Every Automated Billing System Ever is Shit

This is a part of the world that I don’t understand. There are so many companies out there who need to perform the simple task of measuring the service they provide and billing it at a set interval. I really don’t think I’m being naive when I say it’s a simple task – I’m a software engineer, and throughout my career, I’ve written ledger interfaces for a 30 billion dollar super fund, reverse-engineered communications protocols for dozens of devices, and written code for everything from firmware to websites on many major platforms. While possessing the capability to develop literally any of the billing systems I deal with month-to-month, I often find myself unable to perform the simplest of tasks.  I’ll start with the absolute worst.

Internet (Telstra)

Since having cable installed in 2006, Telstra’s billing system has failed to go a single month without an error of some sort. While my quality of life significantly improved the day their heartbeat system flat-lined, I still find myself having to intervene with it every single month. I’ll run you through my latest encounter.

First, I get an email from Telstra informing me that I have a new bill that is ready for viewing. 26 hours later, I get a notification from my bank to inform me that a BPay bill has arrived. Two days before it’s due, I get an SMS to remind me to pay it. A day after it’s due, I log in to pay it.

bill1There’s two questions answered on the landing page:

Q: Do I have a bill due?
A: Yes, it’s $89.95 and it’s overdue.

Q: Can I see the bill?
A: Fuck you.

Fine. I’ll try to piece together the bill myself.

bill2So, my $89.95 bill consists of a $79.95 plan with a $20 speed boost. Considering I also have a $10 mobile phone plan with a $10 (1GB) data pack, that doesn’t even come close to adding up.

Perhaps I can save $20 anyway by removing the speed boost…

bill3OK. Those two cells are right next to each other, and they have two completely separate prices. How on earth does one fuck that up? Also, didn’t it just tell me on the last page that my 50GB plan will get slowed to 256kbps? This page tells me it’s 64kbps. Whatever the cost is, I’ll just click that orange button and remove the speed boost.

ss-removespeedboostNope. Fucked again.

Anyway,  I’ve gone over my 50GB allocation for the month, and it appears that my speed has been shaped. On Telstra Cable (DOCSIS) shaping is applied at the modem. Telstra sends the modem a config file to tell it what speed to run at. There was an age where my modem would tell me which config has been applied to it, but Telstra pushed out firmware updates long ago that hid it. However, you can still see what’s going on by sniffing the DHCP traffic.

speedYep. I’m shaped at 256kbps both ways, it seems. I could ride out the month or increase my data allowance, but the current bill has a massive discrepancy in my favour. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to rock the boat by changing plans.

Few know that it’s actually possible to get a free data top-up 3 times per year. Telstra don’t actually tell customers about this option when they exceed their quota. Only those who read the knowledge base in great detail would learn that you can contact customer service and have them top it up for you. It’s a completely manual process, but it’s a simple one, right?

ss4-requeststart It’s 9:35PM, and there’s 21 people waiting. After waiting 39 minutes to communicate with a human, I finally get it processed. This isn’t the first time I’ve made a late-night call to the service desk. I’d consider this wait time quite normal for Telstra. After explaining to a Telstra staffer what you need done (thankfully, they read the KB and know what you’re on about) they’ll hit some buttons and increase your quota. Your modem will eventually receive a new config.

speed-applied…and at 10:28PM, the new modem config has finally been applied. The process is so long and drawn-out, you’d probably lose less of your life by putting up with 256k for the rest of the month.

On a side-note, Telstra had only just fixed their shaping system so the config files actually applied correctly. For the past year, I had evaded capping by having my own DHCP server respond to these exchanges (poorly), causing the config update to fail. I’d been using up to 300GB on a 5GB plan for ages. It seems their latest update fixed the one bug I actually didn’t mind.

The next day, the bill finally appears:

finalbillTelstra basically force people to have a fixed-line phone. By usual process, it’s virtually impossible to get cable internet without it somehow being bundled with a phone line. Their billing system just assumes that every able customer is paying for a fixed line as well. I actually cancelled my fixed phone 7 years earlier.  I think they forgot.

Gas (Origin)

When I moved to Origin, I made the mistake of doing it through one of those door-to-door migrants on a working Visa that get paid on 100% commission (I’m not sure how this is legal). Anyway, when Origin started billing me for Gas, they completely failed to tell my existing energy company. The end result: Getting billed twice for the same gas for the same quarter from two different companies. It was actually quite difficult to sort out.

Electricity (Origin/SP Ausnet/Clear Solar)

Clear Solar installed a solar array on my roof, then went completely bankrupt during the process. The system was operational, money changed hands, but nobody actually told my power company. I was supposed to get 65c back per kWh I fed into the grid. None of the paperwork was ever lodged. I did make an attempt, but the electricity supplier wanted some documentation (Electrical Safety Certificate) from my installer, who had since filed for bankruptcy. I heard of others who had tried (quite hard) and failed, so I figured it wasn’t worth my time. By the time the rebate hit 8c per kWh, it definitely wasn’t worth my time as I was getting a better return from my old meter spinning backwards.

