Residents communicate concerns at BTL meeting

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 4            January 25, 2001

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Residents of Ambergris Caye convey concerns to BTL personnel

Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) personnel visited with local businesses and the general public last Wednesday evening to discuss the progress of their underground cable network. Advance notice of the meeting was limited, (via flyers distributed by San Pedro BTL office employees) and subsequently there was very poor attendance. Nearly the same amount of BTL employees as concerned residents, (twenty-plus) gathered at the meeting held at the Lions Den. The San Pedro Sun and Channel 5 television were the media present to record this discussion, aware of the residents ever-increasing discontent with BTL.

    A wide array of representatives for the telecommunications monopoly were on hand to explain the project. Answering questions were: Sales Manager Dionne Chamberlain, Chief Operating Officer Ernesto Torres, Customer Service Manager Dean Molina, Sales Account Management Representative Raymond Robinson, Planning and Engineering Manager Omar Hasan, Ambergris Caye Project Manager Mark Usher and Public Relations Officer Suzette Tillett.

    Hurricane Keith's devastation hit most utilities where it hurts the most-their profits. Reports from the other major monopolies confirm money is put aside in their "contingency  plans" for emergencies. Commitment to their customers and minimizing damage in the event of another natural disaster was BTL's reasoning for investing in the underground system. According to the project manager, three contractors are presently working in separate areas of the island simultaneously to hasten the time it takes to install the new network. Customers will be contacted for permission to excavate private property and the exact location they prefer to install cables to individual homes and businesses. Reportedly, advance notice is to be given regarding the time of interrupted service, (said to be minimal), when BTL switches the lines from overhead to underground.

    According to BTL personnel, difficult terrain in certain areas has been the major problem. Another challenge is that BTL crews must wait to install new overhead lines, because according to BTL, the poles are the property of Belize Electricity Limited. This is supposedly a big problem for North Ambergris Caye who continues to experience problems on a daily basis with phone service. A temporary solution is to lay cable from Boca del Rio to that area. A long term solution is to provide them with a wireless system, but the hang up is whose land will be used to house a tower.

    The other areas that were hardest hit by the hurricane (San Pedrito, San Juan, San Pablo and Escalante subdivisions) will reportedly be using existing connectors for at least the next six months before new overhead lines are installed. These areas will remain overhead because of the poor terrain. An inquiry was made about a permanent tower for the island. BTL responded that one was on its way and that the concrete base should be ready sometime in the next two months. Approximately three weeks after the foundation is ready, a 150 foot tower capable of withstanding 150mph winds, will be installed. Full service from this tower should be restored by April.

    Damage to streets from this project, and the direct affects on the general public, spawned an inquiry regarding restoration of the streets. Examples of the affects cited were: vehicle wear and tear, the inconvenience to those who choose to walk, the dust and traffic congestion. BTL stated contractors are responsible for ensuring streets are returned to a same or better condition than before construction. BTL further explained that the restored ground must settle first before any further fill is placed. A deterrent to timely restoration is also the lack of street fill available at this time, which was confirmed by the San Pedro Town Administrator, Alberto Villanueva who was present at the meeting. BTL suggested that any resident not satisfied with the completion of their area should immediately contact the local BTL office so complaints can be addressed before the contractor's agreements expire. It was stated this information will be advertised two weeks in advance of the expiration to give residents time to lodge any complaints.

    Most of those present applauded BTL's long-term plan for improving service, but condemned the timing. It was mentioned that, in the aftermath of the hurricane, the community was patient with all of the utilities. It was further understood that, because this economy depends on tourism dollars, businesses needed to take precedence over private domains regarding restoration of service. Yet, at the present time, nearly three months later, lack of service to businesses was the number one complaint. Although BTL designated service restoration to these enterprises a priority, major resorts remain operating on a single fixed cellular line. This was a concern of Captain Morgan's Retreat (North Ambergris Caye), who reported employees and guests have no access to a phone in an emergency, a most critical dilemma. Furthermore, because there is only one line, they must travel to town and pay for someone else's service to receive and respond to their e-mail, a major source of bookings for any resort. BTL responded another fixed cellular was currently on its way. Caribe Island Resort, located at the opposite end  (south) of the island, also confirmed their fear in emergency situations. During a recent incident they could not contact the Lions Clinic, only to learn it was because of a lack of phone service and consequently the patient was transported to Guatemala. The resort representative stated this to be a critical matter since this is the only physician who typically responds to after-hours calls. He added the doctor had made several calls to BTL concerning this situation and that the clinic still has no telephone service, which was subsequently verified by the doctor who was present at the meeting. BTL stated that fixed cellular phones were always available as an option. This claim was disputed by many in the crowd who had personal experiences as proof. BTL promised to check into this matter immediately.

