Tuesday, October 3, 2023 Oct 3, 2023
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The 75226 Copper Bandits Keep Killing My Internet and Outsmarting AT&T

Copper thieves have repeatedly stolen the lines in neighborhoods near Fair Park. In response (or a lack thereof), AT&T has not heroically swooped in to save the day.
By Richard Patterson | |Illustration by Jakob Hinrichs
AT&T copper theives
Illustration by: Jakob Hinrichs

About five years ago, I picked up my new F-Type Jag. It came with an app called InControl and all sorts of spiffy tech and connectivity. I didn’t care. I just wanted the latest Jaguar sports car, the spiritual successor to the car of all cars, the E-Type Jaguar. I didn’t need a glorified laptop on wheels. 

In any event, one day outside my studio, I was trying to attach my cardboard parking pass around the rearview mirror stem, which is thicker than it should be since inevitably it’s carrying a bunch of tech and is attached to its own console of cameras for lane assist, parking sensors, rain sensors, and stuff I’ve probably yet to discover. 

As I fumbled with the parking tag, I accidentally touched the SOS button that sends an alarm to a central scrutinizer who sends ambulances and fire trucks and the sort of extra Towering Inferno mayhem that make big American cities what they are. But I didn’t realize I’d pressed the SOS button. Next thing I knew, a woman’s sonorous voice filled my car on its 15-speaker surround sound system, louder and fuller than a real person and very resonant, making the woman sound like a giant from another planet. Her voice entered my whole being as if my ears weren’t hearing it. More like she was inside my soul and all my organs, like I’d been taken over by a much greater, possibly benevolent force. 

“Are you OK?” she said, massively, authoritatively, definitively, reassuringly. 

I didn’t know what had happened. I just sat there not knowing what to do. I thought I might be dying. 

Then: “Are you in distress? Do you need assistance?”

Unable to speak or respond, I contemplated her question. Yes, I am in distress, I thought. I’m in existential pain. I need a maid, someone to help around the house, sweep up the leaves. A proper handyman, a really good electrician, a plumber. Cumberland sausages, smoked haddock from Grimsby. So many things.

Then: “Has your airbag deployed?”

I finally realized what was going on. But unsure which button on which console to push for “reply” or “send,” I meekly cleared my throat, leaned politely forward in my sienna tan bucket seat, and said, “Hello?” 

She said, “Hello. Are you in distress or injured? Have you been in an accident?”

Still debating whether I was mid aural hallucination and losing touch with reality, I said: “Er, no. [Hugh Grant-ish bumbling] I was trying to attach my parking pass, but it’s surprisingly hard to get it around my rearview mirror. I now see the button is lit up. I must have pressed it by mistake?”

Her voice was full and God-like, unwavering, confident, like Dame Helen Mirren or Dame Judi Dench played through the AMC NorthPark big-screen sound system: “I see. So long as you’re in no distress or involved in an accident?”

“No, I’m fine. But thanks. [pause] What do I do now? How do I turn my SOS button off?”

The woman’s voice, the Goddess Athena: “We’ll do it.”

Me: “You’re sending someone out to turn off my SOS button?”

Athena: “No, we do it remotely.”

Me: “OK. Got it. I knew that. Sorry about that. Thanks.” 

Athena: “Thank you. Goodbye.” 

Me: “Thank you. Goodbye.”

And it came to pass, as they say in the Bible, that my SOS was remotely disengaged, the light went out, the car fell silent. Panic over. Athena seemed very nice. I wondered what she looked like, how old she was. I felt faintly foolish but somehow quite good about it all, like she was a giant reclining woman floating up in the actual clouds a mile or so above my head in baroque-styled Italian robes and a goatskin breastplate, like a painting by Botticelli or a ceiling by Raphael. It was good to know she was there, as with your appendix, one of those things you’re not sure you’ve ever used or needed, but handy to know it’s working properly.

That one ended happily ever after. So far, so good. 

Which brings me to a more recent and far less lovely and poetic modern experience: dealing with that multiheaded hydra-like monster of a company called AT&T.

Five years after the visitation from the Greek goddess, my internet dropped out. It wasn’t the first time it had happened in my ZIP code, which is near Fair Park. It first happened about seven years ago, and every time the problem was fixed, it happened again about two weeks later. It happened six times in succession within a few months. 

Now the same is happening again, and I’ve just passed the third 10-day outage in two months. The cause: the 75226 Copper Bandits are back. They come under the cover of night and steal the 2-inch overhead copper cables that carry all the bundled internet and phone lines in the area. Anyone with AT&T in my immediate area of Exposition Park goes into digital blackout. For me, that’s my house and my nearby studio. 

