An Involuntary Internet Detox

You know those articles that bloggers come up with periodically, wherein they realize that constant connectivity and FOMO can be toxic so they unplug, for days or weeks at a time, then reflect on how the solitude has enabled some level of personal growth?
Well, my former ISP figured I could use some blog fodder.

I’ve been a long-time customer of Sonic, a regional ISP in the Bay Area that has somehow survived in the age of megacorp telecommunications consolidation. I’ve had multiple, multi-year stints with them in large part because of their customer service—they don’t treat me like an idiot when I call in for tech support—and that they’ve consistently prioritized infrastructure investments. It’s cheering on the mom & pop shop in ISP form1.

Since my neighborhood isn’t wired for fiber optics connections yet, I’ve been biding my time with Sonic’s DSL service, which they provide on top of the phone lines owned by AT&T. In 2018, DSL is certainly the much slower alternative to cable internet, but the frequent2 peak hour outages from my Comcast service a few years back made me appreciate stability over speed, even if I had to pay more for the privilege of lower bandwidth. It has been fine for the 2.5 years we’ve had the service.

Things took a turn for the worse when I noticed Sonic offered slightly faster speeds (from 50mbps → 75mbps down) for the same cost, and requested an upgrade online. Here’s the annoying part: Sonic owns the relationship with its customers, but not only do they have to run on top of AT&T lines, they also end up having to use AT&T technicians3 to do the physical line work. What this meant was that Sonic had to act as coordinator between me and AT&T, and at the very least line up schedules on both sides indirectly.

The first time this didn’t work, a tech randomly showed up on Thanksgiving day asking for access while we were out of the house. Presumably he was there to do an upgrade, but seeing that it was Thanksgiving I asked for a reschedule for his sake. Never got a call back.

Then a week later, AT&T assumed that I had swapped out my old service for a (non-existent) new one, and cut service to the old line. I lose connectivity.

I call in, and was told that the earliest AT&T could dispatch someone would be a week out, which I deemed unacceptable. There was some additional back-and-forth on the scheduling, and I was getting annoyed enough to start tweeting about the situation.

My case gets escalated, and there’s now a case manager at Sonic who’s trying to talk to AT&T’s supporters, their managers, and their managers. According to Sonic’s rep, they’re not exactly having a great time getting their AT&T counterpart to cooperate, which makes me start to think of the flaws in this arrangement between these two telecoms; how much does AT&T actually care about helping a subleasing ISP’s customers?

5 more days of missed appointments, botched or incomplete technical services, and sporadic communications throughout convinced me to throw in the towel, and sign up for another ISP.

Coming out on the other side, I’m actually more sympathetic to Sonic’s customer support than AT&T, perhaps in part because I got to talk to them, and got the distinct impression that they were also trying to make it work as much as possible4. That said, Sonic’s DSL business model feels precarious; there’s not too much value they can add on top of AT&T’s own DSL offerings, and their brand erodes as the advantage in service continues to get undermined by the same company. Their recent customer reviews tell the same story: 5-stars for fiber optics (infra that they build and own), 1-stars when dealing with DSL customers, particularly installation dispatches.

As to the week without hardwired internet, it’s certainly a different experience in 2018 than even a couple years back (e.g., when we first moved into our current house, 4 years or so ago).

On the plus side, it wasn’t really a detox as the title suggests; cell data connectivity is ubiquitous enough, along with WiFi tethering, to allow most personal computing devices (iPads, laptops) to get online without a ton of trouble. If anything, it was a good simulation of what much of the world experiences with slow or unstable broadband connections, and having to dance around bandwidth constraints and data caps.

On the minus side, there are a lot more internet-connected devices now than ever before, and knocking all of them offline showed how much we’ve become dependent on their small conveniences5. All the Google hubs and Home Minis stopped working; the webcams stayed completely silent and could not send any notifications; the Nest thermostat and smoke detectors stayed on, but couldn’t be remotely controlled or checked; Chromecasts and TVs could not stream. For my kids, the prospect of watching broadcast television—and its complete lack of on-demand capabilities—was a revelation.

So if anything, this proves to me that connectivity is a utility more than ever. Beyond the potential regulatory implications, I’d also argue that it calls for a better set of tools to control the use cases of top of said utility, that get at the root of folks’ addictions to phones and the internet (i.e., social networks).

It’d be pretty silly to “detox” from the electrical grid.

  1. If you’re about to stop reading there, the ending here is that I’m going with a new service provider, but I largely don’t fault Sonic, and it’s mostly a problem with AT&T and Sonic’s business model.

  2. At its worst, web pages would time out over dinner time, which is unacceptable for a hardline service.

  3. Which I have to imagine are mostly 3rd party contractors at this point, so maybe it nets out to a similar experience.

  4. Acknowledging also an element of wanting to cheer for the little guy.

  5. Though yes, this is very much a first-world problem.

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