I've had my Yahoo! account since late 2000 when I signed up in order to learn something, anything, about Yahoo!'s services prior to my job interview at Yahoo!.

Inertia meant that even after I was laid off in October 2008 I kept using Yahoo! Calendar.

Over the past few months I noticed that Yahoo! Calendar was no longer sending email reminders consistently. I couldn't figure out why and kept checking the calendar entries -- indeed the email reminders were ticked for every item.

It appears that the Calendar UI shows email reminders as ticked but this is not reflected in the backend. I say this because when I exported all of my calendar entries as a giant ICS blob all of the calender entries from many months ago have the relevant reminders but recently created entries don't. Yet both show reminders in the UI.

I can't fathom beating my way through customer service to report such a bug -- cue the pre-canned responses suggesting user error -- so I began thinking about alternative calendar services.

Google Calendar and Outlook.com Calendar are obvious candidates but I would end up in the same situation -- all software has bugs and I'd have the same experience attempting to report bugs to Google or Microsoft.

In fact, in 2010 I had a paid Google Apps account and encountered the slow Gmail bug of 2010 as reported by Gabriel Weinberg of DuckDuckGo fame. Except not being e-famous we were unable to convince Google of a problem even after submitting the packet captures they requested. They simply went silent. Simple solution: close account and move to a provider who cares (in this case, Rackspace email, so far so good).

Thinking about how I should choose my future calendar provider brought me to the realisation that if there is a service I rely on I'd rather pay for it and have the ability to contact support than use it for free and have no support (or useless support).

Hence I have opted to sign-up with Fastmail. They're better known for their mail service but recently added calendars. They're also known for being technically astute and sound like the sort of company I could rely on - small enough to care, large enough to be financially viable, and seem to have the desire to be in the mail/calendar game for the long term.

It'll cost me $40/year but that's peanuts compared to the time I would have to spend convincing a Yahoo!, Google, or a Microsoft service person that there are technical issues with their products.

Of course paid vs free and good vs useless support is not a causal relationship. But in my experience they are highly correlated and generally companies tend to care more about paying customers than free ones. Looked at another way, companies tend to care more if you terminate your paid account than when you terminate your free account.

Also, this post isn't saying that free has no place in my world. Free is fine, when quality doesn't matter.

I'll continue to use free services from Facebook and Google because they're not critical services in my eyes. It won't really matter to me if they died tomorrow. Flickr is a weird case because I used to pay for Pro but Marissa decided to make it free. I guess if it dies I'll look for a solid paid photo host. I have paid for SmugMug in the past but found their product clumsy.

On a related note - Yahoo! Travel folks are spamming newsletters to some out-of-sync list. I've unsubscribed god knows how many times over the past few months and unticked every marketing thing I can find in my account. I'm pretty much at the point where I'm just going to bin all Yahoo! emails and I guess if my account gets hacked at some point in future and they try to notify me I won't get it. I'll simply no longer be a Yahoo! user at all -- including Flickr.

I feel like there's a reverse network effect in here somewhere. That the poor performance of the Yahoo! Calendar and Travel teams will inevitably cause the loss of an otherwise loyal Flickr user. And in the mean time I will have changed my thinking of my Yahoo! account to Yet Another Account I'll Probably Lose In Future So Don't Use It For Anything Important.

Lest anyone think I'm just jumping on the Let's Rubbish Yahoo! bandwagon, in a strange twist, I am still a YHOO shareholder (reasons below), and as I said above the same problems apply to Google, Microsoft, and many others.

Why YHOO?

When I was laid off I had a bunch of RSU and ESPP shares that were below water. Being the height of the so called Global Financial Crisis I worked out the sum of parts and it seemed to me that Yahoo! Inc was valued below its components of Yahoo! owned and operated subsidiaries, shares in Yahoo! Japan, and shares in Alibaba.

Irrespective of what the market may think of their products and prospects Yahoo! Inc, even today, throws off over a billion dollars in free cash annually. I don't have to be a Yahoo! user to consider it a reasonable investment for the short-medium term.

I've been a Telstra cable customer for almost 4 years now, not really by choice, but for lack of any realistic alternatives. We're over 3.5km from our closest telephone exchange and prior experience has shown that ADSL on the available lines is both slow (3 Mbps) and unreliable (frequent dropouts). We're fortunate to have both Telstra and Optus cable available but I hear quite horrible stories about Optus' congestion so I am reluctant to try them except as a last resort. Hence I preface all of the following with "if I could use anyone other than Telstra, I would".

This isn't intended as a whinge though. Despite a week of customer service shenanigans I am more amused than I am annoyed and I hope you will also find my stories entertaining. Perhaps if you are in a management or operations role these stories may even be instructive.

