Saturday, January 07, 2012

phone blues

Early in the second half of December, my landline died on me. I didn't notice it at first. I don't get many calls on it, and then most are from telemarketers whose absence from my ears I wouldn't miss. Then my dad called one evening and wondered where I'd been the night before, and the night before that. I had been home, I said. He insisted he had called – every half hour from eight to midnight on both days, as he likes to exaggerate – and no one had picked up.

That's when I noticed that calls to my landline were lost in the ether, ringing at a number that was, at least temporarily, inactive but gave no indication of the fact to the unfortunate caller. On my side, I didn't have a dial tone. The line was dead.

Curiously, my internet was still working and with it my second line, built on IP technology and my primary phone for outgoing calls. I sat down and called Orange, my service provider. Unless national and most international calls, which are included in the DSL package, this service call wasn't free. This is Europe, after all, where service costs extra. At least it didn't take long. After clicking through a few options, I quickly talked to a person, audibly of Irish descent and eager to help.

"Can I call you on your cell phone?" Ashling asked and with "there are a few tests I need to run with the line", he walked me through the obvious troubleshooting that I had already done. "Is the phone plugged in? Please connect the phone that's working directly to the socket. Still no dial tone? Looks like there's a problem with your line. We're going to send an engineer by to investigate. No, you don't have to do a thing. We'll get back to you by Wednesday, 6pm. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

There wasn't, and with Irish warmth he hung up, but not before promising to forward my landline calls to my cell phone, a mixed blessing if there ever was one. I was suddenly made aware of all the credit advisers, insurance agents and medical malpractice investigators that spend their afternoons calling potential victims. But I could also receive my family's and foreign friends' calls wherever I was.

On Wednesday afternoon, I talked to Orange again. They had by then firmly established that my line was indeed faulty. To trace and, ultimately, fix it, a BT Connect engineer needed access to my flat. The earliest appointment they could give me was the next day in the morning, between 8 and 1. I was stunned by yet another example of staggering efficiency but couldn't take advantage of it. The next morning I'd be flying to Germany, out of town until the 28th. "How about the 29th in the morning? Would that work for you?" the guy on the phone asked, with an Indian accent this time. "Have a nice Christmas, sir."

Things were well on their way, I felt. The problem was all but solved. Unfortunately, things haven't looked that good since and the problem of the broken landline has developed into a confusion of Kafkaesque proportions. Here's what happened:

On the 29th in the morning, a wink after 8 o'clock, I stepped out briefly to get breakfast, dashing to the Cooperative across the street to buy rolls and juice. I was gone for five minutes max. It might have been that in that time, the engineer came to my door, ringing the bell with increasing desperation. Or maybe he came later and the doorbell didn't work. Either way and curiously for someone in telecommunications, he didn't call my cell phone, which I held in my hand throughout the day. I had to call Orange for another appointment, which was promptly scheduled for the next morning.

Quickly after arriving the next morning, the engineer had established that the fault was external. He called a sidekick with whom he'd try to fix it there and then, but after two hours of waiting and working, it turned out there was more to it than had met the eye. The engineer would have to come back with the right tools and parts. "Please call your service provider to keep the forwarding", he reminded me before he left.

Then it was New Year's Eve and I was off to see the fireworks when I noticed another message on my phone. Some rambling about my landline that was so low that I didn't understand a word and could hardly make up the sense later in the quiet of my flat. I called Orange again on the 3rd and found out that the file that had been opened upon my reporting the fault had been closed. Enough time had passed for the line to be repaired. "But it's still dead", I retorted weakly and a parallel world of problems opened up before me.

"We have to do some quick tests", the service guy told me, with an Irish accent again. "You need to get off this line. Could you please give me your mobile number so I can call you back?" My insisting that the fault had already been established as external was of no use. Tests were run. My phones were found working. My line wasn't. "Regarding charges", Kenny said when all was done, "I must inform you that you will incur a call-out charge of up to 150 pounds and labor charges of 100 pounds an hour if it turns out that the fault is caused by your equipment." — "If I hadn't already agreed to that, the engineer wouldn't have come out the first time around", I replied, and the joke wasn't entirely lost on him. "BT Connect are dealing with the problem. You don't have to do a thing, but call us in a week if it's still not solved."

That same day in the afternoon, I get a rather irate call from a BT engineer. Justin claims an appointment and is angry that I'm not home to meet him. I'm at work, but later in the evening I call Orange again. I'm sure my phone bill has ten quid of service calls on it by now. Stephen, gentle and soft-spoken, another Irishman, is incredulous. "We did not send that engineer. No one should have come by your flat. But BT asked us to confirm that the fault is still ongoing. Could you unplug your DSL box tomorrow morning and plug the phone directly into the socket. We need to run some tests."

"You ran tests this morning", I say weakly, feeling the devastating impotence of Joseph K. in The Trial. Stephen is more upbeat: "Those were quick tests. Now we need to do further diagnostic testing. We will call you tomorrow after 9 to let you know."

The call from Orange never materializes, but a day later, the phone still out of work, I get another call from a BT engineer. It's around lunchtime. Pete has an appointment for that afternoon, 1 to 6, and wants to know if I'm ready. I'm working, and tell him so. "Please get in touch with your service provider, which is Orange", Pete says, clearly in the loop, "so that another appointment can be scheduled. An engineer needs to come to your premises and measure from the socket to check what has been done previously." I don't have the strength for a reply.

That evening, last night, I call Orange again. Patrick, with the soothing lilt of all Irishmen, is there to help me. What has happened to the world, I wonder. A few years ago, the Irish made fortunes flipping properties as if they were pancakes and now they outcompete the Indians for call-center work. Patrick is thorough. "We need to do some tests", he begins and I lose it. "You don't need to do tests", I interrupt him rudely. "You've done tests three times already. An engineer has been here to establish the fault as external. What you need to do is to fix things. You need to send someone out to fix my phone."

"That's no problem", says Patrick, unperturbed, all service, and I jump at the chance to let off more steam. "No, it is a problem, and it needs to be fixed." After this, I pull myself together. It's no fun yelling at an Irishman. They're just too gentle and kind. Patrick gets me an appointment for Monday morning, and this is where the story currently stands. It's been three weeks and my landline is still dead.

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