By Jomo Sanga Thomas
We are between a rock and a hard place. There is no way to turn for relief. The service offered by Cable & Wireless (FLOW) and Digicel is horribly, inadequate and inefficient. We are forced to contend with a case of six of one, half a dozen of the next. We must find a solution.
Plain Talk had long hoped that the government, through the attorney general, would take these companies to court to seek redress on behalf of our people and country. But alas, this seems unlikely. Camillo Gonsalves, the minister of telecommunications is on record as saying that nothing can be done based on these companies’ current contractual arrangements. A “remedy” floated was for us to refuse to renew the contracts until better and improved service is offered. We do not think this is enough.
We do not believe that there can be no redress with institutions that act improperly in a country of laws. As the Indian senior counsel famously said, “The law may be an ass sometimes, but judges should not allow themselves to be led by an ass. They must find solutions to serious problems.”
For more than a century, Cable & Wireless has reaped a handsome reward from its operations. Digicel stormed into this market about 20 years ago and has sucked gluttonously on our every dollar. When Cable & Wireless had a monopoly, calls to Europe and North America were more than $5 per minute. Today, the fee per calls is substantially lower but is still relatively high compared to those in neighbouring Barbados and Trinidad.
Vincentians cherish the lower fees. Wi-Fi has dramatically assisted with communications, but the complaints are mounting. These companies continue to swipe credit off people’s phones with no redress. They claim to offer 4G service at high rates and never delivers. Sometimes calls made to the phones do not register. Other times calls are made but never received. Calls frequently drop, adversely disrupting personal and business communications.
The internet service is terrible, and the companies’ total communications packages have gotten palpably worse, even as they claim to have spent money to upgrade. The only thing that is being upgraded is the amount of money both companies continue to make annually. Both companies maintain brutally exploitative and abusive relations with Vincentians.
Years ago, Digicel made $4 million ($48 million annually) in phone card sales per month through one outlet. Cable & Wireless make comparable profits. And we know this because they have remained in the market rather than fold. Yet these companies pay pennies on the dollar to street vendors selling credit.
These big companies are not transparent. They do everything possible to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
Since the ULP government attained power, it collected more than $20 million in taxes from Cable & Wireless after forensic audits of its tax returns. Digicel was compelled to turn over millions after audits of its returns.
These are profitable business entities. Why are they allowed to get away with robbery in broad daylight? The National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRC) has ample proof of the misdeeds of these companies. Yet, it refuses to act. It is time that citizens join together to demand better, cheaper and more efficient service.
I speak from the personal experience saying that both Digicel and Cable & Wireless have scant regard for Vincentians. For 13 years, I was a Digicel customer. I paid my bill promptly and in full. Yet not a month went by without complaints. In 2017 I had had enough of the abuse and switched. I switched not because I thought Cable & Wireless offered better service. I switched to show Digicel I was unprepared to continue sucking up its abuse.
Cable & Wireless is equally abusive and exploitative. Firstly, neither of these companies engages in full disclosure. Cable & Wireless locked me into a two-year contract without saying so. I found out following my complaint to the country manager about shortcomings in his service. I was introduced to a plan I found attractive and accepted the offer. I subsequently found out that Cable & Wireless reneged on the offer because it claimed I was on contract for a higher postpaid monthly fee. No one ever mentioned the contract terms — no one called to explain why the agreement could not be honoured.
Cable & Wireless charges about $75 for data per month. I noticed that I could not communicate unless I were in a Wi-Fi zone. I took up the matter with the company to find out that, “Yes, your observation is correct. There is a problem with the phone.” I was inconvenienced and robbed without notice. The exploitation and abuse are unending.
Recently, a salesperson from Cable & Wireless called with an offer to double the internet speed for a fee. I agreed to the increased costs, yet the internet continuously drops with no improvement in service.
My experience is not unique. And it matters not whether your service provider is Cable & Wireless or Digicel. So what do we do? Plain Talk is absolutely sure that both companies, Cable & Wireless and Digicel, have a case to answer. Let’s see how they respond to a claim charging deceit, intentional and fraudulent misrepresentation. We have nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.
This Plain Talk piece with minor changes first appeared on Dec. 21, 2018. There has been no change for the better. Things have gotten much worse.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines