I’m doing this by back-up dial-up—dial-up! A 40 kbs connection with that scratchy gurgling sound at the beginning, a sound I haven’t heard since the dial-up days of the Clinton administration. Good thing this happened on the weekend, when I update this site less if at all. Not a good thing that it happened this weekend, because I’m working on an enormous project (unrelated to the site) that requires intensive on-line access.

When I figured out that the DSL dislocation wasn’t temporary, I started playing House—ruling out this problem and that. Bell South administers our local line and initially administered our DSL, until it merged with AT&T. First problem: What passes for customer service at Bell South informed me that they’d have to test the line to decide if it was a problem with the DSL connection or the phone line itself. First diagnosis: It was the phone line. They turned out to be wrong. We had to tell them that once all DSL equipment was disconnected, the line was fine. But by then they’d set a technician’s visit to fix the phone line which didn’t need fixing.

Why don’t you just have the technician look at the DSL connection?

“Can’t do that, sir. That’s a DSL problem. Different technician.”

Why don’t you just switch the appointment to a DSL technician?

“Can’t do that, sir. We have to cancel out the first appointment first.”

Well then, cancel it out and set the second.

“Can’t do that, sir. We can only cancel out the first. You’ll have to call back to set the second. Different department.”

But we just spent an hour on hold and off hold trying to get this far.

“Sorry, sir. It’s out of my hands.”

Maybe it’s my DSL equipment. I rush to Staple’s, shell out $130 for a new modem and a new router. Install it all. No dice. Same problem. The snide, winking green light keeps winking snidely. It’s a broadband-connection problem, not an equipment problem.

When I call back to speak with the DSL universe, it’s no longer Bell South, no longer the United States. It’s AT&T, from somewhere in India. This is going on Friday afternoon. I’m dreading a three-day weekend without DSL—the three-day weekend critical to three people in this house: I have that project to complete by Monday. Cheryl is in the middle of her new school year’s recruiting drive for her youth orchestra. Sadie is in the middle of crunch-time with her virtual schooling (all online). And here’s the scratchy man from India telling me we may have a problem setting a DSL technician’s appointment before Tuesday. The pitch of my voice begins to rise. And what’s with the line being so scratchy? The guy at the other end of the line cuts out every sixth word. I mean, this is AT&T we’re connected with, and you’re telling me that we have to be talking on a back-assed Internet connection on the phone, with AT&T? Well, yes. That’s outsourcing.

At least the man manages to set a Saturday appointment. But wait! “I’m sorry, sir, but our computers are down. I’m not able to actually set the appointment.”

You’re kidding. No, this is just a joke. You’re just being funny with me. Outsourcing humor, yes?

“No sir. The computers are down. I can call you back to confirm as soon as the computers are up.”

Yes. And the check is in the mail. But what choice did I have? Sure, call me back. He says he would in an hour. Didn't happen. I call AT&T again sometime after 9 p.m. On hold. Transferred. I ask for a supervisor. I ask for one back in the United States, imagining that somehow there’d be a difference. This whole comedy started at 3:30 the afternoon of Friday. Here we were in bed Cheryl and I, 10 p.m., having an unpleasant threesome with a man in Bombay telling me he’s having a hard time connecting with his supervisor in the United States. AT&T, incapable of connecting with itself. The alleged supervisor finally turns up, only pretending to be a supervisor, telling me he’s in Columbia, S.C., but repeating the very same things everyone else has been saying, and doing so with that revolting obsequious tone that reads placating platitudes from standard cue cards plastered around his office: “I'm sorry you're having all this trouble, sir. I'm going to do everything I can to fix the problem. I'm sorry you feel that way sir.” And under his breath the guy is calling me a motherfucker and picturing me disemboweled and skull-bashed against the shoals of the South Carolina shore. I ask for that Saturday appointment again, now that, I assume, the computers are working.

“Can’t do that, sir. Tuesday is the earliest.”

But you told me I had a Saturday appointment, it was just a matter of computer problems—your computer problems. You have to make it right.

“Can’t do that, sir.”

At that point I’m no longer civil, though not yet postal, either. Just threatening the old legal recourse, which sometimes sends wake-up jolt through the lines. In this case it only prompts my Columbian to say that he’d have to send an email to some sort of suit-filled law-suiters who can then call me back in half an hour, or maybe in the morning because it’s so late. My other option is to set the Tuesday appointment and hope that AT&T “expedites” it. I would get a phone call by 9 a.m. to let me know if it could be expedited.

What goddamn choice did I have. Set the Tuesday appointment. Let’s see about that morning call.

I hang up. Phone light blinks, showing a message left there while I was on the phone. It’s the guy from India. Says I have a Sunday afternoon technician’s appointment. Unbelievable. The right continent doesn’t know what the left one is doing. That’s outsourcing. At least we have that.

The AT&T call came at 8:30 Saturday morning. It was a recording. “We’re sorry to inform you that the service call could not be expedited. A technician will be by Tuesday.” I have a pretty serious bump on my head now from hitting the roof. I immediately called AT&T and put in a morning’s worth of calisthenics by way of yelling obscenities. Surprisingly, it worked. By the time I was done yelling, I had a Sunday morning appointment, between 9 and 12. We could end up with two technicians’ visits by day’s end, though I seriously doubt it.

It’s Sunday morning now. As I type up this very line, it’s 8:43 a.m. By the time I revise this pitiful account and upload it, an upload that will likely take half an hour, it may be 9:30. The bookies in Vegas have me at 2-1 against a technician showing up today. I’m willing to bet my son’s college fund on it.

Actually, the man showed up at 9:15. Cheryl thought maybe we should all get on the ground and praise him, Allah-style. I suggested we’d better hold off. He was here six minutes. Tested the line. No DSL signal at all, is all he could say. “They must have done something from the office. I’ll have to see what’s going on there, but it may be out of my hands. You’d have to wait until Tuesday.” Then he left.

This is the new AT&T for you: “We fuck you over. And there’s not thing one you can do about it.”

That’s the thing about outsourcing. The problem has nothing to do with outsourcing jobs to the four corners of the globe. As far as I’m concerned, the more outsourcing in that sense, the better: it spreads the wealth around, and it’d be repulsive to suggest that a worker in Columbia, S.C., is more able, more deserving or even deserving of some inalienable priority over a worker in Bombay or Jakarta or Perth (Amboy or Australia, your pick). No, the problem is the outsourcing of accountability, of responsibility. Companies like AT&T have essentially insulated themselves from responding to customers in any way but their own. It’s not as if other companies will do the job better. They all subscribe to the same methods, off-shore the same call centers (just as, not coincidentally, they’ve managed to off-shore their profits and tax liabilities). They’re not outsourcing jobs. They’re inbreeding immunity.

Can I have my money back?

“Can’t do that, sir. Your money is tied up in the same sling we keep your testicles in.”

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