I remember the times when ISP support personnel knew the mechanics of mail transfer. It seems, however, that these times are gone forever - every time I call Bell Sympatico Support, I have to spend more and more time explaining what went wrong and most of the time end up working around problems on my end.
About a couple of weeks ago I started having problems with mail messages sent in non-Latin encodings - all non-Latin characters would be replaced with question marks. At first, I suspected Outlook Express, which hasn't been updated for a while and now is discontinued by Microsoft, but trying different mail clients indicated that the problem was with the Bell's POP3 server.
For those who are not familiar with character encoding, here is what's going on.
Character encoding defines the interpretation of byte sequences as characters in a mail message. For example, the Japanese character ホ may be encoded as a sequence of bytes 83 7A in Shift-JIS (Microsoft-designed Japanese encoding) or as E3 83 9B in UTF-8 (Unicode).
In order for the recipient's mail client, such as Outlook Express or Thunderbird, to display correct characters that match those the sender typed, the message must be tagged to identify its character encoding. Such tag is placed in the message header and looks like this:
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=shift-jis
Once the sender hits the Send button, the message goes from the sender's mail client to the sender ISP's SMTP server, then to the receiver ISP's SMTP server and then placed to a storage, where it is accessible to webmail and the recipient ISP's POP3 server. Recipient's mail client contacts POP3, picks up the message, reads the character encoding tag and displays the message to the user using the font that is compatible with the specified encoding.
If the character encoding tag is missing or is not supported by the client, message characters may be displayed incorrectly. For example, a message containing a sequence of three Japanese characters (ホホホ) encoded in Shift-JIS would be shown as �z�z�z if interpreted as UTF-8, because a valid UTF-8 character cannot start with a value 83. This situation is easily correctable by instructing the client to interpret message text as Shift-JIS, because character code values are still intact in the message source. Note that even though the symbol � looks like a question mark, it is not the same as the actual question mark (?).
If, however, a dumb POP3 server reads a message tagged with an unknown encoding, tries to interpret the characters (e.g. to do spam filtering) and fails, it could then convert every unknown byte to a question mark, so the same three Japanese characters would then appear as ?????? (i.e. a question mark for each byte in the sequence). The original text after this conversion is not recoverable because the source bytes have been replaced with the code of a question mark symbol.
I contacted Sympatico's online support and captured an interesting suggestion on how to resolve the problem. Here's the transcript of the conversation, slightly edited for readability and privacy reasons.
Amazing, isn't it? I can see how an inexperienced technician can suggest to choose different font to display non-Latin characters, but font size? That's just ignorant.
I still needed to resolve the problem, so I wrote an email to Sympatico's technical support and described the problem in great detail. The next day I received a response describing technical skills of the support team and hinting that Outlook Express was not officially-supported software:
We provide 24-hour support for all the software that we have distributed in our starter kits, available in both English and French. As such, our Agents are required to undergo a rigorous training program in order to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to provide quality Technical support for all these platforms and products.
Because many of our Agents are technically oriented and some have majored or graduated from Computer Sciences, they have a wide experience with a number of software packages. However, please also understand that Bell Sympatico Client Services has a large number of Technical agents, thus the backgrounds of our Staff Clients are diverse. For this reason, we cannot guarantee that any one Agent will have advanced or even basic knowledge of a given "non-supported" software package.
There was not a single word in the email about the the problem. I replied that I would like one of the skilled agents to look into this issue. The next day I received another gem, which informed me that there is something wrong with my hardware:
As per your email, you said that you are getting emails/messages with different encoding. I am pleased to inform you that there may be the issue with your computer. Since you are facing this issue when you are receiving the emails, that is, the emails messages has been changed once it reaches your hardware. So, I apologize, we do not offer support for this specific issue and I kindly suggest you to contact your system vendor for further assistance regarding this issue and rest assured.
I called the support again and this time asked to transfer me to a technician located in North America. The first thing I heard was that none of the mail clients is officially supported, so, unless I'm using just webmail, I'm on my own. I asked if they support their POP3 server and received an affirmative answer. So, I fired up OpenSSL, started a client session, connected to pophm.sympatico.ca and manually typed POP3 commands to confirm that this server converted non-Latin characters to question marks.
At this point I got to talk to a senior technician, who told me that they have only limited access to the mail servers, which are managed by Microsoft, so they have to open a ticket with Microsoft. Finally, after a week of calling, online chatting and emailing, I got through the first-level of mind-boggling incompetence within Bell Sympatico Support.
A few days later I called the support again and asked about the status of this support case and learned that some technician at Bell's SNet subdivision concluded that there was some unspecified problem with my computer. It seems that Bell Sympatico's senior technicians are not much better than their front line support.
February 21st, 2009
Eventually, I got tired talking to Bell Sympatico Support and wrote a letter to the General Manager of Bell Internet Customer Services, described the situation and attached all evidence, including my communication with support technicians, information about the test mailbox I created and a sample POP3 trace that clearly demonstrated the problem.
February 25th, 2009
I received a voice message from Bell Internet informing me that there is indeed a problem with their mail server and that the issue will be resolved in about three weeks.
Hello Andre. This is [withheld] calling from Bell Internet. This call is about the issue that you are facing with your email and this is about the issue that you are not able to receive email in non-English language. The issue was escalated with your [inaudible] account and it was found that there is a problem on our server, email server, and at this [inaudible] there are other customers who are also facing the same problem. This is issue is to be taken care of by our technicians in email department and the issue should get resolved as soon as possible. Sorry that we don't have exact time frame, but it should take at least 20 to 25 days to resolve this issue from our end. Thank you and have a nice day.
Finally, a helpful response for a change.
February 12th, 2009
I checked my Sympatico web mail today and saw the new Live Mail interface instead of dated Hotmail pages. It seemed that this switch was Sympatico's response to my encoding problem and I checked if messages in non-Latin encodings were still mangled. They were not - the problem was gone.
We all want less expensive Internet service and the tech support that comes with it, but one has to wonder if we ended up paying less for a whole lot of nothing. Bell Sympatico Support certainly falls into that category - it appears that their recruiter just came out of the office building and yelled off the top of their lungs: "Great job, no skill required!