    Along these same lines, another concerned citizen, speaking on behalf of local enterprises stated that the lack of phone service was detrimental to booking tourists to this destination. Relating one property manager's situation, he cited a number of recent cancellations were based strictly on a lack of phone and Internet service. He stressed the amount of damage this did to the community's economy, by suggesting that almost all visitors demand this basic service. The loss of income concern was supported by Capricorn Restaurant who complained of the inability to verify credit card purchases, a common form of payment for businesses in this area. She explained that, without confirmation, businesses are sometimes unable to reclaim this money and therefore "caught" with these charges. Other financial concerns expressed by those gathered included the costs incurred of anyone calling individuals who are forced to use either fixed cellular or mobile cellular phones. Further questioned was whether any type of reduced service and call rates were being provided to all customers, those calling and those receiving, who were unable to access basic phone service. It was stated that customers should not have to pay 99, 85 or 50 cents for a cellular phone call to someone in their location. These calls would normally cost 25 cents or less if they had basic service from the phone company. The reasoning behind this question being that, a lack of service was through no fault of any customer, it was BTL's responsibility and they should absorb the costs. Further questioned were the charges for call forwarding from a customer's regular line to a cellular number. It was challenged that this should be at no cost to the consumer if it is not their fault they are not provided with basic phone service. BTL responded that these were "valid" suggestions that they would need to discuss with management.

    The never-ending challenges with BTL's billing system were the next group of gripes. Several attendees voiced the same complaints about reporting errors in their phone bills and that absolutely nothing had been done about them for the past two months. Examples included: monthly billing for phones that are currently not in service (complete with calls charged to them), charges for calls to the time clock (121), multiple incidences of overcharging, and phone calls regarding complaints not being returned. It was stated by one consumer that many customer service personnel at both the San Pedro and Belize City office had neglected him. He added that the Chief Executive Officer of the company had also failed to return his phone call. To this charge, BTL stated they have a "no tolerance" policy for unanswered complaints and this would be addressed at the home office upon their return. They explained that fault reports should be made to the office by calling 119. BTL suggested that customers should record the names and employee numbers of whom they speak to every time they call. Then, if their calls are not returned or faulty service is not repaired, it should be reported to the home office.

    By far the most humorous moment of the evening was a complaint from a local taxi driver who had been falsely charged for long distance calls to China and Ethiopia. He pleaded, "I wish I had a relative from Ethiopia. Find me a relative so I can sit down and talk with them!" This gentleman also brought up the issue of being disconnected without notice because of BTL's billing errors. Several times he reported errors, but the next thing he knew, his phone would be useless. Almost everyone in attendance agreed this was an all too frequent occurrence. BTL defended some of the disconnections by suggesting that customers do not pay for the services they do owe. They, instead, ignore the entire bill because of one error and assume they are justified in this respect. BTL explained this is not their policy. Bills are due monthly and all any customer needs to do, whether they receive a notice of their current charges or not, is to call the office and pay their monthly charges. To alleviate disconnections, customers must pay at least the fees agreed with and dispute the others in a formal complaint.

    BTL's Internet service also came under fire. One customer complained of being charged for accumulating time for Internet service when no data was being received or sent. He reported that this was true even before the hurricane. The representative replied BTL would have to test his line, to which the customer countered he still remained without service! Another present at the meeting complained of a falsely reported Internet service speed by BTL, which he had personally tested on several occasions. He charged this to be another way BTL "ripped off" the consumer unknowingly by billing more for less time. BTL denied this to be true, but promised to report the complaint of slow Internet speed. Another complaint was that of never being completely certain whether all E-mails were received or sent. This customer added that a company that has some of the highest rates in the world should be able to provide better service.

    Although some complaints were made about the San Pedro BTL office, a few sympathetic words were also uttered regarding how understaffed it was. One concerned member of the group offered there are a growing number of residents and visitors on this island. Knowing this, a lack of after-hour and Saturday service, and only one available office cashier at any given time to handle business, was obscene. It was mentioned that although these people try their hardest, they are only as good as what the company provides them and the training they have received. BTL confirmed that this situation was currently being studied by management.

    Most attending the consultation agreed, the fact of the matter is, that BTL is a monopoly, and until that changes, it leaves no alternative for better service. BTL stated an independent tribunal, with representation from the private sector, was being considered to address concerns of the consumer. In closing, the representatives vowed to investigate all suggestions. Anyone wishing further information on the previous subjects or ones not covered in this article may call (toll free) 0-800-CALL BTL (225-5285).
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