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ISP insider: How my search for faster internet in Pakistan drove me up the wall

May 22, 2015

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Accessing the internet in Pakistan can feel like you're looking for signal in the middle of the Amazon. — Photo: Shutterstock
Accessing the internet in Pakistan can feel like you're looking for signal in the middle of the Amazon. — Photo: Shutterstock

In Pakistan we use the internet to gain information, conduct financial transactions, follow sporting events, endlessly share amusing pictures of grammatically challenged cats and send ‘fraandship’ requests to ‘girls’ who look suspiciously similar to Bollywood actresses and whose parents bestowed them with unique names such as ‘Lonely Sad Angel 98.’

We also use it to get involved in heated Facebook flame wars with our dear neighbors from India where people who struggled to pass O-levels are suddenly experts on South Asian socioeconomic statistics, debate on which cricket captain is the worst (or best), express outrage, express outrage over how many people are outraged, use proxies to watch ‘nature’ videos (eww), and of course, share more images of grammatically challenged cats.

The internet has grown into such a crucial component of our daily lives that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) could be classified as providers of a basic service.

And like other basic services such as water and electricity, finding reliable access to internet in Karachi can be an exercise in frustration.

I've chronicled my own struggles with ISPs here. If you've been suffering like I did, you might find this cathartic. Or maybe we could form a support group for dejected Pakistani ISP users?

World Call:

Today we have the pleasure of choosing from several broadband ISPs, but back in 2003, options were limited.

Used to the comforts of high speed internet during my time overseas, it was difficult to regress back to dial-up during my first year in Karachi. The unreliable DSL service options were extremely expensive in my first home near Hill Park, while the trustworthy dial-up (toon taahh teeeeeeeeh!) service provided by the legendary Cybernet, lacked speed.

Some of my ISP adventures had me longing for the days of dial-up. — Photo: Shutterstock
Some of my ISP adventures had me longing for the days of dial-up. — Photo: Shutterstock

In hushed tones as if speaking of a vigilante superhero, I was told by family about a company called World Call that was providing broadband cable internet to the D.H.A. neighborhood. I excitedly waited for the day World Call introduced broadband in my area, and heroically solved the evils of slow internet.

Sadly, World Call was less like Batman, and more like The Joker.

I was extremely excited when a salesperson representing World Call knocked on our gate with news that our neighborhood was to be blessed with their services. I was told that their internet services would be functioning within a day after payment for registration. Being new in Pakistan, I accepted this as gospel, and without hesitation paid the hefty installation fees, signing up immediately.

Looking back, I can safely say that such unsavory business practices played a significant role in shaping me from a green horned idealistic young man, optimistic about his time in Pakistan, into a person cautious about any service being offered in the country. As I would soon learn, World Call was a disorganized company where employees at every level badmouthed various levels of management, and communication was so poor that the customer service representatives were providing customers with false information.

A few days after signing up for internet and TV, a World Call van showed up one evening. This was several days after the salesperson’s verbal commitment.

Oh yay, internet!

No, it was only a team assigned to wire the World Call cable in the house. While the television signal was almost immediately operational, the internet was not. They left with assurances that internet would be functional within a day or so.

As I would soon learn, ‘a day or so’ held a different meaning in World Call’s vocabulary.

A few days and some frustrated phone calls, another World Call van drove to the house.

Oh yay, internet?

The joke was on me, clearly.
The joke was on me, clearly.

Two men quickly set up the cable modem near my computer, after which they asked me to sign a form stating my satisfaction with the internet connection.

I would have signed the form immediately, except for one tiny concern of course: the internet was still not functioning.

When I resisted, they assured me the services would be activated by midnight, and I should sign the form as they had been asked not to leave the premises without my signature. What’s more, they indicated that only by signing the form would the service be activated, which I would later learn was a clever ploy.

I looked at the two World Call employees smiling at me, and then I looked at their device set up on my computer, and then I looked back at the smiling men. Naively, I signed the form.

As you may have guessed, I slept without the glory of high speed internet that night. In fact, it took several weeks after their departure before the modem’s internet signal lit up. Meanwhile, the billing process continued. Every other night false promises were made by World Call on the phone. I recall asking the customer services representative why their sales person had assured me that internet was to be installed the next day when it was months away from reaching the area.

“He is just a sales representative. What does he know?”

Yes, so what if he is just our employee?

As it turned out, World Call was assigning these tasks to inadequately trained sales people intent on signing up customers by any means necessary.

