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Who will fix my wired (and wireless) home?

When I was growing up, my mother urged me to become a telephone repairman—that way, she said, I’d always have a job. I think she was  onto something, but it’s more than just telephones — it’s all the gadgets that hang onto our increasingly complex home networks.

When I was growing up, my mother urged me to become a telephone repairman—that way, she said, I’d always have a job. A few years later, when the government broke up AT&T’s Bell System monopoly, I recalled her advice with amusement. Now, however, I’m thinking she was onto something. But it’s more than just telephones — it’s all the gadgets that hang onto our increasingly complex home networks. 

The thought crystallized early this month at a Silicon Valley conference called Connections 2007 that covers all of the wired and wireless devices and services that one might call our digital home furnishings. The conference featured a plethora of control systems for lights, heating and cooling, and security, as well as all manner of audio and video systems. There were also various home computer networks — coaxial cable, telephone or power lines, three or four flavors of wireless — that will connect all these things together.  And finally there were the companies that connect those networks to the Internet — Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, EchoStar and more.

It’s a booming business: The show’s organizer, Parks Associates, estimates that about 30 million U.S. households currently have home networks. But that number is rising quickly as families share broadband connections, move video and audio from PCs to the living room television and use the network for voice-over-Internet telephone service. 

But when things go wrong, the result can be chaos. Dad buys a new laptop which he attaches to the home network, in the process updating the network software so that suddenly the living room TV will no longer access the photos on his wife’s older desktop.  And hey, now his daughter’s computer can’t get to the Internet anymore. And the VOIP telephone system has started to chop up voices like a digital Cuisinart. So, let’s see: the laptop came from Circuit City, it was built by HP, and the software was from Microsoft. The wireless router is from Linksys, the broadband comes from Verizon and the VOIP is via Vonage. Who you gonna call? 

Running a computer network has never been simple. Over the years, big businesses have gained control of their networks by simply forbidding their employees to do much beyond adjust the angle of their monitors. But contrast that with the home network. Users buy any hardware or software they want, of any quality. They may or may not install it correctly. Even if they do install it right, it may conflict with another piece of hardware or software, slowing the network or even bringing it down. “Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show,” said one service provider at the Connections conference, “they have a whole new building filled with gadgets that people are going to try and hang on my network.”

Research shows that when networked gadgets go bad an increasing number of consumers call today’s equivalent of the good old telephone company—Verizon or AT&T or Comcast or whatever company connects you to the Internet.  In the old, telephone-only days, the service provider’s responsibility ended where the telephone lines connected to the outside of the house. Now, however, it often includes the network router, which is inside the house.

As a result, Internet service providers are getting calls from customers with what are called “out-of-scope” complaints—hardware or software issues not directly related to what the broadband provider has installed. Often the customer is likely to hear “that’s not our problem.”  In a recent survey, over a third of broadband users were unhappy with the customer service they receive from their Internet provider. Yet even the cost of even a dissatisfied customer keeps going up: a service phone call can quickly cost the service provider $10 or more, even if it doesn’t solve the problem. And the dread “truck roll”—when the company actually has to send a technician out to the home—is a big hit to the bottom line. 

Some service providers now suspect there’s actually an opportunity in what used to look like a problem: Why not turn digital home repair into a profit center? Companies like The Geek Squad or Geeks on Call, which also offer to fix anything on the home network, generally charge per incident, at prices that start around $30 but escalate quickly. Would customers pay for guaranteed home network fix-it directly from their service provider?  In the UK, British Telecom already offers unlimited home network service for an additional $15 a month—and by early accounts it’s very popular.

So naturally, there are already companies trying to help Internet providers provide the ultimate home network repair service. One of the most sophisticated, Peak8 Solutions, offers an elaborate troubleshooting system, which begins with software that’s downloaded onto the home computer.  The software itself walks customers through all sorts of simpler problems, such as a temporarily lost Internet connection. 

When the customer has bigger conundrums, like that earlier digital meltdown triggered by Dad’s new laptop, the Peak8 software inventories all the gadgets on the home network, from laptops and iPods to digital cameras, and communicates their status to a remote technician.  The technician, in turn, has a constantly-updated database of all known problems with those devices and can take control of the home network to make repairs.  Only as a very last resort does the service provider actually send out a tech.  (The Peak8 service is now also available to consumers, under the name Supportal, for a $10 per month subscription.)

Market analysts continue to argue about whether the PC industry or the consumer electronics industry will end up “owning” the digital living room.  But if the Internet service providers take an increasing role in keeping home networks running, they may also exert influence on customers as to which hardware works best.  Or perhaps they’ll be happy to help untangle any kind of technical mess as long as the customer pays the monthly support fee.  Of course, technologists promise that networks will become much hardier and even develop “self-healing” abilities.  But this time I’m going to listen to my mother, and predict that repairing home networks will be a dependable line of work for years to come.