The Sanctity of the Queue

The simpleton that I (probably) am, I’m particularly particular about observing the rules of the queue; that –

1. First come first served
2. Each person has to wait in accordance to his distance from “window”, hence no breaking the queue.

Given the population in India, and the USSR-inspired partly communist way of functioning of governments in India for decades, the queue is an everyday reality, and more importantly, a part of government psychie. I’ve had to stand in line to – buy concert tickets, book and cancel railway tickets, submit exam forms, get information from the inquiry counter, meet the branch manager of the local MTNL exchange, get forms signed/attested/verified… there’s really no escaping it. I tend to play truant when in line, and often am the first to someone to get in line. Usually, support from the rest of those queued up follows a little later.

This may sound chauvinistic and politically incorrect, but I think women are among the worst offenders: they set up a ‘Ladies line’ where none exists, and often with a smile and some sweet talk, get ahead in line. Of course, they’ve got every right to take advantage of whatever’s left of chivalry in society. T, in Pune, was particularly adept at submitting forms in spite of long queues, often submitting four or five forms in a single go. Possibly the only places where such a problem doesn’t occur is in girls college (Aishwarya?).

The point of this post? Well, the good people at Harvard Business School conducted a survey on The Cost of Cutting in Line, which is quite interesting. Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee decided to pay people to allow him to cut in ahead of them. Some of his observations were rather surprising, but I guess that depends on which part of the world you’re from; I won’t break the suspense so go read it.

I believe that having to stand in line is a complete waste of productive time, and the system needs to be reworked and made more efficient to reduce these delays. Networking and automation has already saved us a lot of trouble, but there’s still a lot left to do. It’s a remarkably anti-consumer funda – that instead of having the seller waiting on the consumer, the consumer is being made to wait for the seller.

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MTNL – Sahi Hain

Well it’s been a little over a month since I switched to MTNL from Sify, and for some strange reason, it seems like it’s been a year. The MTNL experience has been such a delight that I’ve completely forgotten the nightmare that was Sify.

This review is going to be brief, since there is very little that has gone wrong since I got the connection, and for a three day old review you may read this because I don’t want to repeat myself.

A few problems:

1. Getting the plan changed: As predicted, getting the plan changed was a nightmare. I was told to fax a letter requesting a change, or drop it off at a Sanchar Haat. Instead of giving the letter at the Sanchar Haat which was nearest, I submitted it at one that was on my way. Unfortunately that messed things up because Sanchar Haat just sat on it and my plan wasn’t changed. Three days of repeated calling, talking to people at the Sanchar Haat yielded nothing. Finally, I emailed the MTNL helpline and the SDO, and the change was instituted. What was surprising was that no one really knew how to get the job done. Sanchar Haat and Area Manager people were of no help and gave false assurances that didn’t virtualise – a typical case of government office callousness. The SDO was very prompt.

2. The Password problem: The MTNL guide suggests that you should change your password, for which you have to change the password on the website and the ADSL router. It’s better not to do that because changing the router password is a pain and MTNL is unable to help you – the call center executives often don’t seem to know what they’re talking about and it’s probably better to experiment on your own than listen to them.

But then…

The MTNL connection is error free, always on and I get speeds ranging from 20kBps to 64kBps (that’s 160kbps to 512kbps). I’m on the 590NU plan which allows me unlimited downloads between 12 and 8 am. The only downside is the download limit during daytime of 1GB, which comes to around 34mb/day.

MTNL does have an unlimited usage plan, which would be a good idea if they go ahead with their planned launch of the triple play services.

In telecommunications, the Triple Play service is a marketing term for the provisioning of the three services; high-speed Internet, television (Video on Demand or regular broadcasts) and telephone service over a single broadband connection. Triple Play focuses on a combined business model rather than on solving technical issues or a common standard.

In other words – IPTV.

However, I did hear today that MTNL’s subscriber base has grown manifold in the past year, and given the quality of their connection, is sure to increase. How that will affect the quality of their service and the speeds, only time will tell.

Addendum:

I spoke too soon – As of now, I am unable to access Gmail.com , mail.yahoo.com , hotmail.com , all blogspot.com domains, among several others. MTNL is allowing me very selective access.

So I tried to call up MTNL’s helpline (1504) and its forever engaged. I try the non toll free number (never noticed it before) and – voila! Someone picks up. The gentleman at the other end notes down my phone number and the complaint, but refuses to give a complaint number – so there is no record of the complaint. I’m told that someone will get in touch with me. When? Soon, is the response.

