How bad can rural broadband get? If our experience over the past three days is exemplary, then the answer is: pretty bad.
Our home and business internet service provider (ISP) is Consolidated Communications (Wikipedia). Some of you may recall that our previous ISP was the late and thoroughly unlamented Fairpoint, which Consolidated purchased about one year ago. Given how awful Fairpoint had been, we had some hopes for Consolidated. They were met for a while. Support was faster and better. Service had fewer downtimes. Now, Consolidated didn’t increase our speeds, but better service and support was still progress.
Unfortunately, since January Consolidated’s service has declined. We saw it in small ways at first, with more frequent router power cycles, and less friendly support staff. Then several outages occurred, including phone service (which Consolidated also supplies), and Consolidated responded with a mix of competence and confusion (i.e., sending technicians to our house after things were fixed, losing track of our account information).
This weekend it all went south, and badly.
(For context, we live in a small town in rural Vermont. We pay for the maximum speeds Consolidated can deliver, which are not good: about 6-7 mpbs download, 0.7 upload. On this frail reed rests our family’s communications, plus our business operations. That’s two accounts, home and business. There are no other ISPs available, beyond dish antennae and a local ISP which can’t get us the above speeds. Meanwhile, cell phone coverage in our town is either generally (Verizon) or totally (ATT) nonexistent.)
On Friday night our internet connection started stalling out, then stopped completely. This was 7 pm EST. I power cycled the router, waited the requisite time, then tested the connection through multiple devices (Android phone, Mac laptop, PC laptop) and connections (WiFi and direct ethernet cabling to the router). Nothing.
I quickly called the Consolidated Communications tech support line, then worked with a representative for almost half an hour. We power cycled again, checked the router physically, analyzed the network – no dice. We couldn’t determine the problem, nor select a solution. We decided that the problem wasn’t in my house, but somewhere in the Consolidated Communications network. The rep assured me they were on the case. I accepted this.
The next morning (Saturday) internet access was still absent. We called the Consolidated Communications tech support line again. This time a rep told me they still didn’t know the cause. They also couldn’t help us until Monday, two days hence. I carefully explained that not only will a family suffer from being offline, but a business is likely to take financial and reputational hits from being incommunicado. The rep explained that while that was sad, they had no staff in the area on weekends. I pointed out that technology problems didn’t respect business hours. In response to that comment and our general situation the rep wasn’t very sympathetic. He insisted we sit tight and wait ’til Monday, when they would start work (i.e., not guaranteeing a solution then).
So we did what we normally do when confronted with natural and technological disasters: drove to the other end of town to the town Fire Department, there to quickly get a very slow but still real internet connection.
We then drove two towns away to get a somewhat better connection. From there we did two things: desperately tried to catch up on missed business, and investigated what was going wrong with Consolidated Communications.
For the latter, we reached out for help across every channel we had. I emailed the company from their official site. I pinged their site’s chat agent (see below). I targeted their accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Well, to be precise, I vented, complained, updated people, and sought help. I tracked down Bob Udell, Consolidated’s CEO, on LinkedIn, and asked him for assistance. I posted a question on the Vermont Reddit Board and emailed a similar question to FrontPorchForum (a hyperlocal email list). I emailed our state representative.
Responses gradually trickled in. The supermajority of Vermonters reported to Reddit and via email that yes, Consolidated Communications seemed stuck in the bad Fairpoint service mode. Maybe they bit off more than they could chew, or simply hadn’t made necessary changes.
Eventually, just after midnight, Friday night (12:34 am Saturday), the official Consolidated Communications account responded on Twitter:
Hello – Sorry to hear about this trouble. Please private message your Account Number, City & State, Street Address, Access Hours for possible tech visit, and Call back number/Contact info and we'll notify a Representative to reach out. Thanks! https://t.co/BTV7z3s5NQ
— Consolidated (CCI) (@MyCCITweets) May 19, 2018
I was gratified by this response, and immediately instant messaged them. Then I waited. And waited. And still haven’t gotten a reply, nearly two days later. Here’s my chat record, with posts in reverse chronological order:
On Facebook was a nearly identical story: a quick note from Consolidated Communications expressing support, then silence after my responses.
