Install a firewall...you'll be fine

The answer to life, the universe and everything according to Telecom appears to be 'install a firewall and you'll be fine'. But if you're a JetStream user, it's not fine. It's not fine at all.

It's amazing how far a simple request for information will take you.

Last week I rang Telecom to ask about how the company bills its JetStream customers. "Where in the chain does the billing take place?" I asked. I wanted to know because I'd seen a couple of emails about users receiving large bills for downloads above and beyond their usual monthly rate. JetStream charges are based, as you probably know, on a per-megabyte charge. Go over your limit in a month and you get charged around 20 cents per megabyte from there on in.

So what happens, I wondered, if some rogue virus is out there in the wild testing every port it comes across to see if you're running, for example, Microsoft IIS? Would you be billed for the tens of thousands of pings, each with their own packets of data, that get bounced off your firewall?

So I rang Telecom.

"Install a firewall and you'll be fine," was the response. Yes, said I, I know that. We tell everyone to do that every time we write about JetStream or any other "always on" connection.

Me: "Where do you bill?"

Them: "Install a firewall and you'll be fine".

Me: "You're not listening".

Them: "Install a firewall and you'll be fine".

And so on. Apparently if you install a firewall then you'll be safe from worrying about undue bills. If you don't have a firewall, says Telecom, then you should unplug your modem from the wall when not in use. Then you'll be fine.

But hang on, if Telecom is billing my account for downloads at the exchange, how does it know if my firewall has rejected all that data?

"Install a firewall and you'll be fine".

So I contacted a nerd. Actually that's not his real title, but you know what I mean.

"John, how does it work?"

"You can have as much firewall as you like at your end, if the packet gets delivered past Telecom's demarcation point, that's accountable to you," said John.

I called Telecom to put John's point of view.

"Install a firewall and you'll be fine".

So I wrote the story and we ran it on our website. Then I got an email from Gary Benner who has JetStream installed in Tauranga. His phone bill this month came to $600 more than he expected because of around 4GB in usage that he knows nothing about. I put that to Telecom.

"Install a firewall and you'll be fine".

But he's not fine, I said. He's down the toilet for $600. I checked Telecom's terms and conditions. If you dispute a bill you let Telecom know, they investigate the problem and then make a decision. If it goes against you, tough. There is no appeal, no come back, no discussion will be entered into. If you continue to refuse to pay, Telecom hands the bill off to a debt collector and presumably refuses to reconnect you till you pay.

So I wrote that story. And I got another couple of email, three phone calls and then a few more emails.

The most alarming came from Antony Stening, who works at Venture Taranaki, the regional development agency. He's been getting email from two accounts, one in France and one in Australia, that were infected with the Sircam virus. How many email? About 500MB per day for the best part of a week. He had the IP addresses and rang Xtra's helpdesk.

Not only was he told they couldn't block email from those accounts, but neither could Xtra waive any charges that came his way because of the excess usage.

This is ridiculous. Telecom, you're ripping off your customers and you're happy to sit back and trot out some nonsense about "install a firewall and you'll be fine" without listening to your users. Yes, DSL is good. Yes, we're willing to pay to use it. No, we don't expect you to not make a buck. But neither do we expect you to let excessive charges be passed on, while users suffer a lack of support, obfuscation and denial. We need itemised billing, an ability to avoid undue costs and above all else we need you to listen when we speak.

Are you listening now?

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Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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