The Great Verizon Network Extender rip-off

A few months ago I started writing about my saga of getting AT&T U-verse DSL service established at the new location of the Gibbs Universal Industries Secret Underground Bunker.

In response, I got a letter from a reader, Ben Myers (Harvard, Mass.), which began: "I read your DSL column in the latest Network World, and I marvel at the complete ineptitude of AT&T in managing its (your) DSL connection. I provide support for a lot of Verizon DSL customers around here, both business and consumer, and Verizon seems to have gotten it right with DSL."

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Wow! An ISP that has made someone, and a techie to boot, happy? A rare situation indeed ... but hold hard ... is Ben completely happy? Nope, he is not ...

Ben went on to relate his own tale of anger, frustration, and abiding disappointment over Verizon's wireless service. It all started with his home office being a cell service "dead zone."

We've all experienced these odd pockets of "bad air" and there's frequently not much to be done about them. They exist in our home and offices like little wireless cones of silence.

Ben decided to fix the problem and so acquired a Verizon Wireless Network Extender made by Samsung. Verizon describes this device thusly: "The Network Extender enables you to make calls from indoor locations where outdoor cellular coverage does not reach." OK, sounds good. "Use Your Verizon Wireless Phone / There is no need for a new phone. The Network Extender works like a miniature cell phone tower in your home."

Fantastic! So what could be wrong with this solution?

Ben summed up his feelings with, "It is a good concept made [bad] by a combination of lousy technology, ham-handed marketing, and plain dishonesty."

Ben reports it was simple to set up. "You plug in the power, connect up an Ethernet cable, and hang a GPS tracking sensor on a long wire near a south facing window. The device displays some red and blue LEDs at first, but once it gets a GPS signal, an Ethernet IP address and a go-ahead from the Verizon mothership, all the LEDs go to blue and (wonder of wonders) you can make and receive cellphone calls from most anywhere in the house."

Great, but as Ben points out, the Extender uses your broadband Internet connection and uses voice over IP instead of cell service, which makes both Ben ... and me ... wonder, "Why do I have to pay as much as $250 to help Verizon offload its cell towers AND increase my cellphone calling minutes?" A good question indeed. Anyone got a rationale for this? Anyone?

But wait, there's more! Here's the rest of Ben's tale of frustration: "When the extender works, everything is wonderful, and the household and its workers run smoothly. Well, late last week, the thing crapped out, displaying red LEDs signifying errors. Sometimes it would come back up by itself and run for a while, and other times I would do the old unplug-wait-a-minute-plug-back-in dance. And sometimes it would return to normal after 5 minutes, more often not. To its credit, Verizon tech support people are both knowledgeable and helpful. It is a telling point, though, that in navigating through their voice response maze, one sentence asks pointedly if are calling because your Verizon Wireless Network Extender is displaying red LEDs. Aha! Must not be only me. One of the Verizon techs sympathized with the fact that my extender was past its one-year warranty and gave me a number to call at Samsung."

At this point you might be thinking that something positive has to come of this suggestion ... after all, why would Verizon suggest calling Samsung if they didn't think it would do some good? The answer is it could only have been either naiveté on the part of the tech or, maybe, it was simply a ruse to get rid of Ben.

Ben continued: "This was a blind alley, as Samsung would do nothing. Finally, today, on about the 5th call to Verizon, I got the tech to open up a trouble ticket. I asked a series of questions of the tech, who knew full well that I had just a little IT and networking knowledge. I asserted that the Samsung manual for the thing acknowledged the presence of a lot of open source software inside, so I knew that it was probably running Linux or BSD Unix. So I asked how I could access it with my browser. I was told I couldn't. Then I asked how I could find its IP address on my internal network, because it would not respond when pinged by an IP scanner. I was then told that some super-techs at the Verizon mothership (another Borg ship, like Microsoft's) could look at the status of my extender. That's when I was able to get them to open a trouble ticket. Amazingly, about a half hour later, all LEDs were blue and life was good."

Ben's takeaway was as follows: "Here is what I've concluded from this foray with Verizon. First, they knew damned well that something was not right in Verizon network extender land. They just did not tell me. But on my second call to them, I was given a $90 credit on my next cellphone bill. An admission that something was not right, but no admission of guilt, just like a big bank. Secondly, they have rocks in their heads for not making the device more accessible to customers. Or maybe they do not, because that would give the smart customer knowledge, and knowledge is power over Verizon."

It gets better! Ben continued: "Verizon has since moved on to another device, one with 3G capabilities, about which I could care less. A replacement for my extender lists for $250 (still), and, at this point, I am not sure how good the Samsung devices are or how good Verizon's cellphone-over-VoIP is. It sure ain't the 99.99% uptime of POTS. I am tempted to complain loudly about the $250 Verizon price for something that does not work all that well, but I do not know who would listen. After all, if the goal here is to increase billable cellphone minutes, you'd think Verizon would be giving these boxes away like Gillette once gave away razors to sell double-edged blades. Do I complain to the FCC? The state public utilities people? My congressmen, national or state? Sadly, the BBB is just a front to expunge criticism of and for its members, so they are useless. Or maybe it is time to simply go shopping for another cellphone provider. Oops! The only other one worth considering is your pal AT&T."

Ben, I so feel your pain. Once again we have a tale that illustrates quite clearly that the communications services providers, whether for Internet access or wireless service, have way too much power and really don't care about their consumers. To them we are a bulk commodity, not individuals.

Their marketing programs pitch happy, happy users doing happy, happy things with their fabulous "leading edge" products, but the reality is they get to provide services that don't have to be competitive and which are supplied on a "best effort" basis ... "best effort" as defined by them.

You and me, the hapless consumers, have little choice because there's no real competition. Only a fool would argue that a choice between two mega-size companies for Internet or cell service with no consumer-friendly regulatory framework constitutes a level playing field for anyone but the service providers.

Gibbs is appalled in Ventura, Calif. Express your ire to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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