AT&T Gives a Little in Attempt to Close BellSouth Deal

Hoping to clear the way for its US$85 billion takeover of BellSouth before the calendar turns to 2007, AT&T has offered additional concessions, including some limited network neutrality guarantees to win Federal Communications Commission (FCC) blessing for the delayed deal.

AT&T had balked at requests by the Democratic members of the FCC to put guarantees in place that third-party Internet traffic would not be relegated to second-class status on the sprawling network that will be created when AT&T and the former Baby Bell combine assets.

Additional Options

The Democratic votes became essential, however, after Robert McDowell, one of the three Republican members of the FCC, announced last week he would abstain from voting on the deal, citing his past work as a consultant to a telecom industry group that has opposed the merger on the grounds it would harm smaller telecom concerns.

In a 19-page letter delivered to the FCC late Thursday, AT&T pledged to make high-speed Internet service available in 100 percent of the regions its high-speed network will cover, and to provide free DSL modems to subscribers who sign up for broadband service within 18 months of the merger date. It also agreed to make a $10 per month high-speed option available.

AT&T also said it would guarantee some net neutrality for two years or until Congress addresses the issue with new legislation, and offered to divest itself of some BellSouth wireless spectrum assets.

It also agreed to bring back 3,000 jobs that BellSouth had outsourced in recent years to offshore locations — a nod to labor interests favored by the Democratic commissioners. At least 200 of those jobs will be based in and around New Orleans.

The possibility remained that the FCC could meet sometime Friday to vote on the deal, but as of midday on the East Coast, no such meeting had been officially scheduled or posed, a spokesperson in the commission’s Washington, D.C., office said. FCC rules allow it to vote without a scheduled, public meeting, however, and a decision can be announced at any time.

AT&T is hoping to close the BellSouth purchase — which would mark the largest merger in telecom industry history — early in 2007 and begin the extensive work of combining two networks and two corporate cultures.

Above and Beyond

In the letter to the FCC, AT&T Vice President Robert Quinn Jr. said the additional concessions were being made even though AT&T’s takeover had been approved by the Department of Justice and numerous state agencies.

He also said that two earlier mergers — the AT&T and SBC link-up that formed the current AT&T and Verizon’s purchase of MCI — had more “competitive overlap” and yet were approved “with fewer, less extensive commitments than we offered.”

“Merger opponents continue to demand even more concessions, including those they were unable to obtain from Congress, or that are being considered in pending, industry-wide rulemaking proceedings,” Quinn wrote.

In the document, AT&T agreed to meet an FCC policy statement on net neutrality adopted in 2005 and went slightly further, saying it would not segregate Internet traffic from the point where it reaches the approximately 25 regional hubs around the country that process Web traffic. From there until it enters customer homes, all traffic will be treated equally, AT&T said. That condition also expires in two years.

The net neutrality concessions could resonate with the rest of the industry and become a model for the new, Democrat-controlled Congress to emulate in the form of legislation when it convenes early in the new year.

The most recent Congress held extensive hearings on net neutrality, with Google and other Internet companies pushing hard for guaranteed access to broadband networks, but stopped short of adding the requirement to a telecom bill passed late in the year.

Another key concession came in the form of price caps on corporate data traffic, which had been in place previously under an FCC rule that has since expired. That concession is key because the ability to derive more revenue from business customers is one of the main reasons for the merger.

Time Flies

AT&T shares were up 1.2 percent in midday trading Friday to $35.91.

In the end, the concessions were more than AT&T wanted to give, but getting the deal done became more important.

“AT&T didn’t want this dragging on into 2007,” telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan told the E-Commerce Times. The prospect of a new, Democrat-led Congress taking office may have been one motivating factor that helped spur AT&T to negotiate with the FCC through the holidays.

“They no doubt have a timeline for the merger, tasks to get to work on that start to get pushed around if they held their ground for too long,” Kagan said. “The most important thing for the company and its shareholders is to get the merger completed.”

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OPINION

How Not To Do CX, Lenovo Style

Customer Experience CX

Sometimes the world of smart technology innovations collides with the planet of dumb customer service provisions. That collision usually does not bode well for the customer.

In my case, that scenario is particularly true. I bought Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet 5 for an attractive price from a major national electronics store. In hindsight, that was a purchase I wish I could undo.

The Duet 5 is regarded in numerous reliable reviews as the best overall ChromeOS tablet/detachable computer available this year. Its larger screen and detachable full-size keyboard make a usable and fun tablet experience not available with pure Android devices.

For me, that accolade falls far short of reaching that mark. In fact, if your primary need for a Chromebook is to run Linux apps, think again about not buying Lenovo’s Duet 5. You might get a unit like mine that does not do Linux even though it is supposed to work. That failure is not considered a valid claim under Lenovo’s warranty.

I have become quite fond of Chromebooks. ChromeOS devices supplement my home office cadre of Linux computers. They link to my Android phone and its apps. I can run the same productivity apps and access their data directly on the Chromebook.

