A Customer Finds Herself @ Wits’ End

The email arrives like a death sentence: in 24 hours, your Internet access will cease to exist.

I’ve come home Sunday night from a party, and as I casually check for phone and computer messages, I see an email marked “CRITICAL” from Adelphia Communications. The @Home fiber network, my connection to the Internet, is about to shut down due to bankruptcy. Adelphia, which uses @Home to provide high-speed Internet service to its cable customers, will convert my line to their own Power Link network at 7 p.m. Monday. But I must perform six tasks on the computer. “Failure to complete these steps immediately will cause a cable modem service interruption***!!!”

This can’t happen. Surely there’ll be a bail out, some rescue at the final moment. To be safe, though, I sit down at midnight and try to decipher what Adelphia wants me to do. I manage to perform the tasks and go to sleep.

It’s the last peaceful sleep I’ll have in days. The @Home network has 33,000 customers in Southern California and, like many, I’m about to enter a twilight zone of disconnection, a technological free fall in which I’ll discover how dependent I’ve become on a technology about which I understand little.

Monday morning. So far so good. I’m working at the computer, sending and receiving emails when around 11:30, everything stops. But I completed the assigned tasks last night. Why is the service crashing? I call the Adelphia hotline and a recording says: “@Home has shut down. To restore connectivity, you will need to do the following…” The instructions are so long and complex that I listen to the message three times to make sure I write everything down exactly. The Internet demands exactitude.

The first task is to click on start, then run, and type a series of letters, hyphens, spaces and dots that stretch across the page. Jeez. What next? The recording says, “Remove all @Home software using add-remove programs in the control panel.” Hold it. What’s an add-remove program, and where’s the control panel? These instructions are impossible! But I have to try. I can’t let this bring me to my knees.

“Next,” the recording says, “run the red Adelphia install CD that was delivered with your conversion kit.” What conversion kit? I’ve never received one and I don’t have the red CD.

I call the hotline again and press two to speak to a representative. “We expect the wait to exceed 45 minutes,” the recording says. Okay, I’ll wait 45 minutes, we’re used to waiting for tech support. I put the call on speaker phone and try to do something else while I’m waiting. It occurs to me: we don’t wait 45 minutes for anyone we know. We’re annoyed if a friend puts us on hold for five minutes, but we’ll wait 45 minutes for tech support and when we reach that person, it’s rarely satisfying.

After an hour, I speak with a man in Pennsylvania who says he’s in sales and knows nothing about how to fix the problem. I ask him how I can get the red CD. He tells me to wait for it to arrive in the mail or pick one up at the Adelphia office in Santa Monica.

I drive to the Adelphia office on Nebraska Avenue, feeling a steely sense of purpose. I’m going to interact with a live human, face to face. I’m going to get that red CD and take it home and everything will be okay.

There’s a traffic jam in front of Adelphia, which should be a clue as to what’s ahead. Inside, lines of frantic people are jostling to talk to clerks behind a glass panel. “Is this where I pick up the red CD?” I call to a clerk. She says they’ve run out of CDs.

She points to a tall, husky man in the corner. “Go see him.” The man, Orlando Bullocks, heads the team of technicians from a company called LDW, which provides Adelphia with Internet specialists. Orlando leads me and three other customers to a computer. “You don’t need the red CD. Let me show you what to do.” He starts clicking and pulling down menus and typing in symbols. I ask him to slow down, and one of the women cries, “Why do I have to do this? I pay you $50 a month so I don’t have to do this. I’m not technical!”

Orlando takes us through it again, performing 18 steps that end with clicking on: “Obtain I.P. Address automatically.” Orlando says, “After you do that, the computer will pick up the new Internet service.”

I tell him I have two I.P. Addresses for the two computers in my home. I have a network with a hub, which my son, a computer science student at UC San Diego, installed so that my daughter and I can both have Internet access.

Orlando shuts his eyes. “You’re gonna scream,” he says. “When I tell you this…. You’re gonna scream.”

“What?” I say. “Just tell me.”

Orlando shakes his head. “The hub won’t work.”

“But it worked before. It worked fine.”

“It won’t work with Power Link.”

“Can’t you make it work?” I ask.

Orlando says I have to buy a router, which costs $100.

Who’s going to pay for the router, I ask. He shrugs, but I know. I’ll pay.

Orlando gives me his card with his cell phone number. He tells me to wait until the “migration” is completed, then do the tasks he showed us. “If you have problems after the migration, call me,” he says.

“Migration”–that’s how they refer to the switch from @Home to Power Link. I resent the way techies take over a common English word and give it recondite meaning. Within a day, though, I’m using “migration” in every sentence. It feels like we’re migrants, boat-people who’ve been forced into rickety vessels on an unknown sea.

I try to make a kind of Zen peace with the situation. I want to keep things in perspective: this is not September 11. I drive home and perform the 18 steps but still can’t send or receive mail. Okay, no Internet or email. I survived without them before and I can manage now. It feels like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of dying: after shock, denial and rage, there’s acceptance.

But I’m not there yet. We don’t realize how deeply the Internet is threaded through our lives until it’s pulled away. How helpless and adrift we are without it. How addicted we are to the speed, ease and clarity: one click compared to feeding pages through a fax machine.

Already, in one hour, I’ve had to make multiple calls to gain two pieces of information I could have found in seconds on the web. In one hour, I’ve heard three people say, “Email it to me.” When I tell them I can’t, they’re annoyed. They want email. It’s become the standard means of transmitting words, of doing business without small talk. By nightfall, there are twelve messages on my phone machine: “What’s wrong with your email? I can’t get through.”

Tuesday, eight a.m. I call Orlando on his cell phone. I’ve been awake since five but I’ve exercised restraint. He answers on the first ring and says he’ll send a technician to my house in a few hours. I’m startled. Technical support people usually don’t give out their private number and respond the same morning. He says he’s taken on 35 workers to handle the flood of calls.

The technician, Mel Ramirez, rings the doorbell at 11 a.m., and by 1:13 p.m. I’m connected. Yes! But in a short time, my email system crashes. I can’t open any mail, and then we lose the Internet again. Mel works his cell phone, calling other technicians and trying different schemes but nothing works. I can’t bear to stand and watch him. It makes me anxious and I have to leave to tape a radio show on which I need to be relaxed, warm and engaging.

Wednesday. Still no service. I speak with Lee Perron, the chief officer for Adelphia in Southern California, who tells me that “ninety per cent of our customers have migrated successfully to our platform. They’re surfing right now.” Not me. The technician returns and after another four-hour stint, he has the Internet up but my email is still “corrupted”-another purloined word. The only way he can fix it is to remove all the old email, but I protest that I need it, I refer to those messages constantly. He shakes his head. It’s the mail or the net.

By two p.m., I’m sending and receiving email again. If this were a musical, they’d be playing the theme from “Rocky.” Never mind that my Inbox is as empty and white as virgin snow and I can’t refer to old mail. Never mind that my recent books have listed my @Home address on the back cover for readers to contact me. Those messages won’t arrive.

The Internet’s running, and I find myself relaxing for the first time since Monday. I’m back in the flow, the surf, or as one t.v. character called it, “the world tribe hive mind.” I’m plugged in.