A Tale of Two Systems

Ok, a cheesy headline. But it fits.

I recently relocated to Berlin and part of the fun is to get set up with new… everything. A few trips to Ikea, hardware stores, grocery stores, the local Bürgeramt (government bureaucracy is alive and well) etc… and then the real fun: communications. We need new mobile phones and internet access.

I like the convenience and simplicity of the one-stop-shop model so we visited the local telecom provider in our area. No problem, they can help with all of that. It didn’t take long to find ourselves citizens of two worlds.

First of all, I don’t need or want a land-line. It’s 2014 and we just use mobile phones and Skype. Neither did we really need or want TV since we watch online on-demand on our own schedule. But… you can’t get Internet without TV or TV without a land phone line anywhere in the world these days. So now we occupy space in the public phone system for a number that will never ring, and we have lots of German TV channels we will never watch. But it’s nice to know they’re there, I suppose.

But that’s a digression. Step one is to get mobile phones, and that was easy. Pick a plan, pick a phone and less than 30 minutes later (most of which was spent filling in the application forms) we had mobile phones in hand, activated and ready to go. Great!

Not so easy for Cable TV and Internet. The store clerk patiently explained that we will receive a set-top media receiver via mail courier in two weeks. Then, two days after that, the actual service would be activated and away we go. The DSL modem for internet connection is yet another piece of equipment which, incidentally, the TV set-top box depends on. We picked up the DSL modem in-store.

One company, two very different levels of service. Mentally I form a picture of a company that has one logo but two distinct business units and logistical setups, probably as a result of a merger along the way.

The mobile unit is new, formed around internet-time service expectations and delivery capability. Same thing for internet connectivity. It’s new, not saddled with legacy procedures and expectations.

The cable TV unit is stuck with old infrastructure, not just for physical connection but also in terms of logistics. I imagine someone has to take the order, re-type it into another system, print it on a dot-matrix line printer, send it to Nuremberg or wherever where someone puts their stamp on it, makes two copies which get inserted into thick dusty binders never again to be seen, sends another paper work order via internal mail to the service activation center where the operator finally flicks the electronic switch.

Well maybe not exactly like that, but perhaps not too far off. It’s 2014 and there is a 2-week waiting period to get a simple service turned up, where it appears that most of the time is spent simply waiting in line.

One company, two service models. I guess the merger wasn’t as thorough as the company logo might suggest.

Predictably, as anyone familiar with complex systems will know, the longer lead-time model with more links in the logistics chain is more prone to problems and surprises.

Somewhere along the way our set-top box got lost in the shuffle, and nobody was able to find it or tell us when it would arrive. “Maybe tomorrow” we heard a few times, the clerk’s voice unable to really convey the confidence we were hoping for. Can’t order a new one because the previous one is already “in the system and on its way”. The fun part here is that as we were tracing the steps, we discover that the service provider actually sent the set-top box to the courier service the same day we ordered the service. So they were in effect told to hold the package in the delivery warehouse for 2 weeks before even shipping. It was lost for almost a week before it arrived. We finally had internet working 3 weeks after the order was placed.

I check the calendar. Yes, it’s 2014. But at least we’re in Berlin and living life in a way that’s not possible anywhere else in the world. Some things are inconvenient, yes, but easily purged from active memory by blogging about it. Kind of feels like we passed the first test. Now we move on and become Berliners – whatever that is.

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