Invisible Phonejacker Sky Pirates Made Visible

April 24th, 2010  |  Published in etc, mac and iphone  |  1 Comment


It’s been over a month since I wrote about my woes with the Invisible Phonejacker Sky Pirates. The issue, in a nutshell, was that I used the WebEx iPhone app to connect to a meeting my company was holding, spent 90 minutes on the phone, then got a bill a month later for a 90-minute call to China. Here are some links if you need a refresher:

The issue has never really gone away, even since my last encounter with AT&T’s customer service, because WebEx went to work trying to figure out if it had a problem on its end, AT&T seemed to slowly do the same, and I’ve spent the last month occasionally getting calls or e-mails from one or the other as either progress was reported (WebEx) or more rounds of tests were requested (AT&T).

The calls with AT&T were the most frustrating, because there was a fixation with what the iPhone was doing when I placed calls with it. The nadir of the whole experience where helping AT&T out was concerned came when I was asked to dial 866 numbers and take screen shots to send to engineers somewhere in the AT&T apparatus. It wasn’t enough for me to say “I see this on the screen,” and the thing I was seeing was the same number I’d just dialed. They needed screenshots.

There were a few other signs that things were moving along behind the scenes. For instance, my Web stats started showing visits from a Jira install running on a Cingular domain (which suggested that AT&T’s engineers are still using Cingular subdomains), and I could see traffic from odd, internal-looking Cisco domains, as well.

The whole time the process was unfolding, I assumed there was probably a really, really deep problem somewhere in AT&T’s billing system. I assumed that because I knew from conversations with someone at WebEx that engineers at WebEx, Verizon (which provisions the 866 numbers in question) and AT&T all agreed that the calls were routing properly. They never went to or through China to get to wherever it is WebEx calls end up. So if the calls were routing properly, and if I was actually talking to the people I was supposed to be talking to (instead of hanging out on the line with a perplexed Chinese person for 90 minutes), there must be something really wrong, right?

Well, no. All was revealed last week, and here’s the long and short of it:

If you dial a “1” before dialing an 866 number (e.g. 1-866-321-7654), nothing untoward happens.

If you leave off the “1” before dialing an 866 number (e.g. 866-321-7654), you may or may not get charged for a call to China.

That’s because “86” is China’s country code, and something somewhere in AT&T’s billing software doesn’t care where the call ends up because all it appears to be doing is parsing the number and deciding that any regular expression that starts with ^86 equals a call to China.

So in the end, it seems the problem was two-fold:

The WebEx app didn’t include the “1,” and AT&T’s billing software responded in a manner befitting its ridiculous number-parsing bug.

WebEx fixed its issue, to the extent WebEx had an issue, some time last month, which makes the WebEx iPhone app safe to use again.

AT&T has offered no word on whether it has fixed its issue or not.

Outraged Out

And that brings me to the end of the Invisible Phonejacker Sky Pirates saga. What have I learned?

Right up until the last few calls with AT&T, I was largely convinced that the company was like most giant companies: Full of well-meaning, normal, working folks who were more than willing to help but largely constrained by a bureaucracy designed to require level after level of escalation to reach anyone with any sort of autonomy. But as I progressed up the chain and began to deal with people who deal with “AT&T partners,” my outlook became less optimistic. The people I talked to began to lead messages with wording that implied I’d somehow misused my iPhone. I spent one call listening to AT&T personnel act completely doubtful and mistrustful of a piece of information that exculpated WebEx (and me), then pivot not a minute later to claim they knew that piece of information all along once it was clear that the information was unimpeachable, and even though their claim that they knew whatever they knew indicated that they’d just spent two hours making me do test calls and take screenshots for no reason at all.

The final calls were teleconferenced tableaus of everything that’s completely screwy about corporate culture: lawyerly blame-shifting, buck-passing disguised as workaday empiricism, passive-aggressive insinuation, “someone-important-must-be-bcc’d-on-this-message-because-it’s-curiously-expository-and-oriented-around-blaming-me” e-mails.

The message I got from AT&T:

Don’t blame us because we have no idea, and we’re not convinced it’s not something you did, anyhow. Also, WebEx was wrong to not warn everybody that our billing system is mysterious even to us, and prone to losing its mind.

The message I got from WebEx, on the other hand:

We’re really sorry this happened to you, our engineers can demonstrate that the calls were routed properly, but you’re a customer and even if we don’t think we’re the problem, we’ll stick with this issue until it’s resolved because it makes us look bad and it makes you not want to use our product.

The shame of it is, I’m not bound to WebEx and I have no real mechanism to reward them. Even though WebEx folks spent a lot of time and effort trying to isolate and correct the problem, and even though they went out of their ways to communicate with me, I don’t have any purchasing authority and no way to give them my business. If I needed an enterprise-grade remote conferencing solution, I’d probably go with WebEx.

AT&T, on the other hand, happens to have me under contract for another 18 months, and my phone, which I love, won’t work with any other carrier even if I were to decide to take the early termination hit, stick Alison and I both with new phones and accounts, and write off our existing phones. Come to think of it, I guess that sort of explains why they’re so awful.


  1. Taking the Dumb Pipe to China :: dot unplanned says:

    October 12th, 2011 at 8:37 am (#)

    […] Note: This story finally ended […]

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