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From Iffy Sify to Empty NL

(Was tempted to title this ‘From Iffy Sify to Empty Anal, but that would be too weird)

The decision to switch was made at the beginning of this month, when after yet another breakdown in service, the Sify engineer came over and confirmed that he wasn’t attending to the complaints. He’d given up on the cable operator, which explained why regular calls to the Sify Customercare had yielded nothing. Further outages over the next couple of weeks made this decision ‘final’.

A few observations on MTNL:

The Good:

  • Alarmingly Quick Response: MTNL promises installation within a week. Mine got installed two days after I booked it. Still find it hard to believe.
  • Reduced connectivity issues: Connectivity issues are likely to be few, since this is connected to your phone line, and is not external wiring through switches exposed to the elements. One of the things that made me switch was the fact that everyone I asked about MTNL’s customercare wasn’t able to give me feedback. The connection was so good that one person never had cause for complaint over 6 months. The rest were fairly new to is, so no complaints over three and four months respectively.
  • No Login client: The Sify Client used to hang often. MTNL starts when you switch the modem on.
  • Multi computer usage: The modem has a USB outlet that I can connect to a laptop, and more than one computers can connect to the net using the same connection. With Sify, the connection was bound to a particular computer. I lost half a day of connectivity when I bought a new computer because Sify had to reconfigure.

The Bad:

  • Call 1504 instead of 1500: The 1500 registration line is almost always busy. I got through after over an hour of calling. Even if you get through, those attending to your call are impatient and know very little about the plans and schemes. On one occasion, I was asked to check the plans and call only for registration, after which the phone was put down. 1504 is much much better, and the people there take time to explain the plans to you.
  • Installation: Your local linesman does the wiring, so be prepared for service without a smile and impatience. They’re interested in finishing the wiring to their own satisfaction, rather than yours.
  • Configuration: You’re likely to know more about configuring your connection than the chap MTNL sends across with instructions written on a piece of paper
  • The Plan: for the same price as a Sify connection, I get less usage at higher speed. So I’ve to watch my downloads from now on.
  • Speed anomaly: Browsing speed seems to be slower than download speed.
  • Customercare: From the looks of it, it might be a loooong wait if anything does go wrong. You’ll probably be calling a lot of people

The Ugly:

  • Switching plans is going to be a major pain: You need to submit a letter at ‘Sanchar Haat’ every time you want to switch plans, so choose your plan carefully. I asked for the 590 NU plan and still am not sure of whether the people at 1500 gave me a 590 NU Triband or 599 Triband. I still don’t know which plan I’ve been given, because the lady at 1500 couldn’t tell.
  • MTNL’s Website: MTNL’s website is ugly and not customer friendly. So if you want to check your usage, or even want to know what facilities are available, you should be ready to scan lots of poorly designed pages that are low on usability.

Precautions: Take down as many telephone numbers as possible – of the SDO, Linesman, Broadband chap – just in case there is a problem.

The Aftermath:
I sent an email thanking one of the senior chaps at Sify Customercare for his help over the last three months – he’d been very helpful, though the technical team and cable operators had done nothing – and simultaneously informing him that I have switched to ‘another ISP’. Since then, two people from Sify have come over, and told me that a complaint had been registered – which wasn’t the case – and then asked for another chance. One would think that the number of calls I’ve made to their call center over the last three months should have been indicative of the impending churn. Most people wouldn’t even have waited for three months, if they had had to complain to three different people on at least 50 of the 90 days, without a reliable connection at the end of it all.

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Iffy Sify and the unscrupulous Cable Operator

An old promo of BBC’s business news outlined exactly how (some) businesses like to grow – steadily towads the peak, instead of a sharp ascension followed by an equally sharp decline. Their focus is on sustainable and steady growth, rather – survival. Sify Broadband’s focus, however, was on fast growth.

Around two years ago, Satyam Infoway was rechristened Sify Broadband. And then I subscribed to their LAN based services, unwittingly.

The problem with internet services in India, particularly ‘Broadband’, is that of distribution. VSNL’s dialup had been inordinately slow and erratic, and was via telephone lines. LAN based connections were (and still are) the best alternative thing. So Sify tied up with cable operators who already had an established customerbase and scope for reach. In Delhi, cable operators each have small monopolies, that are limited by area: the city has been carved up into thousands of cable operator owned dominions. Informal agreements are such that no cable operator ventures into anothers dominion. I’m told that this is mafia controlled, but that may just be a rumour. One cable operator (from a nearby area) refused to connect to mine, on the grounds that it is someone elses area. I’m not sure how much different it is in other cities.

