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Technology for people, not just profit

/ 03:04 AM October 11, 2011

Two weekends ago, our phone’s long distance and Internet services suddenly got disconnected right at a time when we needed them most. My wife needed to return an urgent long distance call, but a recorded message said “The service you are requesting is not available at this time.”  I needed to e-mail my article for this column to the Inquirer, but my laptop’s browser told me: “You are not connected to the Internet.”

I knew what had happened. Because managing and paying for our household bills are things I’ve had to do myself, and because I was on travel when the bill came due, I missed paying my PLDT bill on time. What annoyed me was that I had already paid it two days earlier using my bank’s online bills payment service. But alas, banks take their sweet time—as much as three days—to credit the payment to the merchant payee even in this computer age when real time crediting is technologically possible. And so, the phone company’s system didn’t know I had already paid. With strict cutoff deadlines now apparently programmed into their computers, my service was cut off unceremoniously and abruptly. The exact same thing had just happened two months earlier. At that time, we also received an annoyingly threatening form letter from the phone company’s lawyers, obviously sent out—also automatically—by the company’s efficient computers.

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It had been a while since our phone services last got cut off, and only after about three months’ missed payments at the time. It wasn’t because of deliberate intent to evade payment, of course, but out of a confluence of bad luck (the bill gets misplaced before getting to me), bad timing (the bill arrives while I’m traveling out of town), and bad memory (paying the bill gets crowded out of my attention by more pressing concerns). I didn’t fault PLDT then; I suppose it is  entitled to cut anyone’s service after missing three months of payments for whatever reason. Lately, however, I am surprised at the promptness and abruptness with which a subscriber like me could get cut off with just one delayed payment, regardless of the amount owed or a subscriber’s track record. That this is indeed a new policy was confirmed to me by a lady officer who called me after I had texted and e-mailed one of the company’s top executives with my complaint. She confirmed that the system automatically implements the service cut once a particular cut-off date after a missed payment deadline was reached. I saw the futility in further talking to her when all she could do was to repeatedly parrot the same line, “I’m sorry, Sir, but it is company policy….” Well, it is the policy itself that I wanted to question and request flexibility on, I told her.  So it was clearly a matter out of her own hands, and all she could promise was to bring my concern to the attention of her superiors.

Coincidentally, an irate reader brought to my attention a similar question of the PLDT policy, with a strong request that I air the matter in my column on behalf of other small businesses like theirs, thereby prompting this article. Her issue concerns PLDT’s handling of the disruption of their phone and Internet service, which is central to their small Internet shop business. Here the service disruption was not out of delayed payment, but a technical problem that PLDT itself acknowledged. They reported the problem promptly and repeatedly starting July 22, yet the company insists that its “trouble history” records the start of service interruption as July 28. Hence, it will not offset her bill for the full duration of the actual absence of service, but only according to what PLDT insists its records indicate.

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But that’s a minor part of our reader’s complaint. More than that, she has asked to be compensated for losses incurred resulting from PLDT’s failure to deliver Internet services for 14 days, in the form of lost revenues, wages paid for (idled) workers, and loss of regular customers who had moved to other computer shops—a more difficult loss to recover. But again, all she has been getting is the standard line, “we only give rebates on the services that was not provided based from our trouble history (sic).” Shouldn’t PLDT, which urges people to go into the Internet shop business with attractive package deals on the needed equipment, take some responsibility for losses incurred by customers when it fails to deliver the Internet services that are the very heart of the business?  Our reader believes so. But PLDT appears to be taking a caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) stance, or as we often say, “bahala ka sa buhay mo” even when it has let you down.

There is a problem, it seems to me, with how certain big business interests, with all their access to the latest information technology, will only use it selectively to suit their goal of maximizing profits, at the expense of consumer welfare if need be. We know that the technology is capable of tracking customer payment histories to know who could merit more tolerance (i.e., higher credit limits) for delayed payments over others. The same technology permits the big banks to actually credit online bill payments to the accounts of their merchant clients immediately—but they do not because the few days “float” earns them large sums of money. And when the big guys, whether banks, telecom firms or others, are failed by their input suppliers (including technology providers), you can be sure they would demand compensation for their losses and bring people to court in the process.

Shouldn’t “leveling the playing field” include giving consumers and small businesses a fair shake?

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Consumer issues, internet, PLDT, Technology, Telecommunications
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