Let Them Eat Wireless

In which Yr. Humble Correspondent tries his hand at that most dee-verting genre of blog posts, impotent griping about the slings and arrows of outrageous customer service.Calamity Jon Morris, the Gen-X Winsor McCay, wrote in his weblog the other day: “While thousands upon thousands have lost everything they ever owned, their homes, their families or their lives, I remain very angry at Netflix for dragging its feet on my latest returns. I may just be a monster.” I know how you feel, Jon. I myself feel a bit of a monster for posting the following. It does me little credit to moan about having no telephone while so many have just lost their homes. On the other hand, there were people suffering in the world long before Hurricane Katrina. What are we the bloggers of the world supposed to do, keep our whinging to ourselves until all of the world’s real problems are solved? Unlikely.

So, L & I moved into our new home two months ago. We love it. A downstairs and an upstairs, shiny appliances, funky details, a yard, a garage, a hidden treasure (allegedly), and the cutest little tree-lined street you’ve ever seen. Anyone who hadn’t been paying Boston rents for the last decade would judge it a modest little starter home, but I feel like an English colonist surveying the New World: “We will NEVER use up all this space! Never in a million years!” But there’s always a but, isn’t there? Here’s ours…

It’s taken us two months to get telephone service. I ordered service from Bell Canada on July 5th, the day before we moved in. We did not achieve dial tone until September 7th. Two months! Did somebody at Bell Canada read my dissertation? Am I on a blacklist somewhere? Is this revenge for my unflattering portrait of the company’s early days? No telephone also meant no internet, and the two combined threw a big wrench into the million little things we had to do this summer after the move. The telephone hassle has also made it very difficult to convince my American beloved that I have not whisked her off beyond the northern edges of Civilization, as she may occasionally have feared.

Competition has only recently returned to local telephone service in Ontario, and the long delay in getting our land-line working gave me a chance to enjoy its fruits first hand. My work on the history of telephony makes some effort to rehabilitate the first era of telephone competition. Though the telephone was introduced in 1876, the Bell System as a unified corporate entity only really took shape after about 1907. In the 1890s and 1900s, the various local and regional Bell companies, only loosely affiliated, faced stiff competition from thousands of tiny independent systems, particularly in the American Midwest. The traditional Bell-centric history of these years regards the era of telephone competition as an aberration if not an abomination, a very wrong turn on the road to regulated monopoly. I’m quite aware that the telephone industry of the early 20th century was often a chaotic mess. But I’ve also tried to present it as an era of laudable experimentation and rapid growth. Shows what I know.

I ordered service from both Bell Canada and its new competitor, Rogers Cable, thinking they would race for my business. Whoever managed to hook me up first would be rewarded with my telephone, internet, and cable TV business thereafter. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Free market competition, red in tooth and claw. But “race” implies speed. And “competition” demands that each side at least pretends to make an effort. Neither speed nor effort were much on display this summer, as July wore into August, August into September, and our telephone remained an ornate paperweight.

What was on display was an object lesson in corporate culture. Ma Bell, the incumbent, responded to all our pleas for service with the imperious hauteur of the nineteenth-century monopoly she once was. “Your telephone will be connected in mid-September, and not before,” a Bell rep told me flatly in early July. “We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.” I like that. She didn’t presume to guess whether or not going without a phone for nine weeks might cause us any inconvenience, but if it did, she was sorry.

The new economy challenger took a different tact. Every time we called Rogers Cable, they expressed dumbfounded outrage that our telephone wasn’t up and running yesterday. “What? You’ve gone three days without a phone? What century is this, anyway?” And they swore up and down that a technician would be there first thing tomorrow. Of course we’d have to stay home to meet them. So we’d wait. And nobody would come. And after we’d spent the day waiting, we’d call Rogers again (on a cell phone, of course), listen on hold to forty minutes of “Für Elise,” and finally be told “What?!? The technician didn’t come? Inconceivable! They’ll be there tomorrow, for sure!” Then they’d ask if we’d like to sign up for high-speed internet or a digital PVR.

(Speaking of PVRs: I suspect we’ll have words at some future date about what passes for TiVo in Canada. But I really will wait until the flood waters recede before that post. My monstrosity does have its limits.)

In our next thrilling installment:
Yr. Humble Etc. tarts up his moaning with some historical context. PLUS! The looming snickersnee between telco and cableco to rule the broadband age.


  1. Greetings from another historian who hails from the further north Great White North — I stumbled across your blog courtesy of CT and found your rant against the telephone services quite telling!

  2. Astinishing. Isn’t the swath from Ottawa to Toronto to Windsor (including London) the most densely populated area in the country?

    But is this a new phone installation? Is the house new? I thought that, these days, they just turned a switch, activating the line and connecting it the new number.

    (who has decent service from SaskTel)

  3. there is reportedly now Canadian TiVo

    Wow. This is big news. I don’t know whether I’m happy that I can get TiVo or unhappy that the big rant I was building up just got defused.

  4. Melissa:

    I can’t explain it. The house is not new; actually, part of the problem seems to have been convincing everyone that the previous owner’s line (which was with some little third party telco) had truly been disconnected.

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