There are four new mixed and residential developments being built on my street or nearby, all by the same developer. On the website for the one that’s nearly completed, it says: “Live on the edge of quaint. On the gritty side of charming.”

The developer is struggling to describe a particular type of Dallas urbanism, that 75226 variety, the one with intermittent internet, on the shitty side of charming, if it comes to you via AT&T. Its delivery system is as vulnerable as the catalytic converter under your SUV. No amount of tech or data will protect it because there are copper bandits afoot with arborists’ poles with tin snips at their ends, like medieval pikes. They take the copper and run. 

It’s a weird feeling, having the neighborhood’s main line swindled overnight. You panic at first, like your life is about to stop. You’ve lost your pulse. You don’t exist. 

Experience tells you this doesn’t happen in Highland Park or Preston Hollow. Imagine if you woke up one morning and someone had stolen, say, a section of the Tollway or the middle part of the Calatrava bridge (pick one), and then as soon as it gets rebuilt it gets pilfered again. It feels like a violation. 

When I talk to my wife, she explains that I can use my phone as a hot spot. I’d heard the term, but outside of cookery had no real idea what it was. So, first crisis is semi-avoided. I can still get online, pay bills, view important things on YouTube, watch the match on the weekend to keep solidarity with my countrymen abroad, and so on. I’m still somewhat connected, but my link to my invisible data stash might at any minute be rescinded or just fizzle out. Gigas and megas and stuff. To me, it’s like, how long is a piece of string? Only it’s not even string. 

But now—please, Athena—don’t make me talk to AT&T to get my actual internet connection back. My impulse is to pour some wine or open a beer. But it’s only 9:45 am. It’s a full 45 minutes from 10:30, when it would be more socially acceptable/normal to have a drink. But I know this will need supreme diplomatic skill and real perseverance and extra sustenance. 

I get through to the automated service. It’s very, very difficult to find a shortcut to get to an agent. In fact, I can’t do it. I fail. First round goes to AT&T. It’s 1-0 to AT&T, and we’ve only just kicked off. So I have to speak to the robot. 

ME: “Yes, my internet connection is gone. I’d like to speak to an agent.” 

ROBOT: “Most issues can be resolved by unplugging and replugging the modem.”

ME: [fatuously] “I know. It’s not that. AGENT … AGENT … ADVISOR!” 

It doesn’t work. I don’t get a person.

ROBOT: “Ninety percent of the time, unplugging the—” 


The robot continues: “We’re going to run some diagnostics.” Clicking and whirring pretend noises. Long pause. “It looks as if you have no internet connection.”

ME: “Yes, I know. That’s why I called.”

ROBOT: “We will connect you with a technical support specialist agent.” 

ME: “Thank the Good Lord.”

A woman with a not entirely easy to understand accent comes on the phone. She may find me not entirely easy to understand either. We may well be many thousands of miles apart. I’m not sure. The score is now AT&T 2, me 0.

I have at least now got someone on the phone, but 10 minutes have elapsed, it’s still not the cocktail hour, and I’m struggling to stay composed and on the ball. I begin.

It’s a weird feeling, having the neighborhood’s main line swindled over-night. Experience tells you this doesn’t happen in Highland Park or Preston Hollow.

ME: “Before you tell me to unplug my modem, can I please explain the situation here? I live in Dallas in 75226, and seven years ago, my entire neighborhood’s internet went out due to a systemic problem. The outage was caused by copper thieves stealing the overhead cables. AT&T replaced them after 10 days. The thieves returned and stole them again. It happened six times. Now the same thing has happened again. Two of my neighbors are out, my studio in a building half a mile away is out. The area is out. It’s an outage. I am not a tech, but I can safely tell you this is not my modem.”

ADVISOR: “I want you to tell me what color the lights are on your modem.”

ME: “It’s not my modem. I will go upstairs to my study to look at my modem. Hang on. [footsteps] The power light is green. The internet light is red. It’s not the modem. It’s an outage.”

ADVISOR: “Have you unplugged the modem?”

ME: “Yes. I’m waiting. [a minute’s silence, thousands of miles apart] The power light is green. [long pause] And the internet light is flashing red. It’s not my modem.”

ADVISOR: “Please hold while I run some diagnostics. [whirring, clicking, fake data noises] It looks like you have no internet connection.”

ME: [turning into Basil Fawlty] “You surprise me.” 

ADVISOR: “When can you be available to be at your residence to receive a tech?” 

ME: “I don’t need a tech in my house. There’s no point. The problem is not in my house.” 

ADVISOR: “I’m going to send you a new modem. If you don’t return the old one in 21 days, you’ll be charged $149.”

ME: “There’s nothing wrong with my modem.”

