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A matter of utility

For one reason or another we seem to have spent a large part of the last fortnight dealing with utility crises.

One morning last week our electricity went off. Power cuts are not unknown where we live, particularly at this time of year when there are frequent heavy rains and thunderstorms. However, most of the cuts are followed almost immediately by the sound of a large bang from a nearby transformer, and they generally get fixed within a couple of hours.

There was silence when this particular power cut started. On the other hand, it happened at exactly eleven o’clock. So I put it down to scheduled maintenance by the electricity company that we’d simply not heard about. (The management staff on our compound are pretty good at keeping us informed when any of the utility companies are doing work in the area, but we’d only just got back home from a few days in the Big City.)

Kay takes a less relaxed attitude to these things and demanded a more thorough investigation when she surfaced an hour or so later.

Power cuts during the night-time are easy, of course. You just stick your head outside the door and see if everybody else’s lights are off. It’s not so obvious during the daytime. However, a quick phone-call to the compound office revealed immediately that their electricity was still on – I could hear the telly in the background as soon as they answered. And a look at the electricity meters on the power pole in the street showed that the wheels on some of them at least were going round.

Within half-an-hour a small tribe of about half-a-dozen workers had descended on us and were swarming over our roof to check the power line where it enters the house. A few minutes after that, and they’d taken off three or four of the corrugated gypsum roof panels to investigate the run of the cable to our fusebox. The whole thing was fixed in less than three hours after we reported the problem, and cost less than twenty quid. In the UK they’d charge you that to answer your phone call!

Compare and contrast with our Internet service provider. Their service is likewise prone to seasonal problems – at this time of year any satellite uplinks they may be using are apt to be disrupted by the storms. So when it happens, you generally just grit your teeth and get on with offline activities for the hour or so that it takes the storm to pass.

However, earlier this week a problem with an intermittent connection that had started the previous evening didn’t seem to have gone away the following morning. We’d be online for a couple of minutes, then offline for about ten or more.

All the ISP’s customer service operators were busy when I phoned, which is usually the case when they have a network problem – and that kind of outage can go on for anything up to about six hours. It still hadn’t gone away by midday, so I called again, only to discover that there wasn’t any problem reported in our area. They promised to get their technical team to check out our connection and call us back.

No phone call by four o’clock, so I called again. They promised to chase the local technical team, but nothing would happen until the following day.

So, bright and early next morning, I called once more to remind them of our plight and try to get something done. The technical team would be in touch that morning to give us a time when they would visit.

Nothing by a quarter past twelve, so I called yet again, pointing out that we’d been suffering a faulty connection for nearly two days now. Yes, they would contact their technicians again.

No phone call, but at one o’clock two guys from the ISP turned up in their pickup, came inside (leaving the door open for flies to come in. Grr!), looked at our router for a couple of minutes, then disappeared again, leaving a little black box connected to our line. Half-an-hour later they reappeared, took their black box back off the line and asked me to check the connection. It was back up and running smoothly.

It wasn’t until early evening the next day that their customer service team phoned to check whether everything was working OK now. A bit of pointless window-dressing really, as I’d have been in touch with them much earlier if it hadn’t been.

The rapid response to our electrical problem was pretty amazing. The guys even did a proper job of replacing the roof panels – we’ve had a couple of big rainstorms since, and no leaks that we can see. Presumably they’re aware that if they don’t do a good job, there are plenty of other tradespeople out there who could be called on for future work. (I don’t know whether “Polish plumber syndrome” has caused prices for similar jobs in the UK to come down at all – can anyone enlighten me? If so, please comment!)

But the ISP experience is probably pretty similar wherever you are in the world, and I know that several of our pals in the UK have had cause to tear their hair out over frustrating connections and apathetic service staff. And you’ve only got to glance at Private Eye to find ample evidence of other utility companies who have allowed shareholder dividends to swell while skimping on infrastructure maintenance.

If only the big companies would recycle a bit more of their income into providing a decent service instead of into their shareholders’ pockets, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

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