Hold the phone, Thailand telcos “worse than unanaesthetised root-canal”

Hold the phone, Thailand telcos “worse than unanaesthetised root-canal”
Online English lessons Phnom Penh Tutors 1

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 ‚ 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‚ under this massive transmission tower with more aerials and antennas than a US Navy aircraft carrier, 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

TrueMove Sim package no English language and support from 8am to 11pm only
TrueMove SIM package no English language and support from 8am to 11pm only. Photo: John Le Fevre

“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.

Non Thai speaking users getting little help with TrueMove's recharge vouchers with instructions in Thai language only
Non Thai speaking users get little help with TrueMove’s recharge vouchers with instructions in Thai language only. Photo: John Le Fevre

“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

Running new telephone or data cables in Thailand.
Running new telephone or data cables in Thailand. Photo: John Le Fevre

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.

NBTC commissioner Supinya Klangnarong refused to accept an iPhone from a Thailand telco
NBTC commissioner Supinya Klangnarong refused to accept an iPhone from a Thailand telco. Photo: Courtesy Deutsche Welle

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’s 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.

“Thailand telecos are pretty crap”

*Alison Jones runs a successful online mail-order business from Bangkok, but says the deteriorating quality of telecommunications services in Thailand means that in 2013 she’ll move her business to neighbouring Cambodia, resulting in the six people who currently work for her losing their jobs.

“We’ve tried ToT, CAT (Communications Authority of Thailand), TrueMove, AIS and Dtac and found all to be totally crap, to be perfectly blunt, with service levels below what many third-world countries deliver.

“Before we moved into new offices earlier this year my staff checked on the availability of internet services for the premises we were looking at and were advised by TrueMove that a high-speed ADSL connection was possible.

“We moved into the premises and when the technician came along he wanted extra money for work we were told was included, charged extra money for work he didn’t do and after he had finished and left we found we had no telephone or fax service because of the way he did the work.

“It took two days to get a technician back to repair the problem, and visits by five different technicians over three weeks before we had stable internet, and then only a maximum speed of 5Mbps “because you are a long way from the exchange and the equipment is very old and not due to be upgraded for another two years””.

“If you manage to elicit a response at all from the NBTC it comes months later in the format of a questionnaire asking for all the pertinent – and usually not documented – details of the complaint.

“What they really need is a question with a check box for “the entire service is crap”, the faults occur with such frequency I can’t keep up with documenting them and I begin to understand why people go postal”, Ms Jones quipped.

Thai consumers are equally disgruntled with irregular telecommunications services, with many saying the time and costs associated with complaining often have such little affect on how soon a fault is rectified that many no longer bother complaining.

Thailand telcos lead region in ARPU

No explanation of terms & conditions of packages on TrueMove's website
No explanation of terms & conditions of packages in English on TrueMove’s website

Providing almost penalty-free poor service is profitable though, with Thailand telcos leading others in the region in the ARPU (average revenue per user) they generate per month.

According to the NBTC the blended ARPU for mobile post-paid and pre-paid services in Thailand for 2012 was around $7.10, compared with $4 – 5 in Laos and Vietnam, $3.80 in Indonesia and between $2-3 in Cambodia – all of which already have broad-based 3G networks.

There is currently more than 3.39 million broadband subscribers in Thailand, while the number of mobile subscribers in Thailand stands at more than 77.7 million (AIS 34.8 million; Dtac 23.6 million; TrueMove / True Corp 19.3 million), representing a penetration rate in excess of 100 per cent.

While 2012 might have been designated “the year of speaking English” in Thailand, it seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears with Thailand telcos appearing to be actively ignore the approach of the Asean Economic Community in 2015 (AEC2015) which specifies English as the universal language for use across the region.

While Dtac, TrueMove and AIS both have versions of their websites in English, in the case of TrueMove, the “truly awful” tag applied by Mr O’Sullivan delves to even greater depths.

On the surface the TrueMove website appears to offer some quality, however, a couple of mouse clicks brings this impression to an end, with essential information and terms and conditions relating to products and charges only available in Thai language, and posted online as JPEG images preventing the text from being copied and translated online with applications such as Google Translate.

Little English language on Thailand's NBTC website
Little English language on Thailand’s NBTC website

A quick Google search or check of any of the numerous discussion forums dedicated to Thailand also easily finds no shortage of complaints about poor quality telecommunications services in Thailand.

Photo-journ.com attempted to speak with Dtac and TrueMove customer relations managers and call center supervisors at different times over several days, but on each occasion were told that their were no supervisors available.

Promises from TrueMove and Dtac call centre staff to have a supervisor or manager return our call never eventuated, while telephone calls to Thailand’s Ministry of Consumer Affairs went unanswered.

Attempts to circumvent the TrueMove call centre also resulted in no success, with the landline telephone numbers displayed on the TrueMove website also proving to be non-current, with both of these issues being a common complaint voiced by everyone interviewed for this article.

According to Mr O’Sullivan, “a problem in Thailand is that no one wants to accept responsibility or “ownership” for anything. Call centre staff are arrogant and refuse to escalate complaint calls to management.

“When customers complain Thailand telco call centre staff invent any excuse they can think of to deflect blame for the situation, even if those explanations lack any basis of fact to support them.

“Inevitably it’s the consumer who is blamed for the problem, while foreigners, who tend to complain the most, are considered unreasonable for expecting the performance promised for the money paid.

As far as compensation for poor quality Thailand telecommunications services go, forget about it‚ I doubt that the word “compensation” exists in the Thai lexicon, Mr O’Sullivan said.


*Names changed at the request of the interviewees



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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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