ADVISOR: “I can’t send a tech until I send a new modem. Yours is old.” 

ME: “I’m old. My modem is old. But we still both function. Mostly. It’s not my modem.”

ADVISOR: “When can you be available? The first appointment is tomorrow, 12 pm to 4 pm on Friday, February 12.”

ME: “But February 12 is today.”

ADVISOR: “February 12 is tomorrow.”

It’s at this point that in my head both Estragon and Vladimir from Waiting for Godot silently enter the dialogue.

ME: “I think I might be losing my mind. My computer and my phone tell me that February 12 is today. Am I out of time? Is this an out-of-body experience?”  

I then realize she’s in a different time zone, like Asia.

ME: “I’m in Dallas. We’re in Friday. It’s already the 12th here.” 

ADVISOR: “The tech will be there sometime between 12 and 4 pm.”

ME: “I can’t wait at my house for four hours. The tech needs to call me before he gets here, and I’ll meet him.”

ADVISOR: “I will pass that on.”

Outside my garage door, there’s an AT&T truck in my neighbor’s driveway. I ask the worker what’s going on. He says it’s a network problem. He’s seen line engineers in the area. They’re looking for the problem now. 

In about three hours’ time, my appointed engineer duly calls to tell me he’s been at the back of my house, and the problem is not in the house. I meet him out back and explain my distress with the woman at the call center. He tells me he’s been working for AT&T for 30 years. He says, “They won’t talk to you. They read off a script. With the ‘unplug the modem’ thing, the best thing is to tell them you’re visually impaired so you can’t do it. That way, they’ll send a tech to you immediately and get it all kicked off.” 

He confirms that it is a network issue and that the lines were cut. He says the copper thieves are out in force all over the area. He is chasing them around, patching up the damage. I ask him when will it stop. 

“When the area gets too hot, they’ll move on to another ZIP code,” he says. 

“Why doesn’t AT&T protect their infrastructure better?” I ask. 

“They use metal shears on long poles and cut yards of the cable down at a time.”

“Surely there’s a way of stopping it.”

He says, “You wanna take a deck chair out there and just sit under the pole all night waiting for them to come back?” 

A very Texan sort of response. I thought, No, obviously not, but maybe someone at AT&T should. You can probably get a deck chair from Target for under 12 bucks. 

I thank him, and he drives off. 

When I get inside, my phone pings to tell me I’ve failed to make my tech appointment and asks if I want to reschedule or if the problem has been rectified. 

It is now well past 3:30, so I open an IPA and get back on the phone to AT&T, this time to answer the text that didn’t give me enough options to respond. I talk to a robot. After 10 minutes, I speak to an agent. I say that I hadn’t missed my appointment, but I did not want to reschedule either, nor had my issue been resolved. 

ADVISOR: “So your issue is not resolved. Have you tried unplugging your modem?” 

ME: “It’s not my modem.”

ADVISOR: “I’m running a check for outages now. [long pause] The last outage in your area was in September of last year.”

ME: “No, there is a new one. You don’t know it yet because your system isn’t updated, but I am now reporting it: there is an outage in my area.” 

ADVISOR: “It’s not showing an outage in your area.”

I take a mental step back, swig at the Lagunitas, and just wait. 

ADVISOR: “Hello, sir?”

ME: “Yes, I’m here.”

ADVISOR: “I need you to tell me what color the lights are on your modem.”

ME: [silent existential scream, head in hands, looking like the guy on the bridge in the Munch painting, the landscape going all blurred and streaked colors around me, and I’m thinking how AT&T call centers may suddenly find themselves dealing with loads of fake blind people talking to people in Shanghai who only offer fake solutions] “The power light is on, but the broadband light is red. [long pause] Are you still there?” 

ADVISOR: “Yes. What color is it now?” 

So. We have Chat GPT-4, an artificial intelligence that will soon be able to author its own artificial intelligence. We have automated phone systems that can speak in complete sentences. But we have call centers with actual people in them who speak in less complete sentences than the robots. But, more worryingly, they’re so stripped of dignity that if you say, “Will you acknowledge and answer my last statement?” they won’t actually do it, because a response to that question is not on their menu. How is this progress? No other company I deal with—my bank, my credit card company, my dentist, the IRS, certainly not Jaguar—operates this way. 

Out of sheer masochism, I ask to speak to a supervisor. I am on hold for 12 minutes, until someone finally comes on the line. I painfully explain how ludicrous all the above experience was, how inefficient and infuriating. The person listens in silence. At the end of my monologue, he says, “I’m in sales. I’m a sales supervisor.”

At least he doesn’t ask me about the color of my modem lights.     

This story originally appeared in the May issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Waiting for Godot to Fix My Internet Write to [email protected].

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