It seems all my latest posts are about TelstraClear, New Zealand's second large ISP, previously voted "Best ISP" on Netguide People's Choice Web Awards (and asking for votes again, which I think will be difficult to win this year). But really TelstraClear seems to be making all the right moves to annoy its users. And I am one of them.
And TelstraClear is not a cheap ISP compared to others (I pay $149 a month plus the occasional excess use for their 80GB/month plan). Premium costs should provide premium service. And with that premium responsibility.
I have been with TelstraClear for more than ten years, way before it was TelstraClear. The cable service was called Saturn, and even before that it was Chello.
I always told everyone TesltraClear had the most reliable, consistently fast service in the country, but in the last nine months things are going downhill from where I see it.
I will try to look at some of the latest developments here, and it's going to be a longer post than usual (well, not when it comes to this topic).
First, there was their YouTube problem, which dragged for more than nine months, until they decided that yes, it was time to deploy a Google cache. I won't go into much details - read my previous posts on TelstraClear YouTube problem.
So now we have a Google cache deployed on TelstraClear. Things are looking a bit better but I am to be convinced they did provision an adequate sized cache. But that was a positive move.
It's a good move, and I believe they did well, seeing Google's policy seems to be to get as much free bandwidth as possible, by having large ISPs putting their caches, bringing content closer to consumers, but also guaranteeing Google an advantage in terms of content distribution at low cost.
This brings me to the next problem. For a few weeks now I have read lots of complaints about TelstraClear slow international traffic. I have experienced this myself. Every single day. It seems the YouTube problem was solved, but another one came to fill the vacuum created.
TelstraClear uses a transparent proxy. It means when we customers connect to a website we are actually connecting to their server, which in turn will cache the content to make it available later to other users requesting it again.
This works great, if the transparent proxy is actually transparent and doesn't show its ugly head to the users. Every now and them (it seems it's always in the morning) websites stop loading, or won't load completely. It always comes right after an hour or couple of hours. I wonder if the transparent proxy is being overloaded and something needs to be done there?
Then there's the international traffic in general. It looks like TelstraClear international pipe is being saturated. For example iTunes movie downloads that used to take 30 - 45 minutes to download now take 4 - 6 hours. Access to content hosted at Amazon services (such as Amazon AWS storage, used by many companies to distribute images for example) has been slow or simply not connecting at all. Twitter avatars for example.
TelstraClear doesn't "peer" in New Zealand with smaller ISPs. This means they don't exchange some of this traffic locally, with some of this local traffic on TelstraClear's network going overseas and then back into New Zealnd just to reach a server on another side of town.
Always wondered why using www.speedtest.net from Wellington and testing against the Wellington server gives you bad results? Because of this "international traffic". Look at these results (I am based in Wellington):
Try using one of the CityLink servers to download a Linux install file and see how slow that goes... And they are just around the corner (so to speak) from here!
Now, don't take my word, but that's what I think anyway - and I am not sure we will ever hear a confirmation from TelstraClear, but I think Google requires dedicated bandwidth for their cache. And TelstraClear forces a lot of "local" traffic over international links. It could be that international bandwidth has now some reserved bandwidth used by the new Google cache, without any additional bandwidth being provisioned for the existing use.
This comes also with a rumour I heard about TelstraClear having some problems with one of its providers of international traffic, Reach, which just happens to be a sister company, also owned by Australian telco Telstra.
TelstraClear promises to be deploying DOCSIS3 anytime now (which in TelstraClear terms means "in the next five years), but what good would it be for users, if the rest of the structure doesn't support higher speeds?
Remember this is for New Zealand domestic traffic only. Nielsen explains the methodology:
"The rankings do not show which websites have the actual highest traffic numbers (ie total number of unique browsers) of this demographic, but instead show which sites have the highest percentage of their traffic consisting of people who have purchased online from any website, for the month of April.
For example, techday.co.nz is the number one ranking because 55.4 percent of its unique browsers meet the demographic requirement, but their total number of matched unique browsers equals 6,025. geekzone.co.nz on the other hand, in third place, has 51.7 percent of its unique browsers that meet the demographic requirement but their total number of matched unique browsers equals 54,132."
