June 8, 2006

Perhaps They Should Have Tested More - Cox Communications

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cox customers seethe

A software glitch leaves thousands of customers without phone service for most of the day Wednesday.

At least 9,000 Cox Communications residential and business telephone customers in the Roanoke Valley lost their service early Wednesday morning, thanks to a software upgrade gone awry.

It took Cox until early evening to trace the glitch, meaning throughout the afternoon the company had little information to provide its customers in Roanoke, Roanoke County and Vinton.

"We are having some difficulties," Cox spokeswoman Stacie Vest conceded at 2:30 p.m. "We did experience an outage," but in midafternoon, "we have not figured out what caused it."
Having heard that from a Cox customer service representative, Tony Williams, president of General Truck Body Co. in Roanoke, asked, "Do they have chimpanzees working on it? They've been working on it for five hours."

At the time, the company knew of about 9,000 telephone routers that were not working, but that number was growing as more customers contacted the company. By 5 p.m., though, it had traced the problem and was beginning to bring users back online.

Routers connect customers' telephones to the Cox network, which in turn connects to the telephone system. Like a personal computer, they do their magic through software. And, like a personal computer, adding or changing that software can sometimes cause problems.
Unlike a PC, though, Cox updates the software on its customers' routers through the system. If there's a problem with that software, every customer can be affected.

Although many home users might not have been affected because they were at work, businesses that rely on the Cox service had a different story.

Williams switched his business line from Verizon to Cox about four months ago and is beginning to think he made a mistake.

"They were more expensive," he said of Verizon, "but we never had this."

Williams discovered his phones were out when he got to work and used his cellphone to contact Cox. He said the company couldn't tell him what the problem was nor when it would be fixed.

After several calls without result, Williams' frustration mounted.

"I told them, 'You're costing us thousands of dollars,' " he said. "This hasn't happened to me in all the years I've been here."

Williams, not surprisingly, expects people to be able to reach him. Instead, the calls were sent directly to his voice mail. He and other customers were able to check voice mail from working phones, but had no way of knowing if a message was waiting without checking. For a business, that's a problem.

"It could be very costly because we have no contact with our customers," Williams said.
And this isn't the first time he's lost his Cox service. In fact, he said, it's the third or fourth time -- but the earlier incidents lasted only an hour or two.

"We have had several software upgrade glitches that have caused both small numbers and larger numbers of customer to go out," Vest admitted.

One of those was on March 30, when approximately 10 percent of the company's phone and high-speed data customers lost service for most of the day because of a botched software upgrade.

Cox would not disclose how many telephone subscribers it has in the Roanoke region, but Vest said that Wednesday's outage affected "a significant number of customers."

None of which meant all that much to Williams. "You might be able to stand it one time," he said, but, "if you never know if you're going to have phone service or not, that's not good."

Cox said it will issue refunds on a case by case basis, when customers request them.

Mack Cooper, who owns G & M Upholstering & Furniture Repair in Roanoke, was one such customer. He's already received one refund from the company because of previous outages on his home phone, but he now wants another one -- and he plans to drop Cox and stick with his cellphone.

"I've just had crappy service," he said, despite repeated calls to the company. "It still doesn't work. It's been a year."

He said he often doesn't get a dial tone, and callers report being cut off after only a few seconds.

"I should never have switched from Verizon," he said, and he's glad he doesn't use Cox at work. "It's not reliable," he said. "It's just not reliable."