It begins on Wednesday 16 April. With a week left on my billing month it's apparent that I will exceed my 200GB limit this month, and having investigated the alternatives I decide that I would like to upgrade to their 500GB plan. I call Telstra to see what offers they might offer.

A slight digression here -- it's well known that telcos often have special discounts that are only offered if the stars align and you happen to speak to a willing service rep. There's a dedicated thread on Whirlpool for getting discounted rates from Telstra. The practice of repeatedly calling to see if you might hit on a gold mine is known as "rep shopping"; surprisingly there is no Wikipedia article for this term.

I tried my hand at this, failed miserably, and decided to go for Telstra's Pinnacle bundle. Right now there is a $20 discount for new customers (advertised on their web site) so I figured that this should be available to existing customers as well, I just had to speak to the right person. Sure enough on my first call I got a sales guy who happily agreed to give me the $20 discount. Problem solved!

Except that said sales guy was unable to process orders due to a seemingly botched system upgrade that began on Saturday 12 April. He thought that the system should be fixed pretty soon and offered to call me back the next day. As you might guess, that call back never happened.

But it turns out it probably wasn't his fault. After several conversations with other Telstra staff it turns out their systems had gone fully bonkers. By Tuesday 22 April they were in the even worse position of being unable to access any customer account details, on top of being unable to place orders. The system that they use to register requested call backs was also down. This systems failure isn't the point of this post though, even if a 10 day outage is quite impressive in its own right, especially when it blocks new sales.

What I found fascinating over my many interactions with Telstra is the apparent problem of internal communications and trust, and how it manifests in the way they interact with customers.

As an example, on 14 April Telstra announced on their CrowdSupport site that fixed line Internet customers have the option of requesting data "top ups". But having attempted to claim this 4 times, exactly one of the staff I spoke to actually knew of this offer before I told them of it, and none of them could actually apply it to my service.

Another example: one of the reasons rep shopping is possible is that you frequently find that staff members aren't up to date on current product offerings and it's therefore possible to bully them into building custom bundles that aren't actually for sale, often at prices below what they should be.

A follow on problem is that because rep shopping is possible, devious customers use it to fool other Telstra employees into giving them their desired discounts. How?

The problem is this -- imagine you, as Telstra, have N thousand call centre folks, and any one of them could promise anything to the customer, for whatever reasons (ignorance, misinformation, sleepiness). You want your brand to have integrity so you try to honour any promises made by company representatives. The devious customer therefore tells one staff member that another Telstra employee promised him a bundle B with a discount of $D/mo, despite no such promises ever having been made.

How does Telstra combat this problem?

They use interaction tickets. You may have heard of the term "Customer Relationship Management" (CRM).

When an offer is made to a customer it should be recorded into that customer's account so that any representative should be able to consult that customer's records and see the truth. Two problems still remain however. Non-customers don't have such a record, and not all staff are diligent with their record keeping so the customer's record is not a reliable source of truth.

A related issue that I've encountered several times is where a staff member says they will do X but never followed through and, in later conversations, it becomes apparent that they never submitted the necessary paperwork for X to occur. A real world example: a Telstra staffer tells me they're going to send a technician for example but doesn't book it in, and therefore the technician never arrives. I call to find out what happened to the technician, and am told there was never one scheduled. Cool story bro.

Interaction tickets solve this one as well... kind of.

Whenever a Telstra customer interacts with a staff member they are apparently entitled to request a receipt which is provided in the form of an opaque string, read out over the phone. e.g. D-123456789. In theory this gives the customer proof that the representative has recorded the interaction, and makes it easier for them to refer to this issue if they need to contact Telstra again.

In practice the lazy or incompetent representative can make up any string they like, making the process useless to both Telstra and the customer. When the customer eventually complains, there is no record of the fictitious ticket, making it difficult for Telstra to figure out which staff member was responsible, and annoying the customer further to learn that s/he has been lied to. This isn't unique to Telstra BTW, many ISPs and companies in general have similar systems.

What Telstra's system does is email the interaction ticket to the customer, whilst s/he is still on the phone. The nefarious operator could of course fake such an email but to do so s/he would need to first access the customer's account (to get her email) -- an action that should be auditable via other means. Overall the system is not bulletproof but still a great improvement.

So we learn that the CRM system solves two problems for Telstra.

Firstly, as an organisation wide "brain". Customers will interact with many Telstra staff over the life of their account but collectively they have to behave like a single person, "remembering" prior interactions. This is the promise of CRM systems.

The second is enforcing trustworthiness amongst its own staff -- providing a practical way for customers to hold Telstra, and therefore the individual staff, accountable. This helps to address the root cause of many of Telstra's issues -- internal communication.