For some public demographic information you can check our Geekzone information on Quantcast and select different countries from their list.
Media Center users in New Zealand are faced with an interesting situation: the Freeview|HD service (our free-to-air DVB-T digital TV broadcast in high definition) transmits an electronic guide in two formats: the one, more common EIT which is limited to only the current and next TV program and the new MHEG5 which presents the whole week, allowing series link, etc.
The problem with the MHEG5 for most media centre users is the lack of support for this standard in the current software releases. What most people have been doing until now was to grab a special XML file from one of many sources online and apply it to their media centre.
However most content publishers (TV channels, satellite and cable services) say the contents on that file could be subject to copyright, and Sky even issued a takedown notice affecting the most well known website in New Zealand distributing that content. Surely a strange move, because I would assume in their business they want the most eyeballs as possible...
Anyway, two developers (SJB and giggles) decided to start a project that seems to be a different take on this: instead of downloading a XML file from the Internet, you can run a program on your Windows PC that will automatically collect the electronic guide from the broadcast and simply reformat it for loading on your media centre software. There's no distribution involved, only a translation, and it's obvious the resulting file is for personal use only.
The program, EPG Collector, can be run as a scheduled task to create the XMLTV file, and you can then run any other software to load it into your media centre. I am for example using Big Screen EPG to load this into Windows 7 Media Center. It can create the XMLTV file from your DVB-S or DVB-T tuners and it's easy to configure.
EPG Collector is currently being tested by some users on Geekzone, and it's available for download now from SourceForge. There's an ongoing discussion about the project on Geekzone, and the plan is to make it an open source project once it's stable.
Also note that as of now (late April 2010), the developers are looking for some more testers. Currently most testers are using Freeview sources but the program should work with other EPG sources in New Zealand. Please join Geekzone and post in the discussion about the project.
Freeview broadcasts the full week guide on DVB-S and Media Center can grab this without any third party software. If you have a DVB-S and a DVB-T tuner on your media center you can easily map the channels and watch HD content, with the guide from the non-HD source. But some people don't have both DVB-T and DVB-S tuners. Or rather have a different solution. This is for you.
UPDATE: There's also a Linux project version now.
From Stuff today:
"The television commercials failed to adequately disclose that, by sending a text to answer the initial question, participants were entering into a premium SMS subscription service, where they would receive five text messages per month charged at $3 per message received,'' the commission said."
This is more evidence that people have been "subscribing" to things without really knowing they were entering into a contract. Mobile operators here were vocal in protesting their innocence before, saying people willingly subscribed to these "entertainment" services.
However it seems clear that some of these companies fail to disclose subscription charges. The same type of problem was reported before by Facebook users who didn't get enough information about being "subscribed" to a service when adding a new application to their profile in the social network site.
I've read and heard of cases where people purchased brand new prepay numbers, which already had ongoing "subscriptions", which should point to people leaving their numbers to be recycled by the operators, which would just pass the number on without proper "desinfection".
There are plenty of cases on Geekzone, but each and everyone were greeted with a "the user subscribed to the service". Which could be the case, but was it an informed decision?
Mobile operators also say they keep the service providers under control, and any breach of their terms of services means termination of contracts. But it's evident that this is continuing to happening. I can only guess people calling to complain about this kind of problem usually reach an overseas-based help desk that's measured on number of calls taken and greeted with a "I am sorry, nothing we can do, our systems are broken right now, we can't see your SMS, you have to contact the content provider directly, anything else we can do for you? Thank you for calling, goodbye."
I wonder how much of the calls going through help desks are actually monitored to capture real problems as they happen? I know for example that calling a fixed line broadband provider and asking "I am having a problem, my neighbour is having similar problem, do you know if there's a fault in this area?" usually gets a reply of "I don't know, we don't track this information", which is exactly the opposite of I would expect them to do.
Anyway, back to SMS subscription services... Some are the real thing, but scams abound. Be careful when you send a SMS to a number you see on TV. Those messages in font size 5 only flash for one second or two.
