Saturday, August 8, 2009

What You Must Know About Telephone Providers In Trinidad and Tobago

In this information age, the truth will always save you money

Without a doubt, many companies in Trinidad and Tobago operate in a market where there seems to be very little concern for consumers. In one of the most progressive island in the Caribbean consumers’ intelligence and common sense is constantly being disrespected and challenged. In our colloquial tongue its said; “they taking anything”.

Customer service is synonymous with lip service, drivel that repetition validates as company policy. Unsupervised customer services representatives with an if-you-don't- like-it-go somewhere-else-with-your-business attitude. Unfortunately, with only one or two providers there is no where else to go. You pay their fee, do what they say and must stay with them or don't have service. Soon you forget and try never to put yourself in the same position. The only thing you can do is tell your friends who sympathizes with you but cannot help.

Cut your losses is all you can really do. You will spend more time and money contesting a charges or outright fund seizure. The sole authority mandated to regulate the telephone industry was founded to minimize conflict in a market where the industry was monopolized. The rights of the Trinidad and Tobago consumers were not, and still are not a priority when this organization was founded. How in the world could the government and the people (same thing) in Trinidad and Tobago allow this to happen?

My unscientific theory is that TnT is a secular society where religious fibers run deep, touching every citizen at some point in their lives. As such, there exist an unquestioning respect and adherence to anything that represents authority. This respect extends itself in the business world where institutions and companies are never questioned. They make the rules and the consumers accept without protest. They may be lobbying behind the scenes to block any regualtion to this industry. Then again, the government is the majority share holder in the largest telephone company. That's just the way it is here.

Therefore, it’s no big surprise that two newcomers to the telecommunication industry are disrespecting consumers' intelligence and common sense. Yes, it’s strong language but when you read what is considered normal business behavior and policy, you may even want to use stronger language. Let's first take a look at the background of telephony in Trinidad and Tobago for the uninitiated and the diaspora around the world.

The Players In TnT Telecommunication Field

There are three providers of telecommunication services, the Telephone Service of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT), the largest and moldest company in Trinidad. Flow Cable Company a cable company cum telephone provider and Digicel Trinidad an international cell phone company based in the UK.

TSTT which the TT government owns 51% and Cable and Wireless International owns 49% of the company. This company has monopolized the telephone industry for as long as most Trinidadians wish to remember. It was still the only company in TnT when the tidal wave of cell phone technological swept across the world. Many locals would remember the absorbent rates this company charged citizens for cellular services. But that was the old days and they have been forgiven. That's easy to do when no one else provides the same service.

It was only a few years ago that the Digicel Group, initiated operations in 16 Caribbean countries, covering a total population of 14 million people. Incorporated in Bermuda and operating in Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda, CuraƧao, The Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago.

When this company came on the scene it was a blessing for local Trinidadians, it changed the cellular phone market. Competition works and shortly after cell phone rates began to fall; except in cases where calls were made across the two networks. Consumers are still paying for these companies in their market share war. That is the reason why visitors to this country are often astounded when they realize that most locals carry two cell phones. Something about having less and needing more.

And then there is Flow Trinidad, an international digital cable TV provider licensed here to provide a cable TV network to the population. As a very profitable after thought they decided to merge into the telephone business. Now they offer Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone service at what can be considered very exorbitant rates. They are in direct competition with the master, TSTT, for land line service.

Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago

Regulating these three telephone companies is a government body known as the Telecommunication Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT). This Authority is an independent regulatory body, established by the Telecommunications Act 2001 Amended by 17 of 2004, with responsibility for the liberalization and regulation of the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors. The Authority became operational on 5th July 2004.

It is this body that should have the power to regulate the abuses that I am about to share with you. What you are about to read are not occurrences that were researched, they are personal experiences. You be the judge check the facts and if I'm wrong I will gladly take it all back.

SIDE BAR Take a look at the Authority's whooping four most frequently asked questions (FAQ). The last question asks “What if I’m not happy with my mobile provider?. The response; first complain to the provider, then if not satisfied, complain to the authority. End of answer to that question. Is there something missing? Yes, wait for a couple years.

OK here is what I learned from actual experience with these providers:

TSTT (The Gran Daddy)

For land line service TSTT offers a service package they call “Smart Choice”. Join that program and you get a specified number of free minutes on local land lines, cell phones and international calls. For that you pay a flat fee (about $250TTD a month), any call above the specified minutes results in an additional charge. The company provides no way for you to determine minutes used leaving you guessing as to whether you are over the limit or not. Guaranteed, you will go over the stipulated minutes and there will be an additional charge for your "Smart Choice".

