Getting connected to mobile phone and data services in most countries of the world is a simple matter of buying a SIM card, inserting it into your phone or mobile device, registering on the network and adding some calling credit.
The exception to the rule is Thailand where Thailand telcos do a fair impersonation of seven seas pirates and where the regulating body, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission of Thailand (NBTC), has become the butt of jokes over its failure to introduce meaningful consumer protection regulations and accountability, criticism of its 3G bandwidth auction, and where non-Thai speaking customers are treated as third-rate consumers not even deserving of English language support 24/7.
With ineffective and minuscule penalties, a system that allows decisions by the regulating body to be appealed and/ or undermined by an assortment of judicial processes and bodies – sometimes even before the regulator has itself ruled – and telcos structured so similarly in management and philosophy that the major players at times all seem to speak with a single voice and even bid identical amounts for 3G licences at a recent auction held by the NBTC and it begins to become clear why any discussion about telecommunication in Thailand is likely to result in boisterous laughter or see people almost develop a cerebral haemorrhage recounting their experiences.
However, that in recent years the words “Thailand telecommunications” has become a phrase in the region that invokes a similar response to those often quoted tautologous words “military intelligence” seems to mean little to the country’s telcos, their foreign parent partners ‚Äì or the bodies established to administer and regulate them.
For businesses with operations in Thailand or those who visit the country for business or pleasure, poor quality telecommunications, discriminatory support services, ineffective consumer protection and little sign Thailand telcos are moving towards AEC2015 language compliance are a source of constant complaint and frustration.
*Robert O’Sullivan, the marketing director for a large Hong Kong based manufacturer, says Thailand’s telecommunications seems to be getting worse, with extensive network over-loading, ineffective support systems, “really poor quality coverage and to much “mai pen rai” (lit. it doesn’t matter, no problems)”.
“In the past when visiting Thailand I used Dtac, whose major foreign investor is the giant Telenor Norway carrier, but the quality of coverage has been deteriorating with lots of black spots around Bangkok and appalling data transfer rates.
“Last trip I was sitting in a hotel in Sukhumvit 22 ‚Äì under this massive transmission tower with more aerials and antennas than a US Navy aircraft carrier ‚Äì and my internet speed was 0.03kps upload and 0.04kbps download.
“For three days I was on and off the phone with the Dtac call center and for three days across the city I was lucky if my data speed crawled into the low double digit range.
TrueMove truly awful
“On my most recent trip I walked into a phone shop and phoned the TrueMove service center, was told which SIM card to buy and was told to then register the SIM, charge it with Bt200 and then call back for a 70 hour internet package for Bt199 (about $US6.27).
“The SIM package itself is truly horrible. The package comprises four printed instruction panels for using the card and a small 16 page leaflet, with all except for one panel of the leaflet in Thai, with what is in English being totally uninformative.
“When I tried to register the SIM card it wouldn’t register, when I tried to phone the TrueMove customer support center to register the card first there was no credit on the card to enable this, and multiple attempts using the old Dtac SIM from the previous attempt resulted in calls that just presented recorded Thai language menu choices – all of which I was charged for.
“I then found out that in Thailand English language support by TrueMove is discontinued at 11pm and doesn’t resume again until 8am the following morning, while Thai speakers are provided support 24/7. I was under the impression that Thailand has laws that make discrimination illegal, but obviously discriminating on the basis of language isn’t included or cared about.
“The next morning when I finally managed to connect with TrueMove’s English-speaking call center I was confronted by two female operators with the English-language comprehension skills of a western 5-year-old, including one with a particularly annoying vocabulary that appended a guttural “yah” to the end of every sentence.”
No novice with coming to terms with various communications and power plug differences throughout the world, Mr O’Sullivan says Thailand is the only country globally where his “travel survival pack” of various, cords, plugs and adapters is unable to overcome any hurdle thrown at him and the one location in the region where “I would prefer to have unanaesthetised root-canal treatment than deal with the local telcos”.
“It’s really bizarre in Thailand. I purchased credit vouchers for the TrueMove SIM card but there are no instructions in English on either the vouchers or the SIM packaging that explain how to use them. I tried guessing from the various hints in Thai on the vouchers, but kept getting a system message saying my balance was zero.
“When the call centre finally opened I had an operator confirm the first voucher had been applied, but when I asked for the internet package I wanted I was told I had insufficient credit because more than Bt30 had been debited trying to contact the call center that morning.
“Then I was told I had to buy a TrueMove SIM card and aircard package if I didn’t want to use their terrible 3G system. The aircard I use is a multi-bandwidth model that works everywhere in the world – except with TrueMove in Thailand.
“I spent another Bt200 on Dtac credit on top of the money I had already wasted on purchasing the TrueMove SIM card and vouchers and for the last 41 hours of the business year still didn’t have working internet, despite having spent something like Bt500 (about $US15.76).
Neither TrueMove or Dtac suitable for visiting business travelers
I repeatedly asked the call center operators to speak with a customer service manager or the public relations manager and the call center staff repeatedly refused to connect me with anyone in TrueMove management.
At 4.30pm on December 28, the last business day of the year, I again phoned TrueMove and was told my internet was now working. There was no promised phone call from TrueMove to advise the problem had been fixed and coming in the final hours of the business year was particularly poor, given the amount of time and number of calls I made to them.
“I explained that I no longer needed the service as I was flying back to Hong Kong the next morning and was repeatedly told that I would not get a refund and “maybe we can set up roaming on the SIM card so you can use it in Hong Kong”.
“Why would I want to pay roaming charges on a phone number I don’t need when I have a perfectly professional and reliable carrier in Hong Kong?”, Mr O’Sullivan asked.
“I told the supervisor that I neither wanted nor needed the service, that in my opinion TrueMove had broken the law and taken my money under false pretenses, were in breach of the consumer affairs laws and that I wanted to speak to management. The request was greeted by silence, as was every other question I asked.
“To top it off the supervisor told me I was being unreasonable as TrueMove had fixed the problem and it had only taken 24 hours (actually 44 hours) to fix.
“Clearly TrueMove and Dtac are both not suitable for business travellers visiting Thailand who want reliable communications across Bangkok. On my next trip I’ll try another carrier but dreadful Dtac and truly awful TrueMove have seen the last of my money”, Mr O’Sullivan said.
ToT lost company’s ADSL for 26 days out of 60
*Scott Johnson, who formally ran a a small website design firm in the southern seaboard city of Pattaya said two instances last year when the national carrier, Telecommunications of Thailand (ToT) “lost” his ADSL signal for 12 days on one occasion and for 14 days a month later were enough for him to close his business in Thailand, terminate the 12 staff he had trained and move to Cambodia.
“I was on the phone every day [to the ToT call centre] and every day they said they would pass it to their engineers as an urgent job and every day nothing would happen. My staff would even phone them (ToT) and a couple went to the ToT Pattaya office but nothing was able to get our network restored”.
After 14 days of having staff sit around with nothing to do, on top of a 12 day period a month prior and the usual half-day and full-day periods of unavailability or painfully slow data rates in between, Mr Johnson closed his business and moved to Phnom Penh where 3G is cheap, available just about everywhere, and where English language support is “absolutely first rate”.
“I phoned ToT and told them to cancel our service – which they couldn’t supply anyway – but they continued to send accounts to our old address for six months after we had shut-down.
Twelve people lost their jobs purely and simply because telecommunications companies in Thailand can’t reliably provide the very product they are meant to provide and because there is no effective, efficient or policed code of practice.
“When I sought help from Thailand’s Ministry of Consumer Affairs it was three months before I even received an acknowledgment of the email I sent them.
“In Thailand the NBTC is a toothless tiger whose board members are more concerned with cosying up to the Telcos for the lavish gifts they bestow upon the commissioners than in protecting the rights of consumers, while foreign consumers have no rights at all”, Mr Johnson said.
Thailand telcos lavish NBTC gifts
There may indeed be some validity to the claims too. Earlier this year Thai media rights advocate, current vice-chair of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), and NBTC commissioner Supinya Klangnarong created a storm by detailing expensive gifts such as iPhones contained in a New Years gift basket supplied to her by a Thailand telco, which she refused, and calling for the NBTC to draw up a code of conduct on corporate gifts.
The iPhone 4GS with 64Gbyte of memory was in a gift basket that also contained a Buddha image, coffee and fruits and was just one of 21 expensive gifts including digital cameras and mobile phones that companies donated for lucky draws at last years NBTC New Year party.
Ms Supinya said the acceptance of such gifts might cause a conflict of interest and violate a regulation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) that prohibits a government official from receiving a gift worth more than Bt3,000 ($98). “This issue is serious and affects the ethical image of the organisation,” she added.
However, rather than being supported in her attempts to push for transparency at the national regulator, Ms Supinya was criticised by fellow NBTC commissioners with one, who asked not to be identified, saying at the time that he intended to raise her disclosure at the next board meeting and that the commission might resort to issuing a warning to Ms Supinya.
“Her non-creative disclosure about the gifts has severely damaged the reputation of the regulatory organisation,” he said. A commissioner’s decision to accept or reject a gift is within his or her ability to make and need not be publicised through the media.
Several other commissioners who also criticised Ms. Supinya’s disclosure of the lavish gifts, also requested anonymity.
However, within a week support inside the NBTC for a code of conduct had grown to include vice chairmen Settapong Malisuwan and Natee Sukonrat and commissioner Prawit Leesatapornwongsa culminating in an announcement last October by NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasit, that the Bt3,000 limit per item would be observed at the NBTC, who said “there had been criticism of the commission‚Äôs practice of receiving iPhones and iPads from telecoms companies during holiday festivals”.
NBTC heavily influenced by Thailand telcos
During the recent 3G licence auction – the country’s third attempt since 2005 to introduce a broad-based 3G service – Ms Suphinya was one of two commissioners who opposed the terms of the auction due to the lack of consumer protection attached to them, with Telecom Board commissioner Pravit Leesatapornwongsa voting against accepting the auction results, claiming the NBTC was heavily influenced by the operators, who were now becoming more and more blatant in their actions.
On December 12 the Bangkok Post reported commissioner Prawit as saying Thailand mobile operators must no longer set an expiration date for prepaid mobile service or face a fine of Bt100,000 ($3,270) a day, in compliance with a law enacted in 2006!
Thailand’s pre-paid mobile service providers had appealed provisions of the Telecom Service Regulation Act of 2006 which prohibits prepaid refill cards from expiring, a legal strategy that has reaped the service providers billions of baht in expired pre-paid credit, whole at the same time forcing consumers to spend more if they wanted to continue using the service after the validity date expired.
Thailand’s Central Administrative Court last month ruled against an appeal filed by TrueMove against the NBTC for attempting to enforcing the law, though no change appears to have occurred with pre-paid refills still being acknowledged by Thailand telcos with a credit expiry date SMS.
While large network failures such as two by Dtac last year which saw some 4.5 million mobile subscribers taken off the air due to claimed equipment malfunction that resulted in Dtac being fined Bt10 million ($327,000) capture local media attention, it is the number and frequency of much smaller periods and numbers of subscribers being affected with little resources to reach out to for support that is impacting Thailand industry the most. ( Continues… )
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Hold the phone, Thailand telcos “worse than unanaesthetised root-canal”,
He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post
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