It seems that, at last after seven months, TelstraClear will admit in a public forum they have a YouTube problem, and the fix is coming. Later today (17th Apr 2010 12:30pm ), John Bone, Head of Customer Experience at TelstraClear and I will be sharing comments about this problem on Radio New Zealand This Way Up.
The company will admit now there's a problem - one that affects mainly people accessing the popular YouTube service through TelstraClear's network. Some may say "is that a problem? Seriously, people complain about not being able to watch videos of cats playing with iPads?"
But then you have to realise that TelstraClear holds the #2 ISP spot in New Zealand, and YouTube is the fourth most visited site in the country. Add to the mix that some people do have business interests on YouTube (training, new product releases, social media interactions) and you realise that it does affect a lot of people.
We first saw comments about this problem back in September 2009. This is about seven months for TelstraClear to admit there's a problem, start a project to fix it, allocate a budget, and deliver. Will they deliver? Last night a tweet from the company said: "Caches to arrive in NZ on the 26th. They need to be optimised with expectation that YouTube experience improves significantly by mid May ^LP"
So this is pretty much confirmation of my previous post, when I explained the whole TelstraClear YouTube problem had to do with Google caches, local traffic and more.
What bothers me though is that although TelstraClear provides a great Internet service, and users are holding to it despite YouTube problems and bad customer service (I will get to that soon), the company seems to think talking to their customers is not necessary.
We have a discussion going on Geekzone about the TelstraClear YouTube problem since 8th September 2009. In about seven months the discussion had 30,600 views and 390 replies. The company didn't reply there once. Not a single line acknowledging a problem, or giving a hint of hope.
The same problem was discussed in blogs around New Zealand (not only here) but the company at best posted in a couple of blogs confirming there was an issue and that they'd do something.
Why, you ask, don't those users change providers? Because as bad as the YouTube problem is, the service overall is still good value for money, in terms of speed and reliability when comparing with other ISPs.
But TelstraClear don't stop here in "Bad Customer Communications Book, chapter 1". They also write "Bad Customer Communications Book, chapter 2" with their spectacular failure to provide decent customer services over the phone line.
Just this morning I read on New Zealand Herald how "A snapshot survey conducted by the Weekend Herald, which involved timing how long it took 10 of the country's internet service providers to provide human support, has uncovered some alarming waits. Of all the ISPs, TelstraClear proved the most inefficient."
They continue "During the first round of calls about midday on Tuesday, it took 30m 44s for a human voice to answer a call."
And the end is "[To its credit, TelstraClear warned on both occasions that the longest waiting calls were 36 and 65 minutes. Both calls were answered faster than warned - the first took 30m 44s when the warning was 36m and the second took 58m 8s when the warning was 65 - perhaps because some frustrated customers hung up."
But it's not just newspapers that have this problem. What about a tweet from Debra E Clark saying "OMG, another call to Telstra and the wait time is in excess of 1 hour... ever heard of hiring more staff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ^dc"
Then there's the transparent proxy cache systems in place at TelstraClear. It seems the norm for the system to fail every few days now, leaving web users with nothing but experiencing timeouts or empty pages when accessing content hosted on international sites. Although I have to say there's at least one person I know inside the company that seems to look at this seriously when we complain.
I should just have summed it all up with "TelstraClear please listen and talk to your customers. Don't send newsletters only. And don't think posting on Twitter is all that matters for customer communication".
It seems my previous post about innovation in New Zealand got some interesting comments. I also have to say it actually should be a bit clearer in the fact that most of the comments (and the post itself) is geared towards telecommunications companies.
One of the comments in that post was "I think the flaw isn't the innovation, it's the idea that large companies/corporations can innovate. I'd say it's a rare one that does. Real innovation requires cross-pollination, which is typically provided by generalists rather than specialists. That, and the lack of rigid business systems (large organisations require rigid systems to function) allow for the sort of dabbling (and provide the sort of desperation) that produces innovation, at least in my experience." (lightweight)
What a great comment. To celebrate it I will post below a few links to New Zealand companies I believe are creating innovative solutions, models and businesses:
Aptimize: Ed, Derek and their team created a piece of software every web admin should look at - even more now that Google confirmed page load speed is a factor in search results ranking. Obviously you should start with a good set of database model, scripts coding, but Aptimize will automatically apply best practices to website pages.
