Defend Truth


MWeb’s outage and its attempt to intimidate the free media

Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.

Like air, water, electricity and one’s daily bread, being connected to the Internet has become a staple of modern life. It is difficult, if not impossible, to live without access the Internet. But what’s unpalatable is when MWeb has an outage and its CEO tries to quash reporting on the real reason for it. Heck, it’s not as if only one person is affected.

After two days of battling with a lack of Internet access, and waiting for hours on end to get technical support from MWeb, I decided to phone the man at the helm of the service provider, Rudi Jansen.

I was prepared for a bit of spin, perhaps some deft tap-dancing by way of explanation for the outage, but not what went down with Jansen. After leaving a message for MWeb’s CEO saying a journalist was calling to do a story on the outage, Jansen called back sounding about as irritated as I felt. Here’s the conversation verbatim. Readers can draw their own assumptions about what went down:

Mandy De Waal: “Thanks for calling back. I would like to do a story on the outages MWeb’s experiencing, but first I need to know what’s happened to determine if in fact it is a newsworthy story.”

Rudi Jansen: “I can tell you what the problem is, but you can’t report on it.”

MdW: “You need to understand that I am a journalist and I represent the public interest in this case, so I do need to report on whatever you disclose to me.”

RJ: “Well, I will tell you, but you can’t write a story about it. It will only make the matter worse.

MdW: “To be fair I am a journalist and it is my job to report on matters in the consumer interest. Further it is fairly disingenuous to say to me that there is a problem and that you will tell me about it, but that I can’t report on it without me knowing what it is upfront.”

RH: “We are under big stress and have a problem, and your writing about it is only going to make matters worse.”

MdW: “I hear you, but you need to appreciate that I am not here to do your PR. I am here to protect the consumer interest.”

RJ: “Well if that’s your attitude I am just not going to talk to you at all.”

MdW: “That is unfortunate, but if that is the case I am going to write about our exchange, your attitude and the fact that you won’t talk to me.”

RJ: “Well then, I am not going to speak to you.”

The conversation gets a little more heated before Jansen puts down the phone, but he calls back fairly swiftly sounding a lot more demure and says: “I am so sorry we got off on the wrong foot. I have apologised, let’s sort things out and discuss this in order to come to a better understanding.”

Jansen explains that the matter is a historic issue that has to do with the SAIX network and new patch from Cisco that has created a security risk. This has resulted in some people being denied access. “There are four to five thousand people who are affected and who don’t have access, and all they need do is to call us to make changes so they can fix this.”

However, the call centres are currently clogged up, which makes the issue difficult for users to resolve.

Jansen says the service provider hasn’t issued a blanket email with advice on how people can fix the matter themselves because he says consumers “will mess things up and this will just make matters worse, rather than making them better.” He adds: “We are nervous about sending out a blanket mail because we don’t want people to change their settings now. This may generate more calls and will make the issue worse than it already is.”

To respect Jansen’s wish, I will not state what the exact problem is nor how it can be corrected, except to say a simple setting needs to be changed. Jansen says because of the security issue that arose following the Cisco patch, the service centre was being flooded with far more calls than normal. “The call volume has been very high. However, I think that we will be able to get through the volume of calls by the end of today or latest tomorrow.”

Jansen says what has made the matter worse is a network failure. “One of the ITC links in Johannesburg went down and put even more pressure on the network. When things don’t go well, they come in pairs.”

MWeb has been on a rapid expansion strategy and was first to market last year with an uncapped broadband product which many in the market said was not sustainable. Speaking to TechCentral, Jansen said it was difficult for most Internet service providers to make a product from uncapped products, but insisted that the model was indeed sustainable. This is despite evidence to the contrary from the US where TechCentral says Internet service providers are backtracking on the uncapped model with The Economist reporting: “Providers claim congestion, capacity limits and other woes,” and “The use of caps allows providers to dish out bandwidth with one hand and take it away with the other.”

Jansen denies rapid growth of a product with questionable profitability and sustainability is the problem, and says this week’s outage is an isolated incident. “We measure our core network and we are on a 99.999% up time. The core network is no problem, but the worry is more about what happens when the ITC links are down. We are dependent on other networks for the last mile, as well as on cables like Seacom.”

But the average user doesn’t recognise the complex infrastructure that underpins these networks and a lack of communication compounds customer frustrations. In an experiential economy the strength of a technology service brand is all about whether your line is up or down, and how well the call centre handles the problem when there’s an outage.

In MWeb’s case the call centre is overwhelmed and the CEO reflects a dour attitude to customer service at best. At the end of the conversation Jansen asks again if I will report the story.

MdW: “Yes. Of course, I am reporting the story. I am a journalist. It is my job to tell people what is in the public interest. This is a consumer issue, and as such I am obliged to report on it. However, since you deem the matter sensitive I will discuss this with my editor and take my lead from him.”

RJ: “In that case I would like your editor’s number so that I might discuss this with him.”

MdW: “With pleasure. His name is Branko Brkic.”

RJ: “What’s his surname again?”

MdW: “Brkic.”

RJ: “I beg your pardon?”

MdW: “It’s B. R. K. I. C.”

RJ: “Well I don’t want to get you in trouble with your editor. Perhaps you should reconsider writing this story.”

MdW: “I have no fear regarding my editor, and you are quite within your right to phone my editor now that you have this number.”

RJ: “Well should I phone him or not?”

MdW: “Given that’s your decision, I shall leave that with you.”

RJ: “Okay. I will get someone to call you to sort your problem out.”

The conversation ends and a couple of minutes later a technician from MWeb Support calls and takes me through the simple change that enables access. This takes a couple of seconds after having spent a day-and-a-half trying to get through to MWeb’s technical support division without success.

I feel bad because there’s a perceived leverage I enjoy as a journalist which probably affords me preferential treatment. There are so many other consumers who will continue to struggle during the day to try to get through to the call centre to get the support and access they need. But there’s the matter of this story I still need to write. DM

(Editor’s note: MWeb has so far been a frequent advertiser at The Daily Maverick.)

Disclosure: Mandy de Waal assisted with the launch of MWeb more than 10 years ago when she headed up Text 100’s ( Town office.

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