News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Monday, 2 March 2009

A mixed week for telcos in the UK press

Non-British readers will probably only associate the city of Liverpool with the Beatles and the city's red-shirted, iconic football (translation for US readers: soccer) team. Apologies to the blue half of Liverpool for reminding you that your local rivals are much more famous. You knew that anyway. It wasn't a jibe - I can't very well make sarcastic remarks about the profile of football clubs given that I am a dyed-in-wool QPR supporter.

Liverpool sometime attracts attention for more controversial reasons. British readers may recall the colourful then-Member of Parliament (now London mayor) Boris Johnson raising the ire of Liverpudlians for making some pretty strong allegations about the character of the city's residents. In October 2004, Johnson wrote that people in Liverpool "cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance about the rest of society". He said Liverpudlians "wallow" in their "victim status", adding that this is part of the "deeply unattractive psyche" of many in the city. I am sure this is untrue, and Boris did get quite a telling off from his boss. With these thoughts in mind, however, I did smile on seeing seeing the following:

"Phone giant BT charged a Huyton pensioner £100 for call out to replace two AA batteries", moaned a Liverpool Echo headline on Saturday. The accompanying article alleges that an elderly, cash-strapped and bed-bound BT customer was, without fair warning, charged £100 to have an engineer visit his home and pop a couple of new batteries into his phone. The article quotes a BT spokeswoman as saying that the customer had been advised the fault was in the phone, adding "we are satisfied from our customer service records the customer was properly advised about the possible charges ahead of the engineer's visit." If you can be bothered to watch the video clip below, you will notice the 'victim's' daughter admitting that she'd been advised to check the phone and expect a call out charge:

The Liverpool Echo doesn't let this get in the way of a good opportunity to stir local opinion about our national incumbent operator. This does make me wonder how much this paper might have contributed to the the city attracting the kind of criticism levelled by Boris Johnson.

I appreciate that a modern, competitive telco needs to be customer-centric, but I also feel that operators cannot very well cater to the whims of everyone with an unreasonable demand and a misplaced sense of injustice.

With this in mind, I was pleased to see our industry getting some praise in a UK newspaper this week. The Guardian ran a very upbeat article about how the mobile phone is helping to lift people in developing countries out of extreme poverty. It's a good read and filled with heart-warming anecdotes. This is my favourite:

"For much of his life, Mukeba didn't have an address. His corrugated iron house had no number and his volcanic ash street in the heart of Goma had no name. There was no postal service and the phone system had long since disintegrated. So when his mother died in 1995 on the other side of the Democratic Republic of Congo, her church sent a note marked only "Deograsias Mukeba, Goma". Remarkably it got to him - but three weeks after the funeral.

That was before. Now Mukeba's address goes with him everywhere. It has transformed the 33-year-old's life. It is an old Nokia mobile phone. "It was very hard discovering my mother had died and been buried and I didn't know anything about it for weeks," said Mukeba. "But that's how life was. If you lived in Goma, Kinshasa was another planet.

"I didn't really have any work. When the cell phones came I found the money and bought one because it was cool to have. It cost me $25 (£18). It's a lot.

"My brother lives in Kinshasa where he is a trader. He called me and asked me to start finding some things for him that you couldn't get in Kinshasa but you could find in Rwanda and Uganda, like some electrics and car parts. Now I speak to him every day. I send a lot of stuff. Now we are making money."

One customer in Western Europe whines about the telephone company. Another in the Democratic Republic of Congo cannot speak warmly enough about his mobile service. Our industry can frustrate and delight in equal measure. I guess it depends on your sense of perspective.


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