When my service was eventually upgraded to the Pinnacle bundle they applied an incorrect speed profile to my cable service. It was obvious to me but I spoke with 3 different staff over the phone & LiveChat, and none of them would acknowledge the issue, palming me off between Tech Support -> Billing -> Tech Support. Frustrated, I posted to their CrowdSupport site, and lucked upon a fantastic employee who goes by the name "Ben_J" who not only fixed my service but importantly:

It was exactly as we suspected, someone has just selected the incorrect speed plan when they changed the Bundle. Sorry about that. I've already sent through feedback about the person who changed the Bundle as well as the agents you've spoken with today.

Without an auditable trail of every interaction the vitally important cycle of feedback -> improvement would not be possible.

Over the last few years there's been an increasing amount of noisediscussion about net neutrality, particularly in the US. This post is written from the perspective of an impartial (IMO) observer in Australia, distilling the core US problem, and considers the importance of this issue to Australians.

The TL;DR version of this saga is that there are essentially two sides battling out commercials.

On one side there is the content providers. These are services such as YouTube, Netflix, etc who host the content that typical Internet users wish to consume.

On the other side are the last-mile providers - aka ISPs. These are the companies that provide connectivity to end users.

Both parties need each other to satisfy their respective customers. The ISP provides connectivity to end users but doesn't directly host the vast majority of content users want. Content providers each have little pieces of what consumers want but need the ISP to deliver it to their end users.

So at various points around the globe content providers & ISPs come together -- physically -- to interconnect their networks. The issue in question right now is whether the two should simply pay their respective costs to meet, or should one party pay a further tariff to the other? This is a classic negotiation power scenario. Who has more to lose, or more to win?

Right now, in the US at least, the ISPs hold power. They're the ones demanding that content providers pay a tariff for the right to connect. We'll get to why in a second but first here are both sides' views.

If you take the content provider's POV then ISPs are double dipping because the ISP has already charged their end user (i.e. you and me) a monthly subscription fee to deliver Internet, and now they're also trying to charge the content providers another fee for delivering that same data.

If you take the ISP's POV then content providers like Netflix are simply trying to shift their own costs onto ISPs. As users use more data (because of services like Netflix) ISPs have to pay to upgrade their infrastructure and therefore Netflix should contribute towards these upgrades.

They both sound like reasonable arguments but the problem actually goes deeper.

The core problem is that US ISPs have a monopoly on the last-mile. In many areas your only choice for an ISP is an AT&T, a Comcast, or a Verizon. This leads to the situation where an ISP can extract interconnection tariffs from content providers such as Netflix because the end user has no other ISP to switch to.

Picture the average Netflix subscriber on Comcast who is having a sub-par streaming experience due to the interconnection between Netflix and Comcast being saturated. She complains to Netflix that the service is crap, Netflix goes to Comcast to increase capacity, and Comcast says "hey, you should pay us $X for that". Netflix says no, the subscriber can't leave Comcast as there is no other ISP in her area, so either she puts up with a crap Netflix experience, or she cancels her subscription with Netflix.

The second problem is that for various reasons US ISPs have typically sold their Internet to end users on an unlimited usage basis. This creates some rather questionable incentives as highlighted by Geoff Huston in his post RIP Network Neutrality:

... the internet access industry appears to have adopted a retail offering that achieves its greatest reward to the service provider when the consumer does not use the service at all [emphasis mine]. In this case increased use implies greater cost without any increase in revenue. To deter increased use of their service the service provider is, somewhat perversely, incented to decrease the quality of the service. How strange.

The real problem is not Netflix or Comcast. Both are behaving as you would expect them to. It's that the market ended up in this position in the first place - with monopoly ISPs offering unlimited usage of finite resources for a fixed price. It's not clear how this will or should pan out in the US but Australians should be aware of these issues, especially in the context of the NBN.

Aussies may or may not be aware that without the intervention of legislation, competitive ISPs such as Optus, iiNet, Internode, TPG, and competitive infrastructure companies such as Nextgen, PIPE, Amcom and the like we would be looking at our own monopoly ISP situation with Telstra as your only choice. Despite all this effort, and although there is competition at the retail level, Telstra's copper phone lines are still the only way for any ISP to provide ADSL Internet to many users around the country. We've been lucky in some respects that access to these phone lines is "declared" by the ACCC which means access & pricing is somewhat controlled. But let's not harp on the past.

The NBN is building a new, national, monopoly last-mile infrastructure. That is, for many Australians the NBN will become the new, only choice of ISP. Currently owned by the Australian Government but intended to be privatised in future. Given the situation in the US we may want to consider the outcomes of privatising monopoly infrastructure. At the very least, if we do privatise the NBN, there needs to be appropriate legislation to control its market power.

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