When I got my new Smart Meter, it didn’t spin backwards at all. I had a whinge to the supplier (who promised I’d be billed the same with the new meter), and they decided that I still needed to lodge non-existent, unattainable paperwork. It will probably never happen.

Water (Yarra Valley Water)

When I first got my house, everything that I plugged into a tap exploded at some point. When my hot water service exploded, I assumed that it was because it was old. When my second one went, I’d decided to measure the pressure. It was at 950kPa, which is stupidly high. I’d had to argue to have some bills lowered because 30,000 litres of water could not be accounted for. I eventually convinced them to put a pressure limiter on my tap. The only thing is, now my pressure is too low. In fact, it’s so low that it doesn’t have the strength required to make the meter tick. So, I haven’t registered a drop of water usage in years, and they still haven’t caught on. Another couple of years and it may even cover the cost of the hot water unit they blew up.

Car Registration (VicRoads)

One service that VicRoads provides is sending a renewal notice when your driver’s licence expires. In my wife’s case, it never happened, it was never paid, and was first informed about it when a cop wrote her a $300 ticket for not paying a bill that she never received. Upon contacting VicRoads, they checked their correspondence register and confirmed that the bill was never even sent. The magistrate decided that we’re responsible to pay bills that don’t exist, and had to wear the fine.

Child Care (Manchester Early Learning)

This place was just a tangle of direct debits, government rebates and retrospectively changing ledgers. After several unwarranted debits amounting to hundreds of dollars (some being dishonour fees because they incorrectly charged over the account balance at times), we told them that we were several hundred dollars ahead of payments and would we would not be leaving a cent in our account until the debits stopped. The childcare centre tried arguing that our rebates (which had always gone directly to the centre in the past) were to be paid upfront, and that we would receive the rebates (not the centre) at the end of year. Knowing that this was completely wrong, we just pulled our child our of care and ignored the next 6 month’s worth of demand letters.

Do you know what happened after 6 months of ignoring their demands? The child care centre sent us a cheque for several hundred dollars because they’d just realised that we’d overpaid.

Direct debit: Not even once.

Mobile Phone (B Mobile/Soul/TPG)

Once I signed up for a phone on a 24 month plan with B-Mobile. Somehow, my first bill had charged me for two weeks of service before I had even been connected. When I pointed this out, they deducted two weeks of service from my bill, and I used the phone for 24 months. During that 24 months, this company went bankrupt and was bought out… twice. B-Mobile was acquired by Soul, and Soul was later acquired by TPG. As soon as my contract was out, I decided I’d move to another provider.

I had accrued 24 monthly bills and had paid them all in full. I saw this as a good sign that I’d paid out the term of the contract. After moving to Telstra, I had received one more bill from TPG, containing nothing but a $70 early-termination fee. When I called them, they informed me that I had broken contract three days early. Yep. $70 for 3 days on a contract that I’d signed to a company that ceased to exist years before. I tried to have them correct it several times, and they eventually told me that they would forward the case to a debt collector. I just laughed. Debt collectors charge as a percentage of what they recover (around 10%). No debt collector is going to go as far as picking up a phone for a shot at $7. Sure enough, nobody ever took on that case and my credit record escaped unscathed. I don’t think I’ll be signing to TPG for anything anytime soon though.

Toll Road (Breeze)

One day,  I was called out to urgently fix a broken computer. This computer happened to be in a tollway tunnel in Sydney. I had to catch a 6am flight from Melbourne with a few hours’ notice. I had a brand new car that I’d owned for about a week, so I threw my old tollway tag on the dashboard and drove through the Melba tunnel. Strangely enough, the tag never beeped. Because my car’s new registration plate wasn’t on the system, linking to the account by registration plates wouldn’t have worked either. I got home at around 11pm that night and went straight to bed.

The next morning I tried to add my new car to their system. It just threw an obscure error at me every time I tried. Without my car being linked to my account, there was no way they could bill me for it. I figured I’d try again in the next billing period.

Guess what arrived before my next bill? Yep. A fine for $144. While their billing system had horribly failed to fulfill any request to link my account to my vehicle (and pay for an unpaid journey), their system for identifying and fining cars worked flawlessly. It took hours to finally get my car linked to my account (customer service had to override the error),  and weasel my way out of the fine (I somehow convinced them that I attempted to pay on several occasions and their system repeatedly failed). I finally got it working.

Out of spite, I have changed the colours of my cars to ensure maximum offense the next time my tag fails to beep and some poor codger has to confirm that my vehicle matches its description:

colourI think I might remove my Breeze tag and take my piss yellow Ignis for a spin down Eastlink.

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