Because cable operators have monopolies, most don’t really care about customer satisfaction. Don’t take my word for it – see this and the number of people who have spoken out against poor service from the cable operators, termed CTO by Sify. Problems include repeated disconnection, no connection for days (sometimes a month or more) poor infrastructural development, technically incompetent barely educated minions doubling up as ‘engineers’ and messing us user computers, among several other things. The CTO does anything to save a buck.

Sify has, so far, kept out of the CTO’s business. Their technical team (not particularly competent themselves) comes to the rescue when, and only when things get out of hand, which is usually when the customer has spent three days (or more) screaming at a call center executive. Or, has mailed everyone in Sify about the problem after getting fed up (which is what I did). What is interesting is that while Sify has fixed charges, the CTO can charge whatever he wants to charge as ‘maintenance charges’. So while I pay Rs. 495/- for a 64kbps connection, I pay Rs.205 as maintenance charges, which is an additional 41%.

By distributing their services via cable operators, Sify was able to garner a large customer base across the country; Sify is next, I suppose, only to the NL networks (MT, BS and VS). I’ve been a Sify customer for a year now. I’ve had the time to talk extensively with their customercare executives, and while most have mouthed standard text, some have been very helpful. However, there’s a limit to what they can do.

In the past, Sify themselves haven’t been too customer-friendly either: after giving an unlimited connection, they put a 150mb/day limit on their broadband connection, with a day being deducted for every subsequent 25 mb. All this without informing their customers. The pack was then renamed ‘Family Pack’, since it was one of things mentioned in Ankur Raheja‘s lawsuit against Sify Broadband. I found it ridiculous that the Consumer Court passed the buck to TRAI and then TRAI passed the buck back to Consumer Court. What should one do? What can one do?

In the meantime, Satyam owned Sify launched an advertising campaign with the slogan ‘Tired of waiting? Switch to Sify Broadband’. And I switched to telling call center executives that I’m tired of waiting for Sify Broadband to work. And a few months later, Satyam sold its stake in Sify, around two years after the change of name. All planned out? I think so.

Even though Sify now generously doles out compensation packages for time lost due to disconnection, and the customercare has improved, one doesn’t have the patience to wait anymore. On 16 days in January, I had some connectivity issue or the other, and the connection did not become error free until the 30th. It took a lot of emails when the connection was working for them to even try to find a (hopefully) reliable solution.

I’m currently on a compensation package because though the CTO has taken money for renewal, he hasn’t renew my connection. Even the receipt he was going to send has not been delivered. This is the fourth time in five months that my connection has not been renewed in time, after payment, and the first time that a compensation has been given to allow me to stay connected. So while Sify has improved (and yes, they have), the CTO is still a problem. For Sify, therefore, the problem is in their distribution channel, and they’ll have to pay for the poor brand equity.

Apropos my connection, the fault is entirely mine – I should have switched to a broadband provider that doesn’t depend on a cable tv operator, much sooner. Any suggestions? From what I’ve heard, Airtel seems to be the best.

Past posts on Sify Broadband: here, here, here and here.

Update: After two days of constantly asking for a receipt, I’ve been given a receipt number on the phone. The promise to deliver the receipt has still not virtualised. The CTO, it seems has not renewed any accounts, claiming a dispute with Sify. Sify, on the other hand claims that they’re discussing with the CTO. Obviously, the CTO is holding Sify at ransom, and trying to renegotiate. I’ve decided to look for another ISP. Looks like, in trying to expand fast, Sify has bought itself more problems and terrible Brand Equity. Satyam, on the other hand, has gotten away and the share price has soared since.

Again, I ask: is there no reliable ISP? (and don’t say Reliance, even if tongue-in-cheek).

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Caveat Emptor: scrutinise before you sign

Before I begin, I suggest that you forward this post to anyone who trades in shares or patronises a brokerage firm; this could save them a lot of trouble.

Whenever I’m asked to sign a document, I read it carefully and ask for clarifications. It puts marketing people off, since they’re in a rush to close the deal and move on, but this habit has served me well. However, there was one occasion when I signed without reading, when opening a trading account. Why? Because the document was 30+ pages thick. Never again, though:

The Documents:

It was in March, I think, that someone from the brokerage firm I patronise came over to get some documents signed. My father signed the documents that were presented to him, and I was called over to sign my set. On reading carefully, I realised that:

1. The first document allowed the brokerage firm to finance my transactions if I planned to trade without accepting delivery of the stocks, i.e. if I was a day trader and wanted to take the risk. I’m a value investor, but wanted to give day trading a shot, so I was okay with this. Shares that receive financing are kept in the Margin trading account.

