Friday, August 28, 2009

The SmarTalk Scam

It is a basic axiom in consumerism and in the field of consumer rights protection that if a consumer product or service is being offered to the public under terms "too good to be true" then it most probably is.

When I first heard, over a month ago, of the new unlimited calling service (for both pre-paid and post-paid subscriptions) being offered to its customers by Smart Communications Inc., the first thing that came to my mind was that Smart company executives have finally succumbed to a sudden collective fit of conscience after years of fleecing millions of Filipinos who like me who are virtual slaves to their cellphones and have decided to atone for their greed . At last, here was the chance to do away with onerous texting or SMS and finally get used to the luxury of just picking up your mobile phone and talk the hours away with your contacts (wherever they may be in the country) while avoiding penury and destitution at the same time.

The mechanics of the new calling promo was simple enough. Have your prepaid subscription registered by texting TALK100 (P100 for 5 days of unlimited calls) or TALK500 (P500 for 30 days) to 6400. The SmarTalk packages can also be purchased as special pre-paid loads from Smart load retailers. Post-paid subscribers can also register for the