January 2nd, 2008

International Kittens of Mystery


If anyone has been trying to contact me this month and wondered why I've been so silent - the terrible truth can now be revealed.

On Monday December 3rd our broadband connection died. No internet, no email, no telephone for four weeks - everything was routed through our Alice Box ADSL modem which, no doubt in sympathy with the French train drivers, decided to go on indefinite strike.

Out came the manuals and instruction leaflets. I located the problem - no ADSL signal was being received. I followed the recommended instructions - switching the box off, checking all the connections, moving the box through to the lounge and trying the phone socket there. Nothing worked. I tried again after lunch - same result - then phoned the Alice service line on our mobile. And hit automated switchboard hell.

Maybe it was because I'd just finished writing a story in which an automated switchboard played a prominent part. Or maybe it's my magnetic attraction to disaster but I'd just entered the telephone twilight zone.

First I had to get a signal - which living behind a rock in the in the middle of nowhere is not easy. I tried inside the house. Nothing. Then walked outside and stood on said large rock. A signal. I phoned 1033 and entered round one. Which of the many exciting Alice packages did I want? I waited for the automated advert to get to the option where I could report a fault and pressed option 2. And was then asked to input my 10 digit telephone number. I typed in all ten numbers and waited. And waited. It began to rain. Silence from the phone. And no signal.

We drove to the public telephone in the village. 1033 calls were free from a fixed line so at least I didn't have to pay for the call. But that was the only good news. I entered option two, I entered all ten digits of my telephone number, I reached level three - another set of options - I pressed 2, another set of options, I pressed three. Then it went silent. Had I scored so high I'd won a replay? No, I received a message that for security reasons this telephone call might be recorded.

Fat chance. First came the obligatory music then minutes later ... an actual human voice! I rushed into my prepared script, "Nous avons une probleme avec notre Alice Box."

"Allo?" said the voice on the other end of the line.

I repeated my opening sentence. Another 'Allo?' I spoke louder. I said 'allo' back. Again and again. Nothing worked. They couldn't hear me.

I put the phone down and redialled. Another ten minutes and another spate of puzzled 'Allo's. By now everyone in the village knew I had a problem with my Alice Box - I was shouting loud enough - but not the person hiding behind the automated switchboard.

We gave up, drove home and ... found one of our horses rolling on the ground in distress. The onset of colic. Which meant a phone call to the vet. Shelagh did the honours, setting up a base camp on the lawn before ascending the rock to make the phone call. The vet answered immediately, wisely eschewing the buffer of an automated switchboard with several levels of - press one for a biped, press two if your pet's called Polly...

And drove out to see us. Several injections later our horse began to recover. Which was more than could be said for us. Disasters come in threes and we'd only had two so far.

The next day we tried phoning Alice again. No signal. And it was raining so I couldn't stand on the rock. So, I roamed the house in search of a signal. And found one - if I stood on a chair with my head out of the loft window. I braved the wind, rain and the automated switchboard and found someone who understood me. I told him what was wrong and he said a technician would call back.

No one did. The next afternoon I tried again. It wasn't raining so I climbed onto the rock. And spent five minutes pressing buttons to navigate my way to talk to a human who then picked up his script and asked me a further set of questions to identify who I was. I could have told him I was the man standing on a rock in the freezing cold but at that stage I was polite and desperate. I gave him the same telephone number I'd already typed into their system, my name, address and ... now he wanted my mobile number. Which I didn't have. We only use it for emergencies and I've never had the need to call it. So I had to leave my rock to fetch the number and with it went the signal.

Start again. Another ten minutes to get back to the stage I'd left fifteen minutes ago, then I told him what the problem was and struggled to understand his answer. The line was breaking up and he was having difficulty hearing me. After another ten minutes I gave up. We'd try a fixed line from a neighbour's.

Shelagh volunteered and returned a half hour later. She'd been told by Alice technical support that she had to ring back from the same room that our computer was in. She'd explained that we couldn't get a signal there but he'd been adamant. This was to be a recurring theme. The call centre people had a script to follow and any attempt to move them off that script or to miss out steps we'd already covered in previous phone calls was met by a restatement of the party line. We have a script and you are going to follow it.

We rang from our house. We were cut off. We tried again. They told us to do all the things the manual suggested - all the things I'd tried on Monday - checking the connections, trying other sockets etc. We told them again and again that we'd already done that. The problem's with the line. Can't you check it?

Now, I've seen life on the other side. I've worked in tech support and, yes, I know that users often say they've done things when they haven't. But this was way beyond that. And every time we called we got a different person and had to start again from scratch.

But eventually I was put through to someone who appeared to know what they were doing and he agreed to test the line.

Another day dawned. We'd reached Thursday - three days without emails or the internet. I was suffering withdrawal symptoms. And Shelagh was worried about our phone bill. We must have spent two hours calling Alice from our mobile at half a euro per minute. Which is when we hit upon a cunning plan. The mega supermarket chain, Leclerc, had just started their own mobile phone service. Cheap phones, cheap calls and there was a special offer if we took out a subscription this week. We drove into town, bought a new mobile phone, typed in 1033 to call Alice and ... nous sommes desolé, said a recorded voice. We cannot connect your call as it's coming from an unauthorised source. Our new phone could not call special numbers.

Surprise, shock and minor hair-tearing. Why? How? A quick consult of the small print on our Leclerc contract confirmed the news. You can phone anywhere in the world - except those pesky emergency numbers.

Looking on the bright side - a lifelong pursuit of mine - I realised that this made disaster number three. I could now rest easy.

Until I tried to call Alice. All I wanted to know was had they tested our line. All they wanted to know was my name, address, the numbers of all my phones, how many phone sockets I had and then take me through the same prepared script I'd railed at for the previous two days.

