Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Epic (fail) of GCI Alaska

Below, please find the contents of a Microsoft Notebook file that I have been composing throughout the day:

Well, it's been a while since postings on this blog have wound down from a crawl, to a drip, to a nothing. I suppose I should apologize, but as anyone who knows me is aware, I haven't given up on filling everyone in on the mundane details of my existence. I've just changed forums. After constantly updating Facebook and twitter, there always seems little left to package up into an original blog post.

But today I need to post about a topic that will take me longer than 140 characters.

The latest chapter in our ongoing, now 4-month loathe/hate relationship with GCI, has prompted me to put the whole story (or at least as much as I can accurately remember, with my notes from phone calls, etc) into writing. Mostly as catharsis, but also as fair warning. Yes, GCI has a monopoly in Bethel, so if you want cable, a cell phone, and internet (though there you have a couple other options, I believe), you'll have to deal with them...but be afraid. Be very afraid.

Sara and I got our cell phones this spring in Nunapitchuk. It was an exciting time, as GCI had just put up a cell antenna, and this was the very first time such "big city" technology was going to be availiable in the village. The representative set up camp in the community building, and residents flocked over to sign up for their contracts and get their phones. I headed over after work, got in line, and after 45 minutes of waiting we were told that the reason the line wasn't moving was that the coverage was down, and that we could stay in line or come back in a bit. This wasn't the first time that day the cell coverage was out, and the reps weren't able to call in and activate new phones. In retrospect, this should have been my first hint at what was to come, but the tech was new there, so there were bound to be bugs, right? Well after getting to the head of the line, watching people be told they were going to need to put down 4, 5, 600 dollar deposits (which I totally understand, by the way), I signed up...only to be told they were now out of phones. Well, not out of phones, exactly...the representative, seeing the results of my credit check, began a "hard sell", trying to get me to "just go ahead and get a blackberry". When I asked (already knowing the answer) if the service to support data was even availiable in the village, he said "well no, but it will be someday!"

Really? So I should purchase a $300 smartphone that won't even work to make calls in the village half the time, in preparation for whenever GCI brings data service to this village? What are the odds that such a thing will happen before this particular model is hopelessly out-of-date? But I digress...

We waited, called Anchorage, got our phones by mail, and they worked about as well as we would have expected in the village. That is to say, not always, but at least as often as out land line, and without the 8-second delay. So we were happy. Then came summer, back in WI, where the service map correctly told us we'd have service in our hometown and points north, but none at all once we ventured 10 miles south. Trips to Madison and Wisconsin Dells confirmed problem, it was expected. Odd things with out phones, though - some folk's text messages wouldnt come through, while other people couldn't call us, only txt, and others would try calling us only to get an error as "invalid number". All calls had a 5-8 second delay. When I asked about this while later on the line with a particularly competant GCI tech, they mentioned this was most likely the fault of whichever service ran the particular towers we were bouncing off of not recognizing GCI phones or their setup, which sounds plausable considering I can't imagine Verizon in Central WI has much use by cell phones from Alaska. GCI gets a pass on that, in my book.

Then in August, we head back up to Alaska and move into Bethel. Hub town, lots of services, obvious the cell service would be better than in the village, right? Heh. This is where it gets interesting.

To date, I have not made a single call from my home lasting longer than 5 minutes that has not been "dropped". And that's when I'm lucky enough to be able to make a call. Often, dialing and pressing send gets a "BEEP BEEP BEEP" and a big red error message on my phone. The specific error rotates: "NETWORK BUSY" is most common, with "UNABLE TO COMPLETE CALL" and "NETWORK ERROR" also making appearances. Now, I know what you're's the signal strength in your house? Well, as I sit here at my computer desk typing this, my phone is next to me, showing 4 bars. It was showing 4 bars throughout my conversation with a GCI tech this morning, during the course of which the call dropped and he called me back 4 times (I have taken to asking, first thing when I get on with a human, for them to call me back if we get disconnected. It works.) Now, mind you, this didn't stop a GCI Cell Tech from sounding annoyed and suggesting that I just stand by the window or go outside whenever I want to make a phone call. Dispite the fact that I told him I had 4 bars and that I wasn't convinced signal strength was the issue. Oh well.