Got me. their smart choice is smarter for them than it was for me. After a few months of being out smarted I had enough. I decided to end the service. That's when I realized just how smart they were, there was a $25 fee to disconnect that service. That was their policy, their rules.

According to a friend I was lucky because at one time once you signed up the company would not allow you to cancel. Plus, if your phone was disconnected for any reason you would still have to pay the Smart Choice fees for the month. Talk about insulting intelligence.

Of course I could complain to the TATT or the Public Utilities Commission but it was easier and quicker to pay for the lesson. I’m sure it was in the fine print somewhere when I signed the agreement, they are right, why should I have a none penalized right to disconnect their service? Where else in the world would you have to pay when you get smart?

FLOW CABLE (TTD$ are flowing out)

Now here is my problem with Flow, well I have more than one but this one that peeves me the most. Here is a company that is raking in millions of dollars monthly from the sweat and tears of Trinbagonians while dispensing services that leaves so much to be desired.

I can only attest to the office where I pay my bill in Tagarigua, that place is deplorable. Stained patched up ceilings with not enough people to handle the flow of clients resulting in endlessly long lines. The lines are like the banks but in this case nothing can be withdrawn, only payments.

Very customer unfriendly, where you can be entertained by a small 13” color television mounted on the wall. But that’s not all, if you dare make an inquiry you are subjected to an antiquated queuing system. In brief, the security guard hands you a small card board cut out with a hand written number, instructs you to take a seat and wait your turn. There are no quick questions or inquiries you either look at the small TV or at people go by paying their bills. Geez, we are not expecting pool and ping pong tables to pass the time but at least spend the money to fix the place where you are collecting millions of dollars.

Somehow this company was able to secure the rights to operate like a phone company. With little or no customer service infrastructure in place they are becoming a thorn in the side of TSTT land line business and a trickster to TnT consumers.

The unregulated advertising industry allows FLOW Trinidad to publish misleading advertising that promises clients free talk with only a small fee for calls to TSTT phones and an extravagant per minute charge for cell phone calls. Its free if you call another FLOW Trinidad customers. What they neglect to say is that there are only a limited number of FLOW Trinidad land lines and if TSTT has it's way, there will be less.

The result is that you end up paying for each call you make, fees add up quickly and soon you are paying for that free ride you thought was free. The bad news is that Flow should never have been given permission to provide phone services if they were unwilling or unable to provide the facilities and the infrastructure for their clients. You can easily get the service they provide if you sign up with a VOIP company like Telespire Package8 which can be used internationally. OK, so buyers beware but is that not one of the reasons we have the TATT?

DIGICEL GROUP (We Expected More Than Skulduggery)

Now here is a stranger that is quickly wearing out its welcome. This company was initially welcomed in Trinidad and Tobago because it existence forced TSTT to lower their high per minute rates but here is what we found out, again from personal experience.

Digicel has an unwritten policy that if your cell is not used in 30 days all funds on the phone expires. Does that surprise you? Plus, if it is not used in 90 days the sim card expires. At a cost of $50 to replace, it's what is called back end profit in marketing.

I have yet to find in the company's literature any mention of this policy. Their employees seem to be quite conversant with that policy. Take a look at their terms and conditions for prepaid accounts, it mentions nothing about funds or sim card expiration.

Under normal circumstances this would not be a problem, phones are used every day but with the use of accessories like GPS devices in automobiles it becomes a major problem. There is no need to call the device every month. It happened to me,

My vehicle is equipped with a Tramigo T22 which came with a Digicel SIM card. One day I sent an SMS message to the GPS number and did not receive a response. I knew there was money on the card because I distinctly remember going to the Digicel office to top. At the time, I needed the service so to resolve the issue quickly, I decided to top it up again. To my surprise, I was unable to so do, the SIM card was expired.

Another call to the Digicel call center confirmed my fears, I would spend more time waiting for a refund and a SIM card than it takes to turn a big ship around. This pratice should certainly be looked at by the relevant authority. What am I saying there is none but...

Nobody, company or person should be allowed to seize your funds because you neglected to use their services. If that's not total disrespect for the citizens of this country, then what is?

OK, now you see why the language was so strong. Share your experience, you may have to pay but you still have an opportunity to say. Share your experience so that the world may know. I may be all wrong but I’m willing to bet that if you live in Trinidad you have had similar experience. Over to you for quick comments.

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