Thursday, April 1, 2010

A decade of broadband: Technical Support's early days

A guest blog by Austin Clark (right), now an Application Specialist in Virgin Media's Technology team, but once a pioneer of blueyonder Technical Support


I've been asked to share some tales from the days when our Broadband offering required a Black and White license.

I was in the first intake of staff for the about to be launched blueyonder broadband product. For a mere £50 a month you could experience the "information superhighway" at a stunning 512kbps. That's 10 times faster than an ordinary dial up connection y'know (and a hundred times slower than our 50meg offering).

(Cue lots of web pages culled from the wayback machine from Alex featuring the infamous "Blue Whale" logo)

There I was, fresh from Uni and jobless. Having spent a month or two waiting for companies to come rushing to employ me it suddenly dawned on me that a more proactive approach to job hunting my be required. After a few interviews, including one with a Welsh bloke who had a fondness for wearing cowboy hats, I was lucky enough to be offered a job as a Technical Analyst for Telewest.

There were 18 of us in that first batch, mostly culled from other dialup ISPs of the time, and we didn't really know what to expect on that cold Valentine's morning in Liverpool.

Our training was to take place over 6 weeks in a pair of portakabins out the back of the office. This wasn't exactly the cutting edge Googleplex-style environment I'd envisaged!

The training was great fun, however. I always got the impression that, because it was a new product, they were never really sure what we'd need to know. So they trained us in EVERYTHING!

We had 2 whole weeks of Order entry & provisioning training. We had a fortnight being educated in the dark arts of Windows NT and Basic followed by wiring up dummy cabinets to Analogue and Digital set top boxes and something funky involving oscilloscopes*. This was topped off with field visits with repair & install techs before being finally brought back down to earth with the obligatory phone skills type training.
* To this day I can still work out the signal attentuation of different frequencies over RG6 and RG11 cable. No idea why I'd ever need to, of course, but it's a testament to the quality of the training we received.
What about Cable Modem training? Ah... Well, we were shown one for an hour by a gentleman called Loz who had wonderfully eccentric hair. He told us what the lights should do if the modem was powered up and connected to a live cable feed. Then he went back to Woking, taking the modem with him. It was a Motorola SB3100 [PDF] if you're interested.

Now that we'd completed the training we were ready for the heady cut and thrust of the live call centre. We arrived at the shiny new offices in the Albert Dock (which were a lot more impressive than the portakabins), also in Liverpool, and prepared to take some calls. The first call was taken by Gareth 'Foz' Griffiths - a gent and true Dock legend.

We already had 50 ready made customers in the form of triallists who, combined with our newly installed customers to rack up nearly twelve calls a day. In total. It wasn't unheard of to go a couple of shifts without actually taking a call at the time! We got to know quite a few of them by name back then, recalling a few of them makes me smile, a couple of them make me shudder.

Being a new department with entirely new staff always made it feel like a separate company at the time. Standard support processes, calls stats, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and even managers were all merely interesting concepts at the beginning. My own AHTs (call Average Handling Time) could've been measured on a calendar some days.

During the quiet periods we were able to get involved in project work, set up an unofficial knowledge base, help out interviewing and training the new intake and watch Fred on his weather map. There was a great feeling of being involved with something new and helping if to grow. There were opportunities that were around at that time for those early pioneers, there's many a Virgin Media bod around the business who cut their teeth getting the Cable Modems up and running.

Wasn't long before someone noticed we were quiet and we were volunteered to help with the influx of Surf Unlimited calls. The details of that product launch is probably best left to Alex, but needless to say there was plenty of work for us at the time. One crash course in Dial-up later and there was a lot less time for Keyboard Cricket.

I wish I had more space to describe in more detail some of the highlights, such as:
  • the customer who was asked to 'rewind' their blueyonder installation CD
  • the customer who wanted to disconnect the Internet because she'd read all of it
  • the customer who turned up at the dock in tears of fury after we'd disconnected him
  • customers not being next to the PC when troubleshooting
  • how many customers actually hand you over to their 10 yr old son to do the troubleshooting
some things are possibly best left to the imagination anyway. ;)

Needless to say we quickly ramped up both staff and customer numbers and the broadband product went from strength to strength. Support tools and processes were developed and redeveloped, many people came and went and eventually the Albert Dock became more integrated into the rest of the business. My AHT is still too long though - anyone that's been on conference call with me can verify that.

Back to the present day and 10 years after that launch I notice one of our competitors is birthing a new age of super fast broadband through a fibre optic cable. Sounds very innovative.

Bet they don't get to play with an oscilloscpe though.


  1. Nice to see I got a mention. :-)

    Oh the heady days of the early days of cable broadband! - 18 of us supporting 300 trialists to begin with.

    To think I spent nearly 10 years of my life working at the Albert Dock - there must have been something in the water. :-D

  2. Ah, good to hear from you - heady days indeed.


  3. Nice to hear something of the launch from the "business end" as it were, even after all this time.

    I'm sure I had one of those SB3100 bricks :-D