This would be a good place for me to interject that the bright spot in my whole interaction with GCI has been their 1-800 line customer service reps and techs. I would say that 75% of the ones that I've talked to have tried to be helpful, and even when they couldn't (and usually after having to call me back 8 or 9 times in the course of a 15 minute converation) they've been very sympathetic, saying they couldn't *believe* how bad my service was, how they'd never heard anything like it, etc etc. One even managed to put a $100 credit to our account for the trouble, which was nice, considering our bills are currently in the $150-$180 range for cell and internet combined. Now if only they could get something done about maybe letting us be able to use it.

Anyways, to shorten up the story of everything leading up to today, we've been struggling to use our phones. After complaining on twitter (much as I intend to now, after today's incident), I was contacted by the very nice, helpful person in charge of the GCIAK twitter account, who forwarded my information and problem to a Cell Help Desk specialist(?), I think, named Michael Lane(?)...the reason those are currently uncertain is because I can't access my email at the moment to confirm them. Anyways, Mr. Lane was extremely helpful and informative about the situation in Bethel, and told me that there were some tower upgrades going on, and asked for some feedback as to how they improved my service. It was marginally better for a few weeks, but as the Internet Tech I spoke to this morning and who had to call me back a nuber of times because the "network was too busy for my call" at 8:45am can attest...that improvement is no longer.

So that gets us to now...our cell phones suck, but they are what they are. Internet is expensive, and the transfer limits archaic for current browsing, but we stay off of youtube, don't download much, and just suck it up and pay the overage when we ultimately go over by a couple gigs a month. Then, yesterday. Heh. Well, our internet just plain stops working. Power-cycle the modem a few times, it's fine, no errors, all lights are good, no firewall issues, no hardware issues, went outside and checked the cable line into the's fine. My first thought was that there was an outage, as happens would suck, but there are other things to do rather than check my email, so no big deal. I wait a few hours, try again, still no luck. Try calling the Bethel GCI office, first two times my phone disconnects before the call rings twice. Third time, "NETWORK BUSY". Fourth time, it's ringing! And ringing...and answer. At 3:45pm on a Tuesday. I chalk it up to "it's Bethel" and txt Sara, to see if she can try calling from work while I try the 1-800 number in Anchorage. She gets ahold of someone at the Bethel office who curt and annoyed, tells her there's no outage and we should just turn the modem off and back on again. Thanks. Meanwhile, I have no luck getting my phone to call Anchorage, so I decide to just let it sit unplugged overnight and hope things resolve themselves.

This morning, same thing. Internet connects for maybe 10 seconds, then freezes, "limited to no connectivity". Boo. So, I wait until after 8 and call the 1-800 number to talk to GCI internet tech support. Not to much of a hold at this hour, so I get a tech quickly and tell him my usual "if you lose me, can you call me back?" schpiel. Explain the situation, he runs through a couple things, it's all good, he puts me on hold while he talks to some people. Call drops, he calls me back, and has some interesting news. Our modem has been shut off for non-payment. Mind you, I pay my bills online, have emailed confirmations, recipts, and entries in my checkbook program and on our bank statement SHOWING exactly when and for how much we made our payments. Here's where the frustration turns to absurdity and hilarity. What have we not paid? Our cable television bill! We do not have cable television. In fact, we pay an extra $7.99 a month "cable access fee" on our internet bill specifically BECAUSE we do not have cable TV. I explain this to the internet tech, who is instant messaging different people at GCI in customer service, etc (i'm not sure), and they all agree something is seriously messed up, but that the "shutoff" was initiated in the Bethel GCI office, so he isn't able to do anything right away, he has to leave a message for the people in Bethel.

