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2007-06-25Virgin Broadband, HSBC online banking and Royal Mail (rants)

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I'm trying to organise things for next week. If you didn't know, I'm taking a bunch of people out to Poland to run language camps for a couple of months. So, a bit of email, a few purchases online. Not hugely demanding requirements.

Not making things any easier are Virgin Media and HSBC's international fraud unit.

I used to be quite a fan of Virgin, but since their Media branch took over Telewest / Blueyonder the service has deteriorated significantly. It's no exaggeration that email is now as important as phone services for business and other purposes, but if mobile networks were habitually this unresponsive in the centre of the country... well, people would be calling for Richard Branson to be served his own testicles on a platter.

Even ping (a very low-bandwidth tool used to troubleshoot network problems) is currently losing an average of half the packets sent to Google — when Virgin's DNS service resolves at all, and doesn't simply come back with 'unknown host'.

This is happening with regularity at peak times (such as Sunday afternoon and evening) when people most expect to be online. It's perhaps understandable if server maintenance takes places in the wee hours and denies customers access — though no less excusable, as any enterprise on this scale should have redundant systems for traffic to fall back on, even if they only offer sub-dialup speeds for the duration — but we're now well into failure to provide the service.

The timing and regularity suggest that the network is saturated (as does the terrible degree of JPEG artifacting evident in their TV service, with lots of huge square blocks in the background of the picture if a solid colour is present.) This, in turn, suggests inadequate traffic-shaping or simple inability to handle the volume of simultaneous connections from customers... I should note that the problems started before the recent bad weather, and TV service is functional, even if the picture quality is crap.

If you're looking for providers, avoid Virgin. Also avoid Orange, whose catalogue of line problems and lies about them in the DY2 area is unsurprising — they were voted "Worst UK ISP" in a Watchdog survey earlier in the year.

Moving on... HSBC think British people are very insular. Take a quick run-through of the transactions on my credit card over the past week or so: two coach tickets for National Express (funfares, a couple of quid)... a book from Lulu (the Devil's Panties first book, in PDF form, less than three quid)... and a CD from a French website. About fifteen quid — or would have been, had the transaction not been blocked by HSBC disbelieving that someone might have business with a non-English-speaking country that's one of the UK's closest neighbours.

The world's local bank? Yeah, sure. It's not that uncommon for people to visit France, is it? To order stuff from a shop in America or continental Europe? Or make a few small purchases within a few days... on the same day, even? This is the apparently the reality of global commerce — banks treating small purchases with firms abroad as having been made in person in those locations.

"He can't have been in France and America at the same time!"
"We've had this thing for a few years now called the inter-"
"Obviously fraud, and a whole twenty of your English pounds! Damn the torpedoes!"

The reason I'm annoyed, apart from possibly losing the chance to get the out-of-print CD (I haven't — just been back to place the order in a brief window in which the net was working) is that — by waiting three days to contact and inform me that they'd blocked the card — they could have made it impossible to use for secure transactions when I am abroad next week and in the months thereafter. Or, if I hadn't made those small purchases and thus received a phone call, had the card blocked and refused without any prior warning whilst travelling. Great service there, HSBC. But not as great as moving your call centres to somewhere with staff whose accents I can't follow if they talk fast, or asking them to verify identity by ringing people up and asking for their postcode rather than the security number attached to their account.

The banking conglomerate (hey, did you know HSBC stands for Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation?) hasn't emerged into the world of online banking at all well... the last time I tried to move money from a current account into an ISA, it was blocked by an error message that was not only incorrect, but did nothing to give useful information about rectifying the unfathomable automatic block at their end, and just suggested "have a problem you can't find information on? visit your local branch".

On a tangent... how did we get to a 24hr economy in which banks are primarily open at times the majority of the population can't use them? More to the point: why aren't their online services, which are cheaper to run than branch staff and thus we're being encouraged to use for our convenience, implemented in a far better fashion? Say, for argument's sake, with error code handling that allows a large enough integer range to carry accurate information? It's an extremely simple design/programming concept and a normal part of handling transactional database-driven applications.

The complaint about opening hours goes for the Post Office as well, although branches do at least open until half-five. (Not that this is any use for packages requiring customs labels, and it's no comfort for people who've found that letters and packages have been turning up with surcharges because Royal Mail keep increasing the price of postage so that old stamps are no longer valid; something that's particularly affected elderly people.) No, it's the collection times for their depot that are ridiculous: up to lunchtime at most. Coupled with the delivery service being cut back so that the odds of receiving your mail before 9am are marginal at best — and a shotgun policy as to which parcels are left on the doorstep and what get returned to the depot (we have a really good postman most of the time, but frequent locums) — I nominate Royal Mail as "first against the wall when the revolution comes."

I also miss Douglas Adams.

This concludes your promised rants.


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