After watching a couple of dozen generations of consumer electronics strut their way down the eternal conga line between the store shelf and the trash heap, it's still a mystery to me about what makes folks go from drooling over a new technology to actually laying out money for it. That's because I'm part of the large cohort of folks known as late adopters -- you know, the people who tend to hold on to the gadgets we have until they stop making batteries for them and we can't find the repair parts on eBay anymore. As someone who still packs a late-1990s Palm-V PDA
in his pocket and a 20-year old Sony Trinitron in his den, my quasi-Luddite personal life is, in part, a direct result of my professional life, where I get to see exactly how unreliable, short-lived, and downright flaky most new technologies are. If you'd seen the underbelly of nearly every communication technology since the teletype, as I have, you would not laugh at the old rotary dial phone I keep plugged in near my bed or the fact that I only gave up my trusty TDMA/AMPS cellular phone last year when they finally turned off analog service in the towers.
So it came as a big surprise when I found myself shopping for VoIP services last week to replace the analog phone line that's served me well since I started working from my home office back in 1997. Until now, the idea of a $24.95 phone bill and all the cool call control features were interesting, but not enough to coax me away from the reliable, if expensive (around $80/month after taxes and fees) flat-rate POTS service I was getting from AT&T. Somehow, trusting my critical business calls to a best-effort IP connection did not seem like a worthwhile way to save money -- at least until this week.
Actually, I had been toying with the idea of switching to another carrier after learning of AT&T's deep involvement with the president's unconstitutional warrantless wiretap program, but it took getting trapped inside the inhuman bowels of the company's customer (dis)service system before I got the final push I needed to make the jump to digital voice.
It all started out a couple of months ago when I discovered that the company had billed me for two months of service even though I was pretty sure I had paid the previous month's bill. A quick look at my on-line bank records showed that I'd made an electronic payment to AT&T which they'd apparently accepted without crediting my account.
After spending an hour or so with various friendly but clueless service agents in the Philippines, India, and perhaps Antarctica, I was told that in order to get my credit I'd have to go to the bank and have them print out a certified copy of my statement, which I was to mail along with a letter of explanation to a PO box somewhere in Utah.
I spent a couple of hours complying with the company's documentation requirements (except the part about signing my name in blood) and forgot about the matter until I got a letter in the mail explaining that the discrepancy had been noted and that a refund would be issued as a credit on my bill over the next month or two. Everything seemed to be fine until last week when I actually got my usual $80 phone bill without even a hint of a refund to be found anywhere. Another couple of hours on the phone with service reps in India, Latvia and Lower Slovenia confirmed my worst fears that while my claim was in their records, there was no indication anywhere that the mysterious inhabitants of the Utah PO box had ever decided I was owed a refund.
And, strangely, although AT&T is one of the largest phone companies in the world, the Utah office which caused all the trouble does not have a number I can call to complain about it. Apparently they communicate only by snail mail, e-mail and occasional smoke signals.
At this point I decided to cut my losses and instead of spending another six hours trying to recover my $80, I'd invest a bit of time looking into VoIP services. Since Verizon and Bell South were also involved with the NSA wire tap program, I've decided to go with one of the independent companies like Packet8, SunRocket, or Vonage. So I've finally been dragged kicking and screaming into the VoIP age by bad customer service. Of course, I don't expect Vonage or any other cut-rate VoIP service to give me any better treatment; but, if I'm going to be abused, I'd rather only pay $24.95 for it.
As I approach a final decision on which provider to use, I'm especially thankful for the early adopters, the part of the herd that balances out the late adopters like myself, who beta-tested VoIP for me. You've met them: they're the ones who will pick up any shiny new object, either for the status it conveys to them, or just for the sheer joy of poking around on yet another set of tiny buttons. These are the kind of people who also bought the original Sinclair computers or the RCA SelectaVision mechanical video disks and can probably trace their ancestors back to Thag, inventor of the EZ-Mount snap-in flint spear tip. Of course, they also probably share genetic material with D'Urk, Thag's cousin, who got trampled by a mammoth when his beta unit spear tip came loose at a particularly critical part of the hunt.
So here's a toast to Thag and his technophilic descendants who braved the early, garbled, days of VoIP. Without them, the industry would not have matured to the point where a cautious late adopter like myself is comfortable enough to join the migration to digital telephony.
Comments? Questions? Suggestions for a VoIP carrier? Write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org