2. The second was a “power of attorney” document, which would allow the brokerage firm in question to sell my shares in order to recover any dues. Something similar to:

If the Client executes a power of attorney in relation to the operation of its bank account, the Member shall be authorised to directly operate the bank account of the Client to the extent necessary to credit and debit the proceeds/dues from the various transaction that are carried out by the Member on behalf of the Client, and also to debit.

(i) Margin due or shortfall in Margin due from the Client, and
(ii) any other charges or dues from the Client…

…Member will not be liable in any manner for any loss or claim that may arise due to any blocking of funds that may be erroneously instructed by the member to the designated bank.

I didn’t need the financing, and there was no way that I was going to sign the power of attorney statement; I refused to sign. Both documents were supposedly dependent on each other, so I got neither. I made my father cut his signature too, and the document became null and void.

The representative said that the brokerage firm would not be able to trade our shares without this. I told him to close our accounts. The broker later said that these were not needed, and we could continue to trade, even if we hadn’t signed the documents. So the representative was bullshitting.

It seems that when I signed the 30+ page document, I had signed the power of attorney to the Member/Brokerage firm. It was only because the brokerage was changing its name that I needed to sign these documents again. I didn’t, so I retained complete control of my holdings.

This Month

I received a statement from the broker with a listing of all my shares. I realised that they were held in the Margin account and not the DP account, and asked for an explanation. I also received a statement that two shares of a particular script had been sold without my authorisation.

The explanation: prices of that script had fallen, and the balance in my margin account was negative because of some charges levied, so they sold the shares to compensate for the loss.

My case is simple, and strong:

1. The shares were kept in the margin trading account without my authorisation. They had previously been in the DP account. I didn’t ask for financing, and hadn’t signed the agreement.
2. Two shares were sold without my authorisation, and since I hadn’t signed the power of attorney agreement, they had no right to sell them.
3. I received no intimation of the fact that the my balance was negative. I’d have sent a cheque immediately. Previously, they used to charge interest. I had no problems with that.

The broker has agreed to compensate me for the two shares, and pay the difference for the repurchase, failing which I shall consider legal action. I’ve given him a deadline, and you may expect an update on Tuesday.

A family friend who had signed over the power of attorney found that his broker had traded on his behalf without authorisation, and lost money, in order to meet brokerage targets set by the firm. I suggest that you check whether you have signed over the power of attorney or not.

(Shreya, Have you? And what are my legal options, counsellor?)

Related article by Sucheta Dalal

Since we’re talking about stocks, Ranbaxy looks like a contrarian investment to me. Risky, but could be worth it at these levels, and given the decline because of the bad news. And I found this stocks related blog interesting. Also this one. Both via Technorati.

Addendum

Last-to-last night, I heard something on CNBC-TV18 about SEBI asking a particular brokerage firm for clarifications on the Power of Attorney they make clients sign. This was just a headline and was never followed. Either the news was unsubstantiated, or buried. Nothing on moneycontrol.com either, though I did find this article. Relevant portion:

The other rampant method is by retaining shares bought on behalf of the client in the broker’s account. Here the client gives an undertaking that he is buyng the shares to sell them off quickly. The broker ‘retains’ and manages the client’s portfolio. In this system, the shares do not even reach the demat account of the investor.

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About Sify Broadband

Update (5/2/2005):
It’s been a long time since I posted the post mentioned below. While some things have improved since then, some remain the same. Other problems have cropped up, detailed here. I’ve updated the points below; the updates are in bold.

First, a couple of articles on Blogging (credit due to Harneet and the Delhi Bloggers Group):
On why you shouldn’t mention your blog when applying for a job
Why businesses should have a blog

Revenge of the Sify

Is any ISP reliable? Sify ads, of late, have had the copy “Tired of waiting? Switch to Sify Broadband”. Undoubtedly, this is targeting dialup subscribers who’ve to wait, sometimes for hours, to get a connection. Unfortunately, Sify Broadband isn’t too different:

1. Sify doesn’t work when it rains: It’s rained sporadically throughout the year in Delhi. Whenever it has rained, my connection has gone down. The cable operator invariably blamed the rain. My point is that if you’re advertising 24 hours connectivity, and I’m paying for it – your problems are yours. You should have the appropriate infrastructure for it. What I’ve been told, also, is that for preventing shorting of lines during the rain, they switch the connection off. Again – not my problem. Update: This no longer happens.

2. 12 hours?: Sify has a policy of attending to complaints within 12 hours. Which means, if I complain at 9pm, it should have been attended to by 9am. Unfortunately, their “engineers” don’t come to work before 12pm. Each complaint has taken at least 15-16 hours to be attended to. Some have taken 3-4 days. And at times it’s been as bad as 3-4 times a month. Update: Sify has clarified that this means 12 working hours. Still no improvement, though. In Jan 2006, I had problems for 12 days, and 9 days were compensated for.