What fed my attraction to the Duet 5 is its logical follow-up to the very popular 10.1″ original Duet I bought a few years ago. The Duet line has a detachable keyboard and is a stand-alone ChromeOS tablet.

Putting want versus need aside, I debated the prospect of more productivity and convenience with a bigger screen at 400 nits, larger keyboard, and 8GB of RAM. I knew the manufacturer and the retail store as well as the product line. Or so I thought.

What could go wrong? Three things: a failed product, no support, and a warranty that also did not work!

Maybe One Too Many

The last thing I needed to buy was yet another Chromebook. Over the last few years, I have used four or five models from HP, Lenovo, and Asus.

The Duet 5 seemed to check all the boxes. As it turned out, the check mark fell out of the box for reliable tech support and customer service.

Nope, I could not return the computer. By the time I discovered its defective nature the undo window had closed.

I suppose this incident will nudge me to buy expensive add-on store warranties for less expensive electronic devices. Adding insult to injury, Lenovo tech support said the malfunction was “beyond the scope of the manufacturer’s one-year warranty.”

A final correspondence from Lenovo’s tech support told me that if I shipped the device to its repair facility, all the technicians would do is reset the unit to its original OS status and remove Linux.

Heck, I had already done the same thing twice.

Lenovo Buyers Beware

This account is not intended to be a product review. Rather, it tells what happens when corporate arrogance destroys the customer experience.

I usually write about business technology issues and open-source developments impacting the Linux OS. My reporting beat overlaps with e-commerce and customer relationship management (CRM) issues.

As a tech writer and product reviewer, I am used to manufacturers sending me top-of-their-line products in hopes of showing off their best wares. Marketing marvels often offer high-end configurations to curry consumers’ attention. They go out of their way to make sure the reviewer is fully satisfied.

Too bad that mentality does not always exist when lowly consumers are on the receiving end. But I was not using a loaner unit I would send back anyway, satisfied or not. I bought this model with no plans to review it. I just wanted to use it.

My personal experience hardened my resolve to not buy a Lenovo product going forward. Not because of a bad product encounter. Lenovo lost my customer loyalty because of shoddy customer service and no dedication to resolving my issue with a malfunctioning computer that they built.

The Gory Details

According to Lenovo’s ill-conceived logic, the warranty on Chromebooks does not cover user modifications. Since I activated the Linux partition, ran into a problem, removed the partition, and reinstalled Linux apps not there when I bought it, I was guilty of modifying the device.

To clarify, all Chromebooks require the user to turn on the Linux partition and install Linux apps. That is the same process for using Android apps on Chromebooks.

Chromebooks are built to run the ChromeOS and optionally to run in separate built-in containers Android and Linux software. Google certifies the hardware to ensure the software works.

The ChromeOS similarly enables users to access websites in a browser environment. An added option lets users access those web destinations to run application services within tabbed browser windows or as progressive web apps (PWAs) in their own isolated windows.

That is what Chromebooks are designed to do on any manufacturer’s hardware. Turning these built-in features on/off should not be construed as “modifying” the device.

Tech Support Hell

A few weeks after receiving the Duet 5, I experienced only an intermittent screen flickering issue. That cleared up after a system update. No worries. No concerns.

At that point I turned on the Linux partition and installed the same Linux apps that I use on my other lesser-endowed Chromebooks. Those devices worked fine with the same apps installed.

But the Lenovo Duet 5 froze after loading the Linux apps and running for a few minutes. Glitchy installations happen. So I did what is standard troubleshooting. I reset the ChromeOS to its original status. I then set up the Linux partition and sized it well beyond the Google-recommended minimum size.

Problem NOT solved. So I wiped the Linux partition again. This time, I installed a single Linux app one at a time looking for the culprit throwing the others out of whack. Every Linux app in isolation froze.

Lenovo tech support declined to investigate or test the hardware. The agents suggested finding an affiliated tech center to pursue a solution.

Stuck With No Options

I gladly would have done that. But the nearest such Lenovo repair center was across state lines some 150 miles away.

I reached out to the Google Chromebook support community for an alternative solution. A support person there had me run the “df command” in a Linux terminal to determine the physical health of the partition.

The readout from that diagnostic confirmed the device has a valid and working Linux container. That partially settled the question about the hardware. It did not, however, identify what other hardware issues might be involved.

The Google support forum tech then suggested I look for one or more dud packages by following the procedure outlined above. But, of course, I already did that several times.

Lousy Lessons Learned

If you plan to buy a Chromebook just to have easy access to selected Linux apps, seriously consider my experience. Maybe look elsewhere instead of the Duet 5. Numerous Chromebook alternatives exist.

Who knows? Maybe the Linux apps will work fine for you on your Duet 5. As I said, I have not had this situation on any other Chromebook product I use.

No doubt my experience was a gross anomaly. The aggravating part in all of this is that I will never know the cause.

