PUC responds to island's communication woes

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 13, No. 13            April 10, 2003

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The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) traveled to San Pedro last Thursday for an informal meeting with residents and businesspersons who are experiencing technical difficulties related to a Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL)"switch" mechanism in their phone lines. Relatively few people attended the very important meeting compared to the numbers who are heard complaining on a daily basis. Regardless, much information was collected from the small number gathered in relation to specific service and technical phone problems. Representing the PUC at the meeting were Director of Consumer Affairs Donnalyn Myvette, Public Relations Director Anne Wade and Director of Telecommunications Roberto Young, a former Executive Director of Network Operations at BTL.

    Opening the meeting, Ms. Myvette briefly reviewed the events that led to the reason for the meeting. She stated that an initial complaint filed in early February by The San Pedro Sun was soon followed by two other similar grievances.  She explained that on February 25th, BTL notified the PUC that the switch was patched, and they would be evaluating the situation. This evaluation reportedly included testing connections through random phone calls and analyzing various data. The PUC then received a formal response from BTL on April 2nd stating that the issue had been addressed and customers who had issued complaints had confirmed that everything was "okay". Some disputed this last BTL statement and one person added that for approximately two days after the "patch" was installed, the situation improved. Since that time, however, it appeared that the previous technical difficulties had reappeared, albeit some with less frequency.

    Ms. Myvette then asked those gathered to relay specific complaints concerning the technical difficulties caused by the "switch". Some of the Internet usage problems mentioned were: split lines, slow contact speeds, multiple attempts before Internet connections occur (and being billed while you try!), lack of a filter for "junk" mail, slow server speed, (sometimes half of what individual modem speeds use, or 11-35K versus 56K speeds), and users disconnected while on-line (sometimes while waiting for long files to download). E-mail woes included lost mail and mail not being sent or received. During this part of the discussion, one of the attendees provided E-mail documents that spanned a ten-day correspondence between a hotel and a potential guest in the United States. Although the hotel had responded to the client's request for confirmation, the client never received the e-mail. Subsequent attempts at communication were also lost or never received. The hotel received one last communication, an E-mail stating that the client was canceling the booking because they had received no reply or confirmation. This particular incident cost the hotel owner $1,500US, but the individual went on to explain that the loss of business from this one cancellation trickles down, and many others lose since tourists spend additional money in restaurants, dive shops, gift shops, etc. Another attendee pointed out that if this loss of business continues to happen all over Ambergris Caye, (the number one tourist destination); the entire country will suffer as well, since tourism generates the most revenue for Belize.

    Other issues focused on the following items: automatically receiving voice mail on regular cellular phones before the call rings, needing to call the same number two or more times in order to reach the person being called, being disconnected in the middle of conversations, receiving phone calls for other people in different districts or cayes whose phone numbers are similar or the same, and phones unable to process numbers on speed dial because the speed is too fast.

    Other unrelated complaints dealt with technicians who are not equipped with the knowledge or ability to fix repairs. It was mentioned that the government did not seem to be sympathetic to people's frustration with this telecommunications monopoly. One attendee commented that perhaps the Government of Belize did not suffer these problems as they were privileged to be able to use another provider - Intelco! Another person lamented the fact that consumers "are in reality paying BTL (exorbitant prices) to ruin their business."

    Ms. Myvett then recapped the list of complaints issued by the group. She stated that, as the regulator, the PUC would pass these complaints on to the Quality Assurance (QA) representative at BTL. Ms. Myvette quoted this QA person as saying, "BTL has a strong desire to address and solve these issues." She then assured the group that change would be forthcoming and the mere fact that BTL had assigned someone to a QA position was a step in the right direction. Ms. Myvette advised that, whenever possible, consumers should back their complaints with tangible evidence as in the case of the previously mentioned E-mail documents provided by the hotel owner. She ended the dialogue with the assurance that she would be in touch in the very near future, to which one person from the group responded, "If you can get the phones to work correctly."

    Any business or individual who was unable to attend last week's meeting may still make their complaints known by writing to the PUC at P.O. Box 300, Belize City or by E-mail at consumeraffairs@puc.bz.

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