3. Toll Free Number?: For months I found it difficult to connect to 1600333330. The moment the customer care executive would speak, the line would get disconnected. That problem doesn’t arise when I try the local number. However, the automated connecting service is so long, slow and tedious that you’re half asleep by the time you get connected to an executive. Update: Toll free number is erratic and remains unrealiable. New number is 16003453330, which doesn’t work either.

4. Call back?: “Our engineer will contact you, sir” or “I’ll find out and let you know as soon as possible”. These are promised that never virtualise. Even now, my connection at home is down, and no one has contacted me in spite of my complaining. My connection has been down for three days now. My pc was kaput for four days before that, so I don’t know if the connection was working or not. Anyway, Sify hardly ever gets back to you. And then people wonder why I scream at call center executives. Update: Call back depends on whom you speak to, and whether you are able to raise hell. Always ask for the floor in charge, since they’re more reliable and helpful.

5. Changes in plans without informing customers: Sify changed plans without informing customers. The changes were reflected on their website, which I have no reason to access. As it is, I find it irritating that their sifymax page opens up automatically, in spite of the fact that I dont want to use Internet Explorer. I don’t see why I should give them hits. If they change the plans, they need to inform the customers.

Here’s a warning – read the terms and conditions when you register with any ISP. There’s a clause that allows them to change billing ad hoc. Sify changed the details of my “Unlimited” plan, and added a limit of 150 mb a day. According to them, that’s more than what an average consumer uses in a day. It’s not my fault that I need to download theses in PDF that are 15-20mb. When I asked them the grounds on which they were calling it “Unlimited”, they changed the name to “Family Pack”. Update: No change. Not likely to change.

6. Software problem is not our problem:
Sify Broadband has a free anti-virus along with their login client. Firstly, I want a login client that works. My login client has a mind of its own, and can take, sometimes, five to six tries before allowing access. For the last two days, its been hanging and now allowing me access. I don’t think its my problem – I didn’t ask for the login client, and I don’t want it. I just want my net to work. Secondly it has an anti-virus that I didn’t ask for, and don’t need. However, since there’s no other option, I HAVE to install it. It overloads my system. The chappie who once came over from Sify tells me that:

a. We attend only to line problems, not software problems. He said he’d inform someone about the software problem, and get back to me. That never happened.

b. It doesn’t work because you’re using Win98. The website says that the software supports Win98, and if it doesn’t – they should inform me before selling me the connection. Not my problem. Update: No problems with Win XP. Client seems to have improved, and Sify can be asked to ‘unhook’ the Anti Virus. It’s still a bother, though. And Sify doesn’t attend promptly to line problems either.

7. The pricing, even though the page does not mention it, does not include “maintenance fees” to your cable operator. Service taxes vary Secondly, it says ‘inclusive of taxes’. My cable operator refuses to accept payment without a service tax of 10%. So, what’s going on? Update: Cable operator charges Rs.205, over and above Sify’s charges of Rs.495/- . Cable operator has accepted money for Feb2006, but refused to renew my connection. More on CTO here.

The situation is that Sify blames the cable operator for the problems. But, as a customer of Sify, that isn’t my problem – it’s Sify’s. Update: Remains the same.

I don’t know how things work with TRAI, but I’ve had even worse problems with Hotwire. Personally, for me, Sify’s the best of my options, in terms of cost and speed. Still, it would be better if they delivered what they promised. Update: Fed up of CTO’s poor service, I’m planning to switch to Airtel, even though the call center people at Sify (Nisha, Raja and Ramesh) have been very very helpful, though largely ineffective.

More…
Harneet’s been searching for other users who’ve also had problems with Sify. He’s also developed an intense dislike for Sify, and I must say that the idjits who work his connection seem worse than those who work mine. We have, on several occasions, concluded that we should sue Sify, but neither has had the time. It seems, now, that someone has:

Ankur Raheja sues Sify. Also, a summary of his case.
Prashant on Sify Broadband Insanities
The Crappiest ISP in India, says Ajay

I would have to disagree with Ajay on that. I’ve used Hotwire, and I think that’s much crappier. One thing good about Sify is that if your connection is down, they extend your validity. But that doesnt really make up for the time lost. Someone in the Hotwire billing department went to the extent of saying ‘Why don’t you just sue us?’

Again – is there no ISP worth the money? Update: Doesn’t seem to be.

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