IS IT COOK ISLANDS TELECOM OR TELECON?

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(NOTE: NZ$ 0.5002 = US$ 1.00 on April 4, 2000)

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 3, 2000 – Cook Islands Star)---The Cook Islands’ favorite monopoly is back in the news this issue over the same old question: is it abusing it’s legislated monopoly? Or perhaps the question really is: how bad is it abusing its legislated monopoly at the moment?

In a time of constant calls for Government transparency, the Government owned telecommunications company does not seem interested in answering CIStar’s questions, in spite of the fact that we have been assured by the Chairman of the Board that the marketing Manager would always answer us truthfully and completely.

There was a big Telecom Email glitch on Rarotonga that week. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t get any answers!

CALLING MANIHIKI, HELLO?

The situation in Manihiki is acute, with customers blasting the front line Telecom Staff with statements like, "Telecom is stealing my money. It’s theft, plain and simple! I’m paying you money; you are giving me nothing in return. That’s theft!" One woman told the Telecom Customer Service, "I have spent over NZ$ 300 in the last two days trying to talk to my husband on Manihiki. I ring up and three people answer, then the line goes dead. I ring back, my husband answers but can’t hear me. I ring and get through, talk a half a minute and the phone goes dead. It’s impossible!"

And as friendly as front line staff at Telecom can be, they are just minor players and can’t really give the customers any answers. They apologize for Telecom and wait for the next abusive visitor or caller.

And does Management care? If the response (no response) to CIStar is any indication, the answer is a big KARE. Just try and explain your plight to Telecom and then ask for a refund and you’ll get a song and dance about how computers don’t make mistakes, computers can’t do this or that. And the fact is, most customers don’t complain, they just take it on the chin and can’t be bothered spending 10 minutes asking for a NZ $1.00 refund.

While Telecom cries the blues about a ‘new technology’ to explain the all too frequent crashes of it’s Internet / email service, the fact is that Telecom is working with mediocre, ‘junior’ hardware but charging some of the highest per minute rates on earth. Says one bulk user of Internet time, "We could live with the fantastically high charges if they were using fantastic hardware that gave fantastic service. And when we ring in to complain, the answer is always the same. They say, ‘No, the server is fine now, it must be your computer.’ But we users talk a lot among ourselves and we all get the same story from Telecom. What is more likely, that all our computers are faulty or that Telecom is just full of BS?"

WHERE’S THE INTRANET?

Telecom promised over one year ago to provide the Intranet for Rarotonga. As the use of electronic mail has grown, it becomes a daily occurrence for one business on Rarotonga to send another business on Rarotonga emails, often with large data files attached. Telecom’s excuse for its NZ$9 a minute charges are the same sad and heartbreaking story about remoteness, satellite charges, etc. So the local users have been waiting a year for the Intranet, which has nothing at all to do with satellites, to make it possible to send data around Rarotonga.

So where is the Intranet? Someone wrote a letter to the editor of the daily paper asking just that question some six months ago? And Telecom replied that they had the hardware in place and were just waiting for the software to arrive. Well, apparently that hardware is arriving by the puru akari for there is still no Intranet. Sword chooses not to tell us why. Meanwhile, it’s NZ $9 an hour to email across the street on Rarotonga.

AITUTAKI LONGS FOR NZ $9 PER HOUR

But if Rarotongans think they have it bad, what about the outer islands? Internet charges are the same NZ$9 per hour, but the server is in Rarotonga, a NZ $1 a minute call away! That’s right, NZ$69 an hour to go on-line from the outer islands. And that’s not the worst of it if Aitutaki is any example. The slow speed of service on Rarotonga stretches out by a factor of three on Aitutaki. Just retrieving a short email can take nearly a minute. Only the bravest punter can resist the temptation to snatch the lead from the wall watching the money go down the Telecom pit at NZ $1.15 a minute. Telecom introduced an email only service for Aitutaki that has taken the burden off that aspect, but the Internet remains at NZ$69 per hour. Any tourist wanting to get on his Hotmail account had better be well heeled. That’s if he has any money left after making a few local calls at the Telecom office on Aitutaki, where a local calls goes for NZ50¢. Again, we wanted to know why a NZ15¢ phone call goes for NZ50¢, but Telecom is not talking. Maybe they can’t afford the cost of a reply!

THE CON JOB

Several issues ago we ran a Telecom story and inadvertently used the word TELECON in our headline. We have had several readers who thought we did it on purpose trying to be funny. Well we didn’t, but the effect has stuck just a bit, with some Telecom customers telling their friends to start using TELECON when speaking of the monopoly and even writing TELECON on checks when paying bills.

One reader went even further and suggested that Media King George Pitt, who has gone quiet on his years of Telecom criticisms since being appointed Chairman of the Board, has "sold out" and should be stripped of the title Media King and be known henceforth as King Con. We asked Pitt what he thought of the title and all we got was a good-hearted laugh. When we asked Pitt some of the questions we asked Sword, he told us once again that she would answer all questions. Perhaps when he rang her to remind her he was cut off!

HOW MUCH FOR A KEY STROKE?

As Telecom has offered more and more services over the last couple of years, they have discovered the big money to be made in ‘hook up charges.’ Want to change a phone number? NZ$25. Want to put on a new service such as call waiting or call diversion? NZ$25. In the old days, such services weren’t available, but changes did take time. A technician might have to go to a mechanical switch and perform a technical task for some change in service to take place. But today, in the digital world, changes to a service require a few keystrokes. Call diversion? Maybe a dozen keystrokes? That ‘s NZ$2 a stroke. If only every business could make that kind of money. But of course every business is not a legislated monopoly. In a competitive world, a telecommunications company would be offering a bottle of booze or some other inducement to get a customer to take on a new service, not charging them NZ$25 for the privilege!

GOT NZ$500? STEP RIGHT UP

CIStar criticized Telecom for it’s apparently outrageous security bond policy. While they told us they were "working on a new policy," we haven’t’ heard another word. They take your money and give it back when you disconnect your phone. So, you pay your bill on time for 50 years, but they still have your ‘security’ bond. Want your money back? Drop dead! Your relations turn off your phone and get the money.

Telecom’s own literature, including the year 2000 Directory just out, says that residential customers pay a NZ$50 deposit and businesses pay a NZ$100 deposit. But what really happens when you sit down to sigh up a new service? Well, lots of newcomers are told to plunk down NZ$500. Ask why and you’ll be told, that’s just the way it is. Back when we ran this story we asked Telecom (owned by the people of the Cook Islands remember) how much money they were holding on deposit for security bonds. No answer. With several thousand phone and fax lines, you can bet it’s a bundle. And how much interest does the customer get on his deposit? Zip, that’s how much.

But that’s how monopolies work, and Government owned ones that return a big chunk of those outrageous fees to the Treasury for politicians to spend. Well, Cook Islanders would do better to believe in the tooth fairy than to expect any relief.

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