Falklands : TELECOMMS CONSULTANT STUNNED BY PUBLIC REACTION TO CABLE & WIRELESS SERVICE
Submitted by Falkland Islands News Network (Juanita Brock) 02.05.2009 (Article Archived on 16.05.2009)
Dr Chris Doyle, FIGís telecommunications consultant, has been in the Falklands for a week and has sampled the strength of feeling about Cable & Wireless amongst businesses, Government Departments and the general public. Heís stunned by some of the things heís heard.
TELECOMMS CONSULTANT STUNNED BY PUBLIC REACTION TO CABLE & WIRELESS SERVICE
By J. Brock (FINN)
Dr Chris Doyle, FIGís telecommunications consultant, has been in the Falklands for a week and has sampled the strength of feeling about Cable & Wireless amongst businesses, Government Departments and the general public. Heís stunned by some of the things heís heard. On Tuesday evening Dr Doyle met with members of the Falkland Islands Chamber of Commerce and gave a fully candid presentation about what he had done in the past and his dismay about what he found upon his return this time. He answered a series of questions about the quality of Cable & Wireless services to the business community. Dr Doyle came to SARTMAís offices on Thursday afternoon to do an interview about some of his findings.
SARTMA: What advise are you now giving Government and how does FIG measure up to what you have what you have advised them before?
CD: I came here in 2004on my first visit five years ago and at the time I had a mandate to review telecommunications in the Falkland Islands, in particular the policy of telecommunications and its regulation. I wrote a report which was submitted to the Government in January 2005 and in that there were various recommendations which included, among other things, modernising telecommunications aw and bringing scrutiny of Cable & Wirelessí performance in the Falklands. We required them to submit an annual performance report. I recommended that a version of this be made public and published in the telephone directory that is produced each year.
And then there were a raft of other issues Ė considering the possibility of a mobile network and the possibility of broadband services and so forth. I am pleased to say that on some issues at least Cable & Wireless has delivered and in part the Government has delivered but on some of the bigger issues, with regard to regulation of Cable & Wireless, I donít think we are any further forward than we were five years ago. And there certainly hasnít been any modernisation of the law and that has now come to the attention of your Government once again. And I think perhaps due to the large amount of public disquiet that regulation and services generally produced by C&W, the Government has decided to initiate action and partly visit the recommendations of 2004 rather than raking over the ashes of the past.
Those recommendations have moved forward and I ask how those telecommunications fit in the wider development of the Falkland Islands going forward and whatís needed to enable development to be sustainable and so forth and I think the Government is clearly aware that internet access under-pins many activities in the Islands both socially and commercially and in the public service. So itís now receiving the priority that perhaps it should have received some years ago. There is a mobile service which covers basically Mount Pleasant and Stanley, thereís a broadband service with varying degrees of reliability, which is available to most residents both in Stanley and in Camp when the Camp network comes on stream.
SARTMA: All isnít well in the world of Falklands telecommunications.
CD: I think if one was going through some sort of audit as to how well the Government has performed, Iíd say it was less satisfactory in a number of areas and poorly in regard to the reform of the law. Being told 5 years ago it needs to be modernised and not doing anything about it is less than ideal.
Cable & Wireless, I think, have done quite well in some regards in that they have added substantial parts to their network which produced services. But sadly, while thatís happened, their reputation appears to have taken a beating here in the Falkland Islands that calls into question some serious issues about what is going on in the wider community. A number of people in the wider community have expressed concern about how they are treated by customer services and there is a ground-swell of dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the service that the wider community are receiving.
SARTMA: During the meeting at the Chamber of Commerce one person said that there is a willingness to pay higher prices if the service works. Given the discontent, are prices too high?
CD: It should come as no surprise that prices are high here. I think people realise that prices are higher here than you would find in the United Kingdom. Satellite bandwidth, essentially the key ingredient for internet users is expensive compared to fibre optics. Having said that, there are high prices short-term visitor Y-FI cards at £5.00 for 50 minutes. Also broadband prices for residents vary in price from £50.00 to £120.00 with different levels of service. These prices compare with people in the UK who live in rural areas.
SARTMA: Do Cable & Wireless have the same quality as those rural UK services?
CD: I think, quite rightly, questions can be raised. One of the issues I am addressing here and when I go back to the UK is the fact that like other companies in the Falklands, Cable & Wireless have not changed their prices for some time for some services Ė in some instances this is for a number of years. Costs change and many go down while others increase. Increasing costs are salaries and power costs so some prices and costs have been rising. There are other areas where prices have declined. In real terms, though nominal prices havenít changed, prices of services have come down but understandable, locally, Cable& Wireless want to increase some prices to recover inflationary costs. At the moment I am assessing whether there are grounds for any increases to take place. If the company is performing well, there may be scope for prices to move downwards. Further information from Cable & Wireless is needed to assess proposals objectively determining what prices should be.
SARTMA: With regard to the law, the people who subscribed to the Bentley-Walker service did so under the assumption that they could self supply as long as it was for them and for their own personal use. This was an interpretation by a previous Attorney General and this is why a lot of V-sat dishes went up. At the point of sale customers were told it was completely legal as long as it was used for the individual. All of a sudden, there was a new Attorney General and the interpretation changed. What happened?
