Internet in Green Meadows

I spent 2 hours this morning working to figure out how to get my newly-arrived Cousin Sergii outfitted with Internet at his farmhouse in Green Meadows.

It’s a house beyond the reach of either Eastlink or Bell Aliant’s wired Internet, and so, I assumed, eligible for the Government-negotiated “what to do about people who don’t have wired Internet yet” program of Bell Aliant, the one referenced in this 2010 CBC story that quotes Aliant’s Bruce Howatt describing a plan with:

  • no up-front hardware cost
  • no monthly bandwidth cap or usage costs
  • a monthly flat-fee of $49.95

While much more expensive (and much slower) bandwidth than Sergii is used to at home in Ukraine, this was a reasonable solution, and, I assumed, would be easy to order. I thought I’d drive out to Green Meadows this evening to get Sergii set up.

Much of my 2 hours this morning was spent on telephone hold with various Bell, Bell Mobility or Bell Aliant offices, and with a couple of online chats on various Bell websites. Here’s a typical interchange (employee name redacted), an excerpt of a longer chat:

Bell: What I suggest is contacting Client care and asking you go about this, I would think that you need to go into the store and get this service started.

Bell: Just a moment while I check another source please.

Bell: Thank you for holding, do you happen to have a mobile account?

Peter: No.

Bell: That’s unfortunate, I have found a document on this and there is no explanation on who to talk to, however I wanted to note your account.

Bell: All I can suggest is calling Bell Aliant Client care, let them know that you were speaking with me on chat and that I was able to find the document about this service.

Peter: Can you tell me the name of the document or the name of the product/service so I can mention it to them?

Bell: You can let them know I looked it up in our Internal records and it shows that it is available. I am not able to provide the actual document.

Bell: I also referenced the link that you gave me, provide them with that link as well.

Peter: But can you tell me what the document is called, or at least what the product is called so I can reference it by name?

Bell: I can’t give you any information regarding Internal files.

Peter: Ok. Thank you for your help.

This chat was followed by an almost-Fawlty-Towers-like telephone chain that saw “client care” refer me to “sales,” and then “sales” refer me to “Internet department” and then “Internet department” refer me to “rural department.” Which told me that they only dealt with Quebec and Ontario and referred me to the “Atlantic number,” which rang and rang and rang and was never answered.

Some of the representatives I spoke to claimed no knowledge of the PEI-specific service, others, like my chat correspondent above, acknowledged it but refused to give it a name. Nobody could tell me how to order it, or where.

At this point — actually, it went on for a while longer, but I’ll spare you the details — I gave up.

And called my friend Perry.

Perry, it turns out, was a customer of this mysterious product that-must-not-be-named. He’s been a customer since January. It’s worked well for him. He’ll be sad to see it go when it gets replaced by wired Internet next week (in part because moving to wired Internet will be a step down for him bandwidth-wise and a step-up price-wise).

Perry told me that to learn the truth I needed to go to the old Island Tel maintenance shed at the corner of Belvedere and Queen Streets in midtown Charlottetown (I know this shed well because, in an earlier time, it was where all the cool kids went to get cell phone problems solved that couldn’t be solved next door at Island Tel Mobility HQ).

So I hopped in the car and drove up. Went to the old Queen Street door, but it was barred. Went around to the other side where I found a non-descript office.

I rang the bell.

A friendly woman came out to help me.

She was a little skittish about revealing the details at first, and was quick to dispell any notions I might have of leaving with the service in-hand. But she did give the background: the program still exists, is a good deal, and is still supported. The problem is that the hardware used to support it — MiFi — is no longer manufactured, and, as this is the only hardware they support, they’re unable to sign up new customers until used hardware comes back in and gets reconditioned.

I asked how long this might take — “a few weeks or 6 months?” — and was told that customers who’d showed up in the summer to start their vacations never received hardware. Coded message received: “don’t hold your breath.”

I left my name, and took their number, and was advised to “call back every 2 or 3 weeks” to see if they have any new hardware in stock.

Exasperated by the apparently shared delusion that there’s actually a service being offered — if you call something a “service” and maintain that it still “exists” but are unable to offer it, is it really still a service? — I responded to a Twitter request from CBC Radio’s Kerry Campbell and we made arrangements to come into the station for me to tell my tale of woe.