Powershop: The first marketplace for electricity where users can purchase power via a web interface, plan usage, set goals, work through consumption.
Silverstripe: They've done a brilliant job of creating a true open source CMS product and exporting the product all over the world.
Xero: Bussines accounting with style. Rod Drury came up with a vision (which he share a little with us months before going live) and is taking over the word (New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom) with their easy to use, intuitive web-based accounting package.
What do these companies have in common? It seems they are all small companies, which seems to be in line with the comment above.
What companies you see innovating in New Zealand? Links drops are acceptable providing they are really to innovative businesses (spam as usual will be removed).
Disclaimer: We use Aptimize on Geekzone on a special license. The Geekzone case study in their website is based on actual numbers. I switched to Powershop a couple of months before it became public, while still in beta but get no special "mates rates". I use Xero for my company accounts, but get not special "mates rates".
UPDATE: Added Silverstripe to the list.
Sometimes I feel some of my tweets should come into a blog post. 140 characters are not long enough but also some topics don't deserve more than a few words.
Will keep this short: "I feel there's a complete lack of innovation in New Zealand companies."
There, that was the tweet I felt bad about today. To expand on that, specifically on telecommunications, what I see around is a bunch of dinosaurs ready to kill their customers and eat them - just getting closer to their own extinction. And we don't have any new companies to replace them.
New Zealand telcos live in the land of "let's charge as much as we can because we can, even though the services we provide lack quality in all levels."
I lost (the little) faith I had in this specific segment. Up until last year I thought Telecom New Zealand could do it. But now I know they tried but can't. TelstraClear seems to want everything for nothing and leaves customers in the dark - cable services haven't seen a decent upgrade for ages, they keep pushing their home entertainment options to next month, they don't communicate with customers about their problems, and so on. Vodafone seems to be plagued with customer services problems, which I am told we will always be solved by projects that never end. And they also seem to hold the keys that would allow us access to some interesting technologies that never arrive here (Amazon Kindle anyone?)
Only yesterday I was talking to Bill Benett about companies. I don't believe large companies are here to provide bad services and/or products. They don't select people to work there based on the evil they can commit. But New Zealand companies don't seem to get their act right. They seem to be infected with inaction and slow movements. What's going on? I don't see New Zealand companies, and telcos in particular, innovating. We will be behind for years to come. What do you think?
UPDATE: I will change the question... Instead, are there inspiring New Zealand companies out there?
UPDATE: Interesting article by Rob O'Neill on Computerworld: "When the status quo blocks innovation". Note the reference to TelstraClear.
UPDATE: I decided to list a few "good guys" in another post here.
And here is what Google Analytics tells me:
Looking at the % of New Zealand traffic reported by Google Analytics, it seems total Unique Visitors according to Google Analytics is about 38,661 - about 50% more than Nielsen is reporting...
The Wellington Declaration agreed by the PublicACTA Conference has now been released, and video coverage of the event will be made available as soon as possible.
The Declaration can be found online at http://www.publicacta.org.nz and members of the public can find a link to a petition where they can sign their support of the declaration.
"I urge everyone interested in protecting their digital rights online to sign this petition and endorse the Wellington Declaration," says Jordan Carter, a spokesperson for PublicACTA.
"The Wellington Declaration paints a broad picture of the need to limit ACTA to what it originally set out to do: tackle the problem of counterfeiting.
"It also makes some specific suggestions as to how the detailed provisions being negotiated in Wellington next week - that go far beyond counterfeiting - can be made more citizen-friendly.
"PublicACTA had over 100 people in attendance, and hundreds more observing the proceedings through a live video feed from many countries around the world. Keynote speakers included Professor Michael Geist from Canada, and Kimberlee Weatherall from Australia.
"The Declaration is a substantive and serious call on Governments to change their approach to ACTA. A discussion on ACTA is going on here on Geekzone.