After all the euphoria, back-patting and chest-thumping of the MWeb uncapped DSL offering, which spurred on other ISPs to follow suit, we are now going through the first major test of what happens when real service delivery (this time not the governmental variety), and genuine customer support is required. The Seacom undersea cable went down yesterday morning, and service providers relying on it (in some cases exclusively) for international DSL bandwidth, such as MWeb, consequently were unable to serve up non-local bandwidth to their customers. I can only speak from my personal experience with MWeb, because I am a customer (and I must admit I have no internal knowledge of their operations), but it appears that there is absolutely no back-up plan in place in such situations. This is shown by the fact that it took them more than 8 hours to switch over from Seacom (which went down at about 11.30am) to the alternative SAIX / SAT-3 network (which happened at around 7.30pm) as a temporary measure to restore partial international bandwidth (and even this option has failed them from midday today).
Of course you wouldn’t have known to reset your router to accommodate this unless you bravely phoned in and got through (if you were one of the lucky or persistent ones) to MWeb’s call centre after 7.30pm yesterday evening, and spoke to a customer support operator who overheard something vaguely to that effect from the manager. This is notwithstanding an email that MWeb CEO Derek Hershaw sent out to customers in May 2010, after similar such disruptions, stating that “we simply cannot tolerate this degree of instability from our upstream providers and we are considering our options in this regard”. Well that was six weeks ago, and it appears that they are still considering their options but not doing anything about them. Thanks to MWeb Operations for sending out that ex post facto email this afternoon about a problem that started yesterday morning, but unless you have a local email account, a Blackberry or 3G antennae connected to your brain you would have been unable to receive it, because international email has been down again since noon (and all international bandwidth soon followed suit). Has the company heard of SMS? You know, that 80s technology that allows you to keep in touch with your customers and let them know what’s going on. They have heard of Twitter, it appears, but don’t know how to use it, because all you get is the following: “Network Status Notices :: Dial (0) ADSL (3) Wireless (1) Other (0) [date] [time] More info :: [url]” for every support update.
Now I know that the outage is not the local ISP’s fault. I know it’s Seacom’s, and that Seacom are doing the best they can in the situation (and they seem to be communicating with their customers effectively through Twitter and Facebook). And further, I think MWeb have shown enormous leadership in offering uncapped DSL, and should be commended for innovating in the local market. It is early days and these teething problems will be sorted out (we hope). But if they haven’t got a back-up plan, then they should stop shifting the responsibility and directing their customers’ anger towards a third-party company. That is remnant of the Telkom days, where Telkom got all the blame, and those days are fortunately ending. Furthermore, now that uncapped internet has shifted the means of billing from per-GB bundles to flat monthly fees, disrupted customers should be getting pro-rata refunds for periods when the service is down. It’s now time to keep those customers who bravely changed to uncapped offerings by offering uncapped service delivery.