With the disinterest with which customer service representatives responded to my queries, I imagined it was company policy for representatives to deal with issues with raised hands, a shrug, and a fake smile.

Here is an extremely talented professional artist’s interpretation of what World Call agents looks like when attending complaints: ¯_(ツ)_/¯

It was a cause for celebration when the internet service finally began, but it was short lived. Every other day I would lose the connection for long periods, meanwhile the speed itself ranged from mediocre to unacceptable. Speaking to others in the Hill Park area I realized how my case wasn’t isolated.

Recalling how after a day’s downtime in Canada, my ISP had compensated its customers by offering a week’s refund, I reached out to World Call for compensation. Unfortunately, after speaking to and emailing various people in charge, who simply passed me on to someone else, I realized it would have been easier to give a man-eating tiger a colonoscopy than to see any money returned.

Finally, I took the decision to end my relationship with World Call.

I broke up with World Call but it didn't want to let me go. — Photo: Shutterstock
I broke up with World Call but it didn't want to let me go. — Photo: Shutterstock

I was willing to give up my installation fees and write off the months of bills I had paid without services rendered. When I called World Call to disconnect I was informed that I would only be able to disconnect if I drove to their office which happened to be 45 minutes away.

Apparently it was easy to sign up with World Call, but nearly impossible to part ways with them.

Later, when I moved to DHA where I shifted homes on several occasions I found World Call’s broadband to be fast with excellent download speeds in almost every part of D.H.A. Downtimes were also less of an issue than they had been in other locations of Karachi.

But where World Call has certainly invested in its cable infrastructure as far as areas such as D.H.A. are concerned, their customer service is archaic at best. Frankly, I think it would be in everyone’s best interests if World Call officially changes its logo to ¯_(ツ)_/¯

It has been over a decade, but a World Call house visit continues to be a disorganized process where the cable crew shows up randomly after which the internet team appears a few days later. On one occasion, it had taken almost a week for the internet team to show up at my gate after the wiring crew, because the latter had failed to inform the former that their job had been done.

To make matters worse, the installation teams are more poorly equipped than ever before. Several World Call employees have informed me that since the company was sold off, their budget was heavily reduced. I wonder why customers are expected to pay installation fees when the World Call employees show up expecting their clients to have cable pins, screwdrivers, drilling machines, and ladders. It is agonizing when a World Call team finally makes an appearance, only to tell you that they can’t complete the process because they lack equipment.

PTCL Broadband:

After moving to DHA, I was charmed by PTCL’s advertising for its DSL broadband. At the time, PTCL had been recently ‘modernized’ from an embarrassing establishment where paan spittle decorated the walls like the bloody final scene of a Quentin Tarantino movie into a state of the art franchise.

Unfortunately, my experience with PTCL was perhaps worse than the one with World Call.

Once a World Call internet connection is up and running in a neighborhood where it functions reliably, aside from a technical problem or a mishap with the cable, there are few issues consumers have to worry about. On the other hand, PTCL broadband connections can fall victim to a large number of problems.

In my experience, a PTCL internet connection’s mortal enemy is rain. After my broadband was successfully and rather quickly installed, I was impressed by the wonderful speed. A few weeks later I smiled as I saw dark clouds forming in the sky, looking forward to the wet weather.

It took only a few hours of rain for my phone line to crackle worse than Altaf Hussain’s microphone, effectively killing my internet connection.

From here followed a comedy of PTCL errors where I was the joke and its punch line.

A little baarish never hurt nobody... except my PTCL internet connection, that is.
A little baarish never hurt nobody... except my PTCL internet connection, that is.

After complaints filed during numerous visits to the exchange office, a telephone line wala strolled into the neighborhood with a half pencil in his ear, grease in his hair, a telephone receiver in his pocket, and some telephone cable wrapped around his shoulder. He was like a paan-chewing, shalwar kameez-wearing DSL savior.

The first question he asked was if I had giant ladder for him to reach the top of the pole from where the line was connected to my house.

Why in the world would I keep a 20 feet tall ladder?

“No, I don’t,” I replied quietly, losing hope.

He gave me a sly look before asking how I expected him to fix the problem without a ladder. He then told me to arrange a ladder and then call him later.

“OK, what’s your phone number, so I can call you after I arrange for a ladder?”

“I don’t have a phone. It was damaged in the rain. Just tell the PTCL exchange office to send me again.”

You do realize it took nearly a week to get you here?

I was led to believe all that stood between me and the internet was a ladder.
I was led to believe all that stood between me and the internet was a ladder.

