Internet Service in France: Off-line and My Rocker
- Published on Tuesday, 17 December 2013 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
It’s More Like an
Information Bike Lane
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings
As regular readers of this column are already tired of hearing, I love just about everything about France. I adore the geography, the architecture, the food, the wine, the culture, the lax morals and (most of) the population. I even adore the nasty bits of the population who fit the undeserved stereotype of “rude French people” — not because I'm especially tolerant or masochistic, but because they gave me the material for a two-part article.
But I do not love my French ISP. In fact, it would not be overstating it to say that I hate, revile, detest, execrate, loathe, abhor and despise my French ISP. Well, actually it would, but it sure made me feel better.
I have never had an Internet subscription in any other country, so I don’t know if this is a widespread phenomenon, but my “Internet service provider” here seems to have trouble grasping the meaning of the words “service” and “provide.” And for all I know “Inter” and “net.”
As I write this, it is the morning of my fourth day with no Internet service being provided whatsoever. I’m sure you all know the feeling: everything seems to grind to a standstill when it’s impossible to get online.
I am helpless, unable to engage in any of the vital activities of everyday life: conducting business, communicating with loved ones, checking my bank balance, deleting spam, settling virulent arguments about meaningless trivia, believing and spreading ludicrous hoaxes, wondering if that’s really Scarlett Johansson or a Photoshop fake, etc.
I might as well be one of those cartoon hermits, meditating alone in a cave on top of a mountain, searching for the meaning of life. Except that I’ve already found it: it’s Internet access.
But get this: despite my hatred, revilement, detestation, execration, loathing, abhorrity and despisance of my ISP, I have been a loyal customer for nearly 15 years. I stay with them for two reasons:
1) It would be a huge, daunting inconvenience to notify hundreds and hundreds of contacts, both personal and professional, of a change of e-mail address, and...
2) From what I hear, all the ISPs in France are about equally as good. Which is to say equally as bad — they all suck stale baguettes.
I signed up with mine back in the late 1990s because it was the first company in Paris to offer an inclusive cable Internet-TV-phone package. Before that, I, and everyone else in France, had been relying solely on dial-up, which was slow, inconvenient and frighteningly expensive.
The fear factor in the expense was due to a simple but annoying fact of French life: France Télécom, which was then the national telephone monopoly, charged for every single number dialed — there was no flat fee for unlimited local calls.
That meant that all of us not only had to pay a subscription fee to an ISP, but also about 15 centimes to France Télécom every time we logged on, plus an additional 15 centimes if the connection lasted longer than about 10 minutes (source of figures: my fuzzy memory and hasty mental franc-to-euro conversion after two glasses of wine, but it was something in that ballpark) (or at least soccer field).
This meant that we didn’t so much surf the Web as wade it, and that we might as well have been doing it from a phone booth. I went online as little as I could while still getting my work done and ended up paying upwards of €150 a month for the privilege. It was a terrible time to be an online gaming addict — but an excellent time to be a France Télécom shareholder.
And an even better time for a new service provider to offer a fast cable hookup for a flat monthly rate. When I saw the ads in the Métro, it seemed too good to be true. And when I got the cable installed, it was indeed a significant improvement over dial-up. Except for one eentsy-weentsy little difference: the phone line worked.
In fairness, the cable worked too, just not all the time. Every once in a while my connection would go deader than Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s political career. Sometimes this would last for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours and sometimes (like now) a few days.
With experience, I quickly learned two things:
1) The number of the company’s tech help hotline, and...
2) Not to call it.
Calling tech help meant spending up to 30 minutes on hold listening to a mind-numbing number of repetitions of a message reminding me of how much the call was costing (a lot — tech help is cheaper now but used to run about €10 per call) interspersed with brainless wait music, at the end of which I would finally be patched through to a “technician” who had something in common with the wait music.
To this day, my ISP’s tech help advice is invariably of the “Are you sure the electricity’s on?” variety. As far as I can tell, the only thing they ever teach their technicians is the basic ritual that everyone on Earth learns within an hour of buying their first computer: turn everything off, wait a few minutes (because the hard drive really needs to catch its breath), reboot and try again.
In all the times I’ve called them, the problem has never been at my end, but they insist on making me wade through the whole restart rigamarole anyway. So I would play along, sometimes pretending that I had unplugged my modem and rebooted my computer even though I hadn’t.
Only afterward would they even try to get any information about service outages in my area. Which always turned out to be the problem.
I have this fantasy in which one of their technicians gets a job as a telephone marriage counselor...
“Hurtin’ Hearts Hotline, Nicole speaking. How may I help you?”
“I’m having this terrible problem with my husband.”
“Could you describe the malfunction please?”
“He ignores me completely. He never listens to anything I say and never says anything to me. He won’t even look at me — we have no connection at all anymore!”
“I see. Is your husband at home right now?”
“Good — let’s try a restart.”
“Most interhetero access failures can be corrected by reinitializing the system. You need to follow my instructions carefully. Do you have a bowling pin?”
“No — why would I have a...”
“Or a meat tenderizer hammer?”
“Yes, I have one of those.”
“Go get it.”
“Just do as I say.”
“Okay, I have the meat hammer.”
“All right. Now wrap a towel around it... Have you done it?”
“Fine — now hit your husband hard on the side of the head.”
“Just do it.”
“Good grief... Wow — he’s out cold!”
“Right. Now we wait a few moments... Okay, now: splash some cold water on his face and wake him up.”
“Okay... He’s coming to.”
“Is he still ignoring you?”
“Of course not — what do you think?”
“Excellent! Problem solved! Thank you for calling — the fee will be included in your next phone bill.”
In other words, calling tech help was (and is) a waste of time, money and stomach acid. So whenever I have an Internet access failure, like now, I deal with it by deploying a sophisticated four-step debugging technique originally developed by MIT for the NASA space program: staring at a blank browser window, inventing new cursewords, barely restraining the urge to smash the screen into pixel-sized smithereens, and waiting until someone at a server farm somewhere finally figures out what’s wrong and gets the system running again.
Which is no doubt what will happen again this time. Meanwhile, I’m looking at my screen and reviewing my options. I’m pretty sure I have a meat hammer around here somewhere...
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