Even my declaration that 'Je suis tres proche to a breakdown nerveuse' didn't deflect their curiosity. Have you confirmed that your Alice Box is plugged in? I was about to tell them exactly where I intended to plug the Alice Box next when the signal died.

Shelagh tried next and failed. Could we ring back from a better line, they asked? We went back to our neighbours and played the same switchboard roulette until we were told to return to our house because we needed to be close to our computer. That's where we've just come from! The phone keeps cutting out! Please return to your house.

We asked if they had someone who could come out to our house and sort the problem out but ... they changed the subject. It wasn't in their script. It began to look that, although Alice were responsible for our phone connection, they didn't actually maintain the phone lines. France Telecom did that. But, naturally, FT were more interested in their own customers and would get around to other provider's requests when it suited. All Alice had was a call centre and a script.

We rang FT to find out if they'd received a request to work on our line. They wouldn't say. Ring Alice, they said.

More calls , more frustration. Can you find someone who speaks French? Can you find someone who can fix a phone line? Impasse. We returned to our neighbour and she had a go. Put the phone down and return to your house, you need to be near your computer. No, we don't! Yes, you do!

We fetched a French speaking friend and ferried her to our house. Twenty-five minutes later and without any need to access our computer she was told that our line would be tested. When? Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. If you haven't heard in seven days time, ring back.

Time ticked on. I thought that being weaned off the internet might give me more writing time but, no, I was too busy working out scenarios as to what to do or say next. Were they actually testing our line or just saying anything to get us off the phone?

And then I embraced the dark side - conspiracy theories. Our bank statement arrived the following Monday and there was no monthly payment to Alice. We'd switched to them from France Telecom on April 3rd and every month since then a direct debit had been paid to them on the 24th of each month. Except last month. There was no payment at all. And we'd lost our phone line on December 3rd the eight month anniversary of the contract. Dots began to join and form the words - they cancelled our account by mistake! It would explain everything and maybe make it easier to get everything working again. There was no line to fix just a clerical error.

I prepared a new script and climbed onto my rock. Je suis Sherlock Dolley and I think I've solved the problem. Twenty minutes later I was put on hold and ... the signal went dead. I redialled, I restated, I waited and ... no, your account has never been cancelled.

Or so they said. I was wondering how far the conspiracy stretched. Should I ring Mohammed Al Fayed and swap notes on Prince Phillip's whereabouts last Monday morning?

I decided to wait. MI5 are always thorough and Prince Phillip never leaves loose ends.

On the Thursday - having heard nothing from Alice for the obligatory week - Shelagh rang them from our bemused neighbours (who, by then, had built a small grandstand by their phone so crowds could gather to watch and buy popcorn)

Alice said they'd found the fault. It was in the line at their end and it would take three days to fix. So everything will be back and usable on Monday? Yes, they replied. Shelagh asked them to repeat it three times. And let them know she had a gun.

Monday arrived and still no line so I wrestled the gun away from Shelagh and drove into town, found a phone that worked and called Alice. The fault hadn't been fixed because ... there was no fault. Could I go back to the house so that the modem could be verified? I remonstrated, explaining that we'd been doing little else for two weeks. Someone needed to come out. No, you need to go home and call us again.

I went home, called them again, tried to explain and ... was ignored. Out came the same script - switch the modem off, unplug the line, switch it all back on again. I jumped through all the hoops until they said they were going to get a technician to test the line. Ring back in a day or so. I exploded and was told to be patient. Patient? Moi? I was a man standing on a rock in the freezing cold, snow falling all around him. I'd been nothing but patient for two weeks!

I cut the call. And vowed I'd never speak to Alice again except through a solicitor.

The next day we got up early and drove, cap in hand, to France Telecom who had a shop where you could talk to real live human beings and employed engineers who could actually fix telephone lines. 'Take us back!' we begged. 'We didn't mean to leave!'

They took us back but ... we'd have to change our telephone number as Alice insisted on keeping the old one. And wait four days for the new number to be switched on. By then we'd have agreed to anything. The old phone line was useless - no one could even leave a message for us - anyone trying was met by an automated voice telling them we couldn't take their call.

Four days passed and - you guessed it - nothing. I rang 1013 (the France Telecom fault line) and was told that the line should have been connected but it hadn't. Try ringing 1014 (their office line) to find out why. I rang 1014 and was told there was a problem but it should be fixed soon.

Two days passed. On the three week anniversary of The Day the Telephone Died and with Christmas only a day away I rang 1014 again and was asked if I could go to their shop in Flers. I drove to Flers, braved the Christmas Eve shoppers who were queuing out the door of the France Telecom store and waited. But at least I got to speak to a person and watch as they phoned the engineers and confirmed that there was a problem and it was being worked on.

Not over Christmas though. More silent days passed and on the Friday I drove into the village for my obligatory call to a service desk and was told that the work had been completed. But my phone doesn't work! Doesn't it? It looks fine from this end. He then told us to return to our home - not to be close to our computer (they pine for human company, you know) - but so he could test the line for us. We gave him our mobile number, rushed home and waited. He rang us on the mobile and took us through a couple of tests - testing our errant line first with a phone connected then without. Two minutes later he pronounced our line as dead. An engineer would come out on Monday to fix it.

Bliss. A real person was coming to our house. Something we'd asked for right at the beginning. And it had only taken France Telecom a couple of minutes to test our line. Our sojourn in the mind numbing alternative world of automated call centre hell was coming to an end.

New Year's Eve arrived on time and so did the engineers. They found the fault in ten minutes - the line between our house and the road was dead - and then re-cabled us.

We no longer have broadband but at least we have something.