Thankfully, a neighbor let us borrow their ladder right then, and the line wala managed to clear what he claimed were 'carbon deposits' from the rain. After he was done, he asked me for some chai, by which he didn’t mean a delicious cup of tea, but rather, a small bribe.

To my dismay, although the phone line had been fixed, the internet connection was still not functioning. When I asked the line wala, he asked me to take it up with PTCL, as his job was done.

Here began PTCL's harassment phase.

Every few hours, the phone would ring with an automated female voice so emotionless, she sounded like a female Terminator, “According to our records, your problem has been fixed. Please press 1 to confirm. According to our records, your problem has been fixed. Please press 1 to confirm. According to our records, your problem has been fixed…”

The next few weeks were a blur. I would travel to the PTCL office to check on the complaint where I was told not to press 1. Confusingly, someone claiming to be a PTCL official called to shout at me because my phone line was operational and I wasn't pressing 1.

I would receive the automated call several times a day. Sometimes I’d be having lunch. Other times I’d be watching television, or working.

"According to our records, your problem has been fixed. According to our records, your problem has been fixed..."
"According to our records, your problem has been fixed. According to our records, your problem has been fixed..."

It came to the point where I began hearing the PTCL She-Terminator in my dreams.

“According to our records, your problem has been fixed. Please press 1 to confirm. According to our records, your problem has been fixed. Please press 1 to confirm. According to our records, your problem has been fixed…”

Trips to the exchange office were fruitless. I’d often wait an hour at a time. I was now considering ending the services, though I knew I would still have to pay regardless. Here, I finally decided to take an extraordinary gambit. A gambit so amazing, so breathtaking, so bold, that it would solve my problem immediately. It was a gambit that every Pakistani has had to sadly take at some point in their lives when dealing with basic social services: safarish.

After three weeks of pleading with PTCL where I had all but danced for them, did their laundry, cooked them food, sacrificed a small goat for them in the moonlight and bathed in its blood, it took only one phone call from my father’s high-up government connection to solve the problem within the hour.

As it turned out, after the rainstorm a few weeks back, someone unqualified for the job had mistakenly removed the pin for my DSL connection at the PTCL exchange office. (This is the line they fed me). They, of course, only made the effort to uncover this after one quick phone call from a senior government official.

An hour after the phone call I visited the exchange office where I was treated like royalty by PTCL officials beaming at me with massive fake smiles. I was asked if I would like some chai or perhaps a Fruto drink.

Just the service I have been paying for please!

As I was leaving I could see a lady shouting at the staff for not fixing her month-long issue. My heart bled for her.

Wi-tribe vs Qubee:

Experiences with both lead me to believe that Qubee is a significantly better service than wi-tribe in terms of performance and customer service. While the Qubee device connects to the internet from any corner of my house fairly easily, or even other houses when traveling, the wi-tribe modem connects with more difficulty.

My only concern with Qubee is with its misleading advertising where its ‘unlimited’ internet packages aren’t quite so unlimited, and are restricted by a download cap under its ‘Fair Usage Policy’. Essentially, if you download a single Blu-ray film, you are in trouble.

Wi-tribe could certainly learn from Qubee’s customer service. Whereas Qubee will simply suspend your services after the payment deadline passes, wi-tribe will harass you relentlessly with irritating text messages and phone calls when your payment date approaches.

This neurotic nature of wi-tribe is especially apparent when you call their hotline to register a complaint.

Unlike Qubee, reaching a customer service representative of wi-tribe requires patiently listening to the company boast on the phone about how amazing their services are.

I am already a wi-tribe customer. I don’t need to hear this. Please stop.

Thankfully, both wi-tribe and Qubee offer generous trial options so customers can make an informed decision before committing.

Fast and Furious:

Sadly, the two leading providers of fast broadband internet in Pakistan are World Call and PTCL, and picking between them isn't an easy task.

Slow and Steady:

On the other hand, the two most reliable providers of broadband internet are Qubee and wi-tribe, both of whom offer wireless options. Although neither can match World Call or PTCL in terms of speed and value for money, it is rare for either of these services to frustrate you to the point where you would consider throwing your modem under a minibus.

This may take a while. — Photo: Shutterstock
This may take a while. — Photo: Shutterstock

For many residents of Karachi, the ideal situation is having two internet connections: One of the fast and furious variety, and the other from the slow and steady selection.

It is the only way to maintain sanity when the fast and furious connection inevitably crashes and burns.