A little helpdesk goes a long way

Stephen Bell recounts his tale of what seemed like a systematic attempt to stop him going online.

Over the past two years, ClearNet has been my provider of choice on my home PCs. Normally it gives passable service.
But in December last year, a strange phenomenon develops. On several occasions when I am connected, data flow ceases. The clock shows about two minutes to the hour. I wait until about two minutes past the hour and the blockage clears. Sometimes, though, it requires a disconnect and reconnect, or even a reboot.

It doesn't happen on every hour, but often enough to be an obstacle. Clear's helpdesk has no explanation apart from speculating that I have an application set to run hourly in my PC, and this is draining processor power. I have nothing known to me running that often.

Clear discounts my two candidate explanations:

a) That someone with higher priority (for example, a large-company e-commerce user) regularly does a big scheduled upload or download, and some small users are robbed of bandwidth to supply the major customer.

b) That some kind of regular statistical sampling or surveillance takes place into users' activity.

ClearNet tells me no one else has ever reported this problem.

In January, ClearNet sends an engineer to my home. He points out some snags like an over-full hard disk, reinstalls the network connection software and seems to have no problem getting a decent data rate and nothing untoward occurs on the hour. In any case the interruptions mysteriously ceased three hours before he arrived, and started up again two hours after he left.

I clear disk-space, defragment and check for viruses. The problem is still present.

During late January, blockage becomes more frequent, until it is scarcely possible to get anything over the ClearNet connection that could be dignified with the description "service".

On 27 January, I give up. I commute my flat-rate ClearNet account to an hourly-paid account, for emergency use, and change my emergency Xtra account to flat rate.

I enjoy good service from Xtra for about three days. Then it begins to slow down too. Within a week, I am getting as little data flow from them as I had been getting with Clear. Meanwhile, puzzlingly, the Clear problems have evaporated. As I told Xtra, it seemed almost as though a malevolent influence was pursuing me from one ISP to the next.

Back to the helpdesk; this time Xtra's. When I finally get hold of a real person, he informs me he is too busy to deal with my problem, and will phone back within the hour - "at latest an hour, probably less". He comes back two-and-a-half hours later. By this time, I am in the middle of reinstalling Windows 98 to see if that achieves anything.

I tell him I will phone him when I am finished. When I do so I get a different operator, who is insistent that the case has been closed, with a decision to return the PC to "the manufacturer". This disagrees with my recollection of events.

I ask whether we can at least try something on the communications side. He consents, and asked me to delete all my dial-up networking software - "don't worry, we can reinstall it".

On attempted reinstallation, the system is unable to find several crucial .DLLs, either on the Windows CD or on the hard disk. The machine is now completely inoperable on the communications front. I suppose I must accept some of the blame in having insisted we press on. However, he surely should have known what he could reinstall and what he couldn't.

I take the PC to my local computer shop. Staff there re-re-install Windows 98 with the dial-up networking software, but are unable to test the Xtra connection as they cannot connect. For me, Xtra connects, but still at a crawl. Another email notification to the Xtra helpdesk brings a useful phone call.

This time, their representative simply tells me to bring up the properties panel for the connection and uncheck a few boxes. Performance dramatically improves, but leaves me sceptical. After all, my laptop still has the ticks the way they were on my desktop and it communicates fine through Xtra.

I get one-and-a-half days of trouble-free usage; then on the evening of Saturday 10 February, Xtra data flow hits zero again.

Early last week, the crowning touch; my Xtra ADSL connection at the IDG Wellington office suddenly comes to a halt. Now I almost start to believe the “malevolent pursuer” theory.

After investigating, Xtra tells me the ADSL user-name and password was changed on 20 December by a John A____ . He identified himself by giving the appropriate Telecom account number. There is no John A____ on IDG staff.

It eventually emerges that John A____ belongs to the firm of Telecom subcontractors that set up the original connection. He had initially put in his own ID and password to test the line – but never replaced it with an identifier for IDG. So when his company went through its regular round of password changes on December 20, my password got changed too.

Xtra theorises that the line stayed up until some glitch temporarily disconnected it last week. It tried to reconnect automatically, and could not get in using the old password.

While the mess is sorted out, I buy a dial-up modem as a workaround. When Telecom has restored the ADSL connection, I take the modem home and try it on my blocked line there. The Xtra connection springs to life and gives ... well, moderately good service.

So what looked like a systematic attempt to stop me going online turns out to be a coincidence of a bad modem and a forgetful subcontractor.

Four out of 10 to ClearNet (at least they sent a man out to me). Two out of ten to Xtra. Both helpdesks have a deplorable record of answering email messages.

And I still have no idea why the original problem with ClearNet occurred exactly on the hour – by my PC clock, not by objective time. And ClearNet and Xtra cannot explain why the problems moved from one provider to another when I changed my account status. I asked them whether they use different kinds of modem for time-charged and flat-rate accounts, but they say all the modems at their end are the same.

Any ideas?

Bell is a Wellington-based Computerworld journalist. Send email to Stephen Bell. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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