All I want it to get Sergii hooked up to the net so that he can chat to home, use Google Translate and do the normal things that normal people do online. I hope we can make that happen.

There is, of course, also a large issue: is Bell Aliant living up to the spirit of the arrangement it concluded with the Province of PEI to provide high speed Internet to all Islanders?

There’s a moral issue there, but also a very practical one: if any area of the province can truly benefit from being more “connected” it is rural PEI. For the eye to be so far off the ball on making sure that rural Islanders have as much bandwidth as it’s technically possible to provide them with, at a price point equivalent to urban Islanders, is an issue that has broad ramifications for economic development, education, and quality of life.

I hope that gets some attention too.

Update: at 4:40 p.m. this afternoon I got a friendly call from a director at Bell Aliant notifying me that I’ll be called in the morning by a service representative, who will take payment details and arrange to have high-speed wireless service provisioned for Sergii. This doesn’t solve the larger “why is this so difficult a program to find out about,” but I hope it reflects a new commitment by Bell Aliant to ensure that the wireless “stop gap” program continues to be available to rural Islanders.


Rob's picture
Rob on September 27, 2012 - 21:00

Good for you Peter

Linda Lowther's picture
Linda Lowther on September 27, 2012 - 23:30

This exactly replicates some of my experiences over the last number of months for land phones, for mobility, for Internet and for Bell TV. I have spent at lest 25-30 hours on hold in that time period. There is something wrong with this company.

Clark's picture
Clark on September 27, 2012 - 23:38

As far as I can tell my mother has this service but did not have to go through the ridiculous process you did. I believe she called the mobility number. Speed and latency is fine, good enough for clear Skype video calls.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 28, 2012 - 00:51

I agree that something is wrong.

There are some excellent, helpful, caring individuals in the company, right from the folks climbing poles through customer service and sales. They are, however, adrift in an oddly-stitched together marriage (Bell, Bell Mobility, Bell Aliant), encumbered by information and customer service systems that aren’t doing their job, and without any sense that doing right by the customer is not only the right and human thing to do, but also, ultimately and especially in a post-monopoly environment, best for the bottom line.

I think this can be fixed, and I think we have a responsibility, as citizens and consumers, to help fix it by offering feedback and guidance.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 28, 2012 - 00:57

It’s possible to sign up for mobile Internet service from any of Telus, Bell Mobility, Virgin Mobility or Rogers. They all basically offer the same thing: $150 to $400 up front for hardware (less if you sign a contract for 2 or 3 years), and a sliding rate schedule based on usage (which takes us back to the psychology of dial-up, which isn’t somewhere we should be heading), starting around $20/month.

Beyond the up-front cost, the danger of these plans is all the usage-based billing and the possibility of enormous bills if you don’t closely monitor your usage. That’s not real Internet, it’s a cash cow for mobile operators and a digital prison for users.

The special plan the PEI government leveraged from Bell did away with all the bad parts: no up-front cost, no usage-based billing, no contract. 

Brian Howatt's picture
Brian Howatt on September 28, 2012 - 09:58

I believe the Aliant representative you refer to in paragraph 2 of your post is Bruce Howatt, not Brian Howatt. :)

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 28, 2012 - 12:36

Corrected. Apologies to Bruce and Brian for the switcheroo.

Linda Lowther's picture
Linda Lowther on September 29, 2012 - 16:02

Just wanted to note that indeed there are very good and caring employees. I cannot say enough good things about Connie who tried very hard to get something hooked up for my ageing aunt who is deaf. I think our good experiences tend to be with the locals. It’s when it is faceless and far away that the experience sours.

Clark's picture
Clark on September 30, 2012 - 02:37

I’m glad you finally had success setting up the “PEI Plan” from Bell Alliant. It’s the exact plan my mother has and it’s fair deal with decent performance. She would never been able to navigate the maze you went through so I suspect she was either extremely lucky or more people knew about the program internally at that time. The lack of bandwidth caps is he most surprising and useful part of the service (we use allot of bandwidth in the summer).

The complexity and costs of mobile data in plans in PEI is the very reason she has yet to get an iPhone.

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