But if you buy a Duet 5 from a retail outlet instead of directly from the manufacturer, be sure to confirm how that store honors the warranty. You now know how Lenovo honors its warranty.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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Accent Altering Voice Tech Aims To Replace Frustration With Communication

frustrated customer calling customer service

Having trouble understanding that person at the end of the support line you’ve called to get some customer service? A Silicon Valley company wants to make those kinds of problems a thing of the past.

The company, Sanas, makes software that uses artificial intelligence to remove the accents in the speech of non-native, or even native, English speakers and output a more standard version of the language. “The program does phonetic-based speech synthesis in real-time,” one of the firm’s founders, Sharath Keshava Narayana, told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, the voice characteristics remain the same even after the accent is removed. The voice output by the software sounds the same as the voice input, only the accent has been removed so, for example, the sex of the speaker is preserved.

“What we’re doing is allowing agents to maintain their identity, maintain their accents, without the need to change it,” said Sanas CEO Maxim Serebryakov.

“The call center market is enormous. It’s 4% of India’s GDP, 14% of the Philippine’s GDP,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’re not talking about a few thousand people getting discriminated against on a daily basis because of their cultural identity. We’re talking about millions and millions of people that get treated differently because of the way they sound.”

“The concept is sound. If they can make it work, it’s a big deal,” observed Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an IT advisory company in Northborough, Mass.

“It can make companies more efficient and more effective and more responsive to consumers,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Talking Local

Gold explained that locals tend to better understand local dialects and associate with them better. “Even talking to someone with a heavy Southern accent sometimes gives me pause,” said the Massachusetts resident. “It affects the effectiveness of the call center if you can be much more like me.”

“Many call center workers are based overseas and customers could easily have trouble understanding what they’re saying in the case of strong accents,” John Harmon, a senior analyst with Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology, told TechNewsWorld.

“But the same could be true even for regional U.S. accents,” he added.

However, Taylor Goucher, COO of Connext Global Solutions, an outsourcing company in Honolulu, discounted accents as a source of customer frustration.

“It is well known that companies outsource call center support to different countries and rural parts of the United States,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The larger issue is the right selection of employees for the position and the training and processes that are in place to make them successful.”

Customer Perceptions

Harmon noted that consumers can have a negative reaction when they encounter a support person with a foreign accent at the other end of a support line. “A caller could feel that a company is not taking customer support seriously because it’s finding a cheaper solution by outsourcing service to an overseas call center,” he said.

“Also,” he added, “some customers might feel that someone overseas might be less able to help them.”

Goucher cited a study taken by Zendesk in 2011 that showed customer satisfaction dropping from 79% to 58% when a call center was moved outside the United States. “Everyone that I know has likely had a poor customer experience at some point in their lives with an agent that they couldn’t understand,” he observed.

He noted that the biggest problem with bad customer experience is the lack of support systems, training, and management oversight in the call center.

“Frequently we see companies move call centers offshore just to have the phone answered.” he said. “In customer service, answering the phone isn’t the most important part, it’s what happens after.”

“Agents, accent or no accent, will be able to provide winning customer experiences if they are the right person for the role, have the right training, and have the right tools to solve customer problems,” he added. “Saying the accent is the problem is an easy out.”

Bias Against Accents

When a customer support person doesn’t have the tools to solve a problem, it can be a huge frustration to a customer, Gold observed. “If I call somebody, I want my problem solved, and I don’t want to go through 88 steps to get there,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because I just spent a whole bunch of money with your company.”

“Anything that can be done to get over that hump faster has multiple benefits,” he continued. “From the consumer perspective, there’s the benefit of not pissing me off. In addition, if I can get through faster, it means the service person can spend less time with me and can handle more calls. And if I can hone in on the problem better, I won’t have to call again about it.”

Regardless of whether a customer support person has the tools they need to provide top-notch service, accents can influence a caller’s response to the person at the other end of a phone line.

“A customer could become upset at having to decode a foreign accent,” Harmon said. “There is also the stereotype that some U.S. accents sound uneducated, and a customer could feel like that the service provider is getting by with cheaper support.”

“In some cases, I think the biggest pre-existing bias is that if the agent has an accent, they aren’t going to be able to solve my problem,” Goucher added.

Choice for Voice

Serebryakov noted that one of the goals of Sanas is to provide people with choice when it comes to their voice. “When we post photos on Instagram, we can use filters to represent ourselves however we want to,” he explained. “But you don’t have a similar medium for voice. Our mission at Sanas is to provide that kind of choice.”

Although Sanas has initially targeted call centers for its technology, there are other areas that hold potential for it.

“One of the biggest uses we see for the technology is in enterprise communication,” Narayana said. “We got a call from Samsung saying they’ve got 70,000 engineers in Korea who interact with engineers in the U.S., and they don’t talk at team meetings because they’re scared how they’ll be interpreted. That’s the next use case we want to solve.”

The technology also has potential in gaming, health care, telemedicine, and education, he added.

Sanas on June 22 announced a $32 million Series A, boasting the largest Series A round in history for a speech technology company.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

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