Law Office Computing
The recent announcement that Qwest and US West are merging in a $45.2 billion transaction is a very exciting prospect. Baby Bell Telcos have been racing to sell digital subscriber line service DSL to compete against high-speed Internet services offered by cable- television companies, including the AT&T Corp., which is now the largest U.S. cable provider after its $62.5 billion acquisition of MediaOne Group, Inc. Qwest is owned by Southern Pacific and thus has access to all of Southern Pacific=s railroad rights of way for the building of its proposed fiber optic backbone. Some years ago the visionary named Nicolas Negroponte predicted that in the 21st century ubiquitous bandwidth would be built below ground. At the time, the focus of information technology was on the use of wireless communication via a variety of technologies. It has turned out that Negroponte was precisely correct in his prediction. The bandwidth limitations that are an inherent part of above ground technology are simply irrelevant to underground fiber optic networks. US West has been at the forefront of developing technologies that can build upon the Qwest fiber optic network. A recent poll rated US West at the very top of those companies developing digital technologies and transferring that technology to consumers and it is that leadership in digital technology that drove the merger. It is ironic that at the same time another prestigious poll placed US West at the very bottom in terms of customer service, and thus the common disparagement AUS Worst@ To the extent that US West=s extraordinary digital competence stands on the back of the old US Worst monopoly, the promise of the beautiful digital future is profoundly compromised. I have previously reported on the extraordinary inability of US West to deliver its promised PCS telephone performance but that is a part of the old company as well. Last summer I had another indication that US West=s performance as a telephone company may prevent it from achieving its potential as a provider of digital information services. As the recent public service commission hearing indicated there is a terrible problem at the telephone division of USWest. Hopefully, the entry of Qwest into the operations of US West will change the terrible customer service problems that have led to the common pejorative name.
Just before I left on a business trip this summer, a monsoon knocked out my main telephone line and my dedicated DSL line. I wrote a trouble ticket on the US West Website, then I spent the better part of an hour listening to a recorded syrupy-sweet voice tell me how important my call was to US West. Finally, I got through to a real human being and she assured that my internet trouble ticket had been received and that US West was on the job! Though there was nothing she could do, I was relieved and left on my trip. Over the course of the next few days, I was unable to contact my children who were staying in the house. After a few days, I called US West again to find out why it was taking so long. I was assured that by the following Monday at 8 p.m., 10 days after the onset of trouble, that things would be fixed. The service operator did try to implement a workaround but it failed. US West was on the job! I got home on Sunday and waited patiently for the US West repairperson on Monday. In fact, because I had been told that it might be necessary for the repairperson to get inside my house, I made an effort to stay home almost the entire day. Eight p.m. came and went, and US West had not yet gotten on the job. I called the phone tree again and waited through an interminable presentation of elevator music interspersed with reprises reminding me that my call was very important to US West. Finally I got through to a human being and when I complained (perhaps a little vigorously) about the lack of service and the failure to live up to promises, I was told by the person on the other end of the phone that I was the kind of person that made her job unbearable. ALook@ I said, in my nicest voice, AUS West is making my life unbearable. All I want from you is some human response, not just an autonomic reading of what is on your computer screen.@ ASir,@ she replied in a voice dripping with scorn, AWe are not paid to think. The only thing I can tell you is what=s on my computer screen.@ I suddenly understood what has been going on there for years and I said, in what was probably a somewhat angry tone, ALet me speak to your supervisor.@ I descended again into the inferno of elevator music where I had been before, and I=m sure, as recompense for my failure to recognize the terrible burden that I was placing on the phone person who could not think, I was consigned to a back office line. I resolved to beat her at her little game if it took all might. A little over an hour later, I heard a ring on the other end and a very pleasant voice answered. AHello,@ he said, Athis is Igor. How may I help you?@ I spelled out my tale of woe and concluded with the statement that I felt like I was in a Communist country dealing with government apparatchiks . ANo one seems willing to help,@ I explained. Igor picked up on that line immediately and said, AMr. Woods, I=m willing to help, and I will.@ Over the course of the next few minutes, he had identified the problem and assured me that in the morning, he would dispatch a repairperson to my house who would fix it. The next morning, just as Igor had promised, a repairperson arrived at my door. Less than an hour later, my phone system was once again working and my DSL line was cooking!
Why do I share with you this long tale of woe? Well, first, I thought everybody ought to know that the telephone-based repair operators are not paid to think and that some of them are offended if you dare to doubt the efficiency, the ability, or the honor of US West . If you cannot afford to waste your time with people who aren=t paid to think; you need to get to a supervisor right away even if you have to wait on hold for an hour. Secondly, I want you to know that there are still people like Igor who work at the higher levels at US West who have the milk of human kindness in their veins and intelligence in their heads. And finally, I wanted to tell you that life without DSL is like a slow, painful torture. The whole ten days that I was traveling, I was stuck with dial-up access to the internet using my modem. When I got home, I was able to get one of my phone lines working well enough that I could access the internet over a modem instead of a DSL line. I quickly came to realize that having full-time, broad-band, high-speed access to the internet has changed my life. Many of the activities that have become integrated into my daily existence suddenly became impossible when I had to dial-up every time I wanted to access a piece of information over a very slow connection. I found that I did not use the internet nearly as much as I nearly do, simply because the access was so slow. I can hear the crowd whispering one to another, AGet to the point, Professor. Please get to the point.@ So here, like the placement of the verb in German, is the point. I now know that the only thing that is keeping the internet from exploding into every aspect of our lives is the fact that so many people are still forced to dial-up on a slow modem whenever they want to access information. Broad-band, high-speed, inexpensive access to the internet will soon be available to almost everyone if the people like Igor prevail at US West. The major players in the broadband market tell us that will occur within 18 months or so. When it does occur, and everybody is able to use the internet the way I am able to use it on a daily basis, we will stand at the final and highest mountain pass to survey the new digital world before us. The 21st Century will be a very exciting time to live. Virtually all knowledge, music and art will be available in digital form over the internet for little or no cost. That cannot help but enrich our lives. I hope that the little cadre of non-thinkers at US Worst are overcome and that we soon see the new company as USBest. That will be good for all of us.