Saturday afternoon and the internet was still dead. My son and I journeyed to other towns for connection (know that it’s 30 minutes to get out of our town, at a minimum, each way). Ceredwyn remained home to paint the bathroom (remember, we’re trying to sell the house!). Consolidated Communications called and told her good news: the problem was fixed, and service was able to return! She waited a few minutes, then tested the connection. Still dead. She waited more time, longer than the rep had told her to wait: still nothing. She called me with the update.
Frustrated, I reached out to a chat support line on the Consolidated Communications website. An agent responded, telling me the trouble ticket had been closed (!), since the problem was fixed.
Day 2 without home internet. @MyCCITweets has no idea what the problem is. They tried to close the ticket, though.
— Bryan Alexander (@BryanAlexander) May 20, 2018
I explained that this wasn’t the case, and we still desperately needed help. The rep couldn’t do anything, referring me instead to their phone line. I called again (the number is now thoroughly embedded in muscle memory) and a cheerless representative told me I couldn’t know the service was out, because I wasn’t home, and my wife’s report didn’t count. Meanwhile, the online chat rep stopped replying to me, like so:
Visitor [me]: They won’t reopen the ticket unless we call from the location.
Visitor: Which is a problem, since I’m 45 minutes away.
Visitor: You can’t open the ticket yourself?
Visitor: Joseph, this isn’t helping.
Visitor: I’m not sure if you’re still here. You don’t seem to be answering.
Furious, I drove home with my son. We confirmed the internet was still out. I called the Consolidated help line to get them to reopen the ticket, which they did. This new representative told me nothing would be done until Monday, two days off. My reactions prompted him to bring in a supervisor. The supervisor confirmed everything: they had no idea what the problem was; they couldn’t give me a timeline for its resolution; they possessed no resources in our area on weekends. I, my family, and the business were going to be offline until Monday. And we were supposedly receiving escalated attention.
Saturday night we continued our 1980s-style commute to compute, then drove home for sleep.
Sunday morning: still no internet. Sunday afternoon: no change. No response from Consolidated through social media, LinkedIn, or email. More anti-Consolidated comments did arrive from people on Reddit and through email.
In about 75 minutes from now we’ll start our third day offline. We’ve spent hours of time wrestling with this, and hours more in driving around the county hunting 21st century connectivity. Our son hates rural Vermont more than ever (being offline for him isn’t quaint or an opportunity to reconnect with offline life). My work emails have piled up and my online research has fallen behind. I’ve missed two video calls (which I can barely do from home anyway, thanks to slow speeds).
We have no idea what the problem is, or how and when it’ll be address. Looking ahead, if this outage is something that can afflict Consolidated Service at any point and take our service offline, how often will the problem return in the future? Consolidated’s responses over the past few days suggest that this isn’t a priority for them to solve, so perhaps we should prepare for frequent outages in increasing number.
So, stepping back, why am I writing this today?
First, as documentation. I think this experience is a useful one for considering the digital divide in 2018. It shows how poor rural access remains. It seems that the business case for providing decent (not great, just basic) service to the countryside is too weak for businesses. Hence, in this case, a major ISP simply not paying for staff on weekends.
Second, I am desperately reaching out for help. Maybe someone at Consolidated Communications will see this and try to solve the problem, either directly (getting us back online) or strategically (by diverting resources to our area). Right now this combination of service and customer relations is awful.
Third, I’m struck by the retro nature of this experience. I remember as a teenager in the 1980s having no networked computing at home, and having to drive to a school or lab to get online. Commute to compute.
(On a related Vermont note, here’s the internet connection speed Burlington’s airport offered me Wednesday afternoon:
Maybe there’s a deep drive in Vermont to keep things at 1980s levels. Or we just aren’t taking subsequent technological evolution seriously)
Meanwhile, my family and business remain offline. Can anyone help us, please?