CD: I havenít got the dossier in front of me and I canít comment on the specifics of the case but as I understand it the ordinance as it currently stands says that Cable & Wireless has an exclusive licence to provide public telecommunications services in the Falkland Islands and there are exemptions for the Crown and its agencies and the Crown would include the MOD or UK HM Forces, so if the Falkland Islands Government, for example, wanted to erect a V-Sat and supply its own internet services I think under the current law itís perfectly able to do so. As far as I understand it has chosen not to do so and it gets its services from Cable & Wireless.
Now, individuals who have their own V-Sat terminal from Bentley Walker or any other company and then make use of communications services are effectively being provided public telecommunications services as broadly defined. By that I mean services which constitute modern telecommunications that include internet services thus Bentley Walker or any other company would be acting to provide the public a service. And, itís quite clear that the law says that public telecommunications services in the Falklands are exclusively provided by Cable & Wireless. Perhaps what has happened is that while there was an individual interpretation of the law, it was then challenged by Cable & Wireless and the new Attorney General was of the view that the provision of self supply is a violation and that Bentley Walker or any other supplier is in breach of the ordinance and that they should immediately cease supply of the service or risk prosecution. And thatís how it stands.
Essentially, Bentley Walker, who were providing to a number of individuals resolved the problem by letting Cable & Wireless become an agent so they then retail Bentley Walker service. C&W can retail Irridium and are the agent and the relationship is between C&W again. I understand that since C&W took over the Bentley Walker service that the quality of the service has changed. I donít know whether thatís due to Cable & Wireless mismanagement or what or whether Bentley Walker has changed. I just donít know.
SARTMA: It seems as if Government have let Cable & Wireless get away with some pretty horrendous things.
CD: There hasnít been appropriate regulation. Thatís absolutely clear. I come back to the recommendations in my report and I stated quite clearly the need for annual reports to be submitted by Cable & Wireless. That doesnít happen. The financials provided by Cable & Wireless to the Government under the terms of the regulation at least more recently have slightly improved. And, I have to say that since I have been here the Company have shown a willingness to comply with various requests from Government, so we have a sense of the Companyís performance at least financially and in terms of traffic and volumes. But where I think things are sorely lacking is an objective assessment of their policy of service, which is by far the largest complaint I hear. It is not that people are paying too much but that the service is terrible and they resent paying for it. If they got a good service they would be willing to pay the money for it. The issue, really, is all about delivering a quality of service better than what they actually do. You are perfectly right. Government have thus far shown no real desire, or teeth to deal with this issue up until very recently. I think that is because pressure is so intense from various entities they are being pushed into doing something about it and they realise that phone users and internet users are voters and at the end of the day if they donít sort it out their political careers are at risk.
SARTMA: What about the technology? Is it responsible for some of the problems?
CD: One of the problems is that many services provided by Cable & Wireless are dependent on a satellite connection through the earth station in Stanley. Problems with the satellite or related equipment degrade the quality of the service. There is no back-up in place or any alternative dishes that point at other satellites that allows for emergency back-up or diversifying supply to improve the quality of service. I am not able to comment in an objective sense about what the statistics show because Cable & Wireless have not collated them and made them public.
SARTMA: Do you feel that this place is too small for Cable & Wireless to be filtering our outgoing messages for spam?
CD: Are they doing this?
SARTMA: Yes. I can show where several people have been sending messages to customers and clients religiously every night but they have gone nowhere and Cable & Wireless have not delivered them. They make them pay for uploading messages, however. Several incidents have been reported where Cable & Wireless initially refused to let people send technical information to Government, even though they either get payment in kind or have to send messages as a job requirement. They have to call clients and customers every time the spam filter is upgraded so the security settings on their computers can be lowered to allow such messages to come in. Is this good for a small community?
CD: I couldnít agree more. I am absolutely stunned to hear this. If individual spammers were a problem in the Falkland Islands, I would agree with Cable & Wireless. I have never come across that before and the notion your e-mails Ė your distribution list is impaired by their clearly inefficiently managed spamming filter is regrettable. There are two ways of resolving this. One is that we address it at Cable & Wireless and spend some time to sort the problem out. Of course we donít know how long it might take. Alternatively, the customer uses a different ISP and cease to use the mail service of the host ISP.
Spammers who are serious problems send out millions of messages to get people to buy fraudulent Viagra or something. What is going on is patently stupid and symptomatic of a deeper problem in the Cable & Wireless operation here. I get the distinct impression that while in some regards it appears to the managers in London that it is performing very well, they are only interested in counting the beans but in terms of what could be achieved out of this business and how it should be operated, I have never come across a body of customers so absolutely dissatisfied at the Service Provider Ė I mean, across the board there is anger.
Dr Doyle can only echo what he has heard across the board from a range of individuals Ė a large number of people who are complaining and this indicates to him that there are issues which need to be addressed.
The true bombshell, however, is that technical support from suppliers of the new telecommunications network in camp will dry up in 2011. The system will then become obsolete unless specific guarantees can be obtained from the suppliers to continue support. Added to this, the delayed demerger of Cable & Wireless has only been postponed due to the recession. This means it is possible that another entity will own the Cable & Wireless business here.
No doubt Dr Doyle will have his already busy hands full when he returns to the UK. We have confidence that he can come up with an equitable solution to problems with communications in the South Atlantic. People in other areas like St Helena and Ascension Island, where Dr Doyle is also an consultant working on telecommunications also hope for a solution that will be beneficial to all concerned.
Dr Doyle plans to come back to the Falklands in nine monthsí time.