So that's where I stand with GCI Alaska right now. Despite the troubles we've been having with service, I've been paying my bills on time, using their online "my ebill" system, getting recipts, bank statements, never a word of problem...only to have them shut off my internet for non-payment of a service they do not provide me.

It's 10:40am here in Bethel as I'm tying this. I got off the phone with the internet tech (whose name I sadly cannot remember at the moment, because he was excellent) about an hour and a half ago. He told me he'd do whatever he could to get this mess resolved ASAP and give me a call back. As I'm not going to be able to post this text/manifesto until I get internet back, I will continue to update below if/when anything happens.

*UPDATE* - 11:15am: Nothing from GCI yet, no call and internet not working. Interestingly, just was told by my wife by txt that of the handfull of people around her in her office, two have had similar billing problems with GCI here in Bethel. Now that I think of it, it isn't our first billing problem with them here, they charged us double for installation on our September bill, and double rates for our first month. Not sure that even ever got resolved on our account. I remember calling Anchorage, having a CSR there look at my account, and say "what the heck are they doing at that office there?"

*UPDATE* - 3:12pm: RESOLUTION! So get this. After not hearing from them by 2:15pm, ww decide Sara would call the Bethel office to see if anything had been resolved. She texts me, while still on the phone with them, "they say we never paid a connection fee!" So as you can imagine (see my previous update, re: being DOUBLE CHARGED for a connection fee), this gets me pretty darn hopping mad. I call Anchorage. The CSR, Stephanie, is very nice and helpful, and reads through all the notes on my account, and as far as she can figure, the error has been corrected and our internet has been turned back on as of 11:20am...yet I still have no internet. She forwards me to Rick over in Internet Tech support, who magically zaps my modem and bingo, back online.

Now back to the subject of the mysterious unpaid connection fee. Remember the connection fee of $24.99 we were double billed for in September, the one i mentioned above with the billing problems? That I then called and had corrected by the good folks in Anchorage who couldn't figure out how the Bethel office had screwed up the billing? Yeah, that was for "Internet Setup"...apparently, according to the good folks in the Bethel office, there's another $26.99 connection fee for CABLE SERVICE, even though we don't have cable, and already paid the internet setup fee. Apparently when you set up "Cable Internet", they charge you for each word seperately.

Why didn't we pay this Cable Service set up fee, you ask? Because we never got a bill. Why didn't we get a bill, you ask?? Because the cable billing is ON AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT COMPUTER SYSTEM THAN THE INTERNET/PHONE BILLING SYSTEM, AND SINCE WE DON'T HAVE CABLE TV, THEY DIDN'T HAVE OUR INFORMATION! That's right, the global communication company can't even get it's Cable Department to communicate with the Cell phone and Internet department. They didn't have our address, didn't have our phone number (our GCI cell phone number, I remind you), and as such, simply waited 'til the time had passed when we were far enough past due on our cable setup fee and shut off the cable line to out internet modem.

The genius of this system surpasses anything my mind is able to comprehend.

But at the moment, since my internet is back up and running (thank you un-named tech from this morning, Stephanie, and Rick in Anchorage), I'm going to click "save" on this notepad file, and get to posting. I'd promise more updates later, but god I hope not...

*UPDATE* - 4:37pm: Wow! So the Internet Tech that I spoke to first thing this morning - his name is Carl, by the way...I had forgotten that earlier - called back to follow up. I told him how things played out this afternoon. He did some checking in the notes on my account, with his supervisor sitting beside him checking along, and decided that they need to send a message to Bethel and the CSRs. Apparently, the way Bethel Office explained it to Sara (separate fees for hooking up cable and internet when you're only getting internet) is NOT how it's supposed to be done. And that emphasis is his, not mine. When I told him the Bethel office had waived the late fees and was sending a bill for the "overdue" $26, he asked "Oh, so you haven't paid that yet? Good. I'm going to personally make sure this gets figured out and we get your charges on your account right."