More on the student ISP ratings: Bell’s Internet disaster (3)


A new bundle from Bell: Internet access with poutine


I have bad news for Bell. On our campus, those steaming piles of french fries and gravy didn’t help convince any of my students that Bell has the “best Wi-Fi” or the best anything. And I have detailed files to prove it.

Poutine aside, why would Bell’s marketing department create an association between students resenting their roommates and students signing up for Wi-Fi? Well, first of all because Bell is counting on nobody actually knowing what the hell the “best” Wi-Fi would look like. Wi-Fi is a highly unpredictable technology whose performance depends on many factors out of Bell’s control, from the composition of walls to the type of data being transferred, the age of the router, the extent of bandwidth sharing and so on.

Meanwhile, there’s no clear value proposition for a commodity like bandwidth, except variations on “We’re the Best, period.” So Bell is betting that its brand equity will be enough to get people signing up, even as it’s getting its ass kicked in the Internet access market by Rogers. Bell has other trucks cruising around my neighborhood with another peremptory message slapped on the side: “Bell Internet. Perfect for laptops.


It’s ironic Bell is trying to sell its service on vaguely technical grounds, as though your laptop will be extra happy to get bits modulated in that special Bell Way. Especially since it’s taking advantage of its customers’ profound ignorance of what they’re actually buying (see: pig in a poke). Bell is also hoping we won’t notice the factors that really count in retail ISP dealings: how much you’re paying and what kind of service relationship you have with your ISP provider. That’s why we call them Internet service providers, not Internet bandwidth providers.

Rating the ISPs, 39 times over

Which brings me to Bell and the bad news bears.

As I noted in the post last month, my students recently completed a detailed report comparing their current ISP with two other contenders, one incumbent and one new entrant. I’ve been through the 39 papers in question (averaging about 1,500 words each). In two different courses and using multiple methodologies, the great majority of my students found Bell’s customer service atrocious; found their prices, including the cost of data overages, unacceptably high; and found it nearly impossible to get basic information from Bell’s website (or on the phone) about contract terms, discounts, speeds or anything else they felt was important.


These conclusions are summed up in the chart above, which adds together the 1-2-3 ratings included at the end of every paper.

Each of the 39 students had to analyze three ISP offerings, starting with their current provider as the baseline. Thus, we got 117 ISP “mentions” in all (39×3 – combining the current ISPs and the two chosen for comparison). The results show that, while Bell and Rogers are predominant in the mentions, TekSavvy was picked by many students as the new entrant of choice for the study. In fact, the mentions for these three ISPs line up very closely: 31 for each of TekSavvy and Rogers, and 32 for Bell.

We also got a good sampling of other ISPs, 11 in all: Acanac, Cogeco, Distributel, Electronic Box, InnSys, Primus, Start, Telus, VMedia, Worldline and Yak.

The bad news? Bell is an ISP mention a total of 32 times and was rated last (i.e. 3rd behind Rogers and TekSavvy) no less than 24 times. That’s almost three times as often as Rogers (at 9) and, well, 24 times more often than TekSavvy (with a single #3 ranking). Even among the 11 other ISPs, the student reports rated them last only 4 times (out of 23 mentions). Bell got a #1 rating exactly twice.

It’s important to appreciate not just the conclusions shown here, but also how the 39 investigators arrived at their conclusions.

The rankings were based on variables that included advertised speeds, actual speeds (current account only), price, size of data cap, cost of data overage, website ease of use and CSR deportment (via phone and/or IM). Everyone made up their own way to create a ranking, especially the weight given to each variable, thus giving the aggregate rankings a lot of credibility. In other words, there was no pre-determined skew in favor of, say, price over service, nor were the variables all weighted the same way. Here are three examples.

Example #1. The first is a 4-way rating based on a total score of 15, with different weightings for the variables, as shown:


Example #2. The table below (one of four in the report, including overall plan, website and final ranking) covers the customer service comparison, reflecting the level of detail found in many reports. The variable to note here is “Upsell,” a common and very annoying problem noted many times of both Bell and Rogers:


Example #3. In the example below, notice the column for “Discrepancy.” Although this variable was not explicitly ranked in many papers, it was noted frequently, for the extent to which CSRs gave out information that directly contradicted what was conveyed on the ISP’s website:


What do these rankings mean?

First of all, I’d like to pat all of us on the back for what I think is the most important achievement here, and the factor the incumbents should fear above all: giving ISP customers an education on what they’re buying and how they’re getting screwed (let me count the ways). Everyone found the assignment rewarding in some way. Many said they were grateful to be armed with the knowledge they had acquired doing this assignment. As one wrote at the end of their paper about Bell:

I find the ambiguity I faced about why I was paying so much for such a low speed from my ISP Bell still slightly unnerving. If it weren’t for this assignment I could have been stuck with those abysmal speeds at such a high price for even longer and I would be none the wiser.

The other consideration here – what these results mean for the ISPs themselves – is a little less straightforward.

I said in the two previous posts that getting a straight answer from the incumbents about pricing in particular was extremely difficult. The 39 reports made it clear that this problem is part and parcel of the sloppy and complicated way the incumbents convey information about their Internet access. It’s also part of what the students describe as the awful customer service provided by Bell (to be fair, Rogers didn’t come out much better). A typical comment:

The customer service I received from Bell was absolutely terrible. My agent was unresponsive, vague and did not have an answer to all of my inquiries.

By contrast, the customer relationship is exactly where TekSavvy shines in this project. Why is that? The conventional answer is that incumbents Bell and Rogers, but especially Bell, have never got over operating for decades as regulated monopolies.

bell-heads-ringing-2In Bell’s case, you’d think all the recent market and regulatory changes would encourage it to listen when they get called by customers, whether current or prospective. Instead, a palpable desperation has set in that has prompted a drastic shift to the upsell – or any sell. My students complain a great deal in their papers about Bell reps getting aggressive trying to sell them a deal they didn’t want, while the questions they were trying to pose went unanswered.

Bell just doesn’t seem to know what it’s selling any more. Faute de mieux, it seems to have settled on price discounts as its stock in trade. In Bell’s world, there are no “regular” prices, just deals.

One of my favorite exchanges in the papers concerns a Bell rep who became “adamant” about selling a certain plan to the student in question. The rep pulls out all the guns, including the claim that Bell’s modem offers a physically wide connection of 159 feet (whatever that means). After the rant was over, my student thanked the CSR politely for the “information” and asked her for an email receipt of the offer she had just made.

Sorry, the CSR replied, we don’t do receipts. Then, taking exception to what the student thought she was getting, the CSR closed with this Parthian shot:

You’re not getting information, you’re getting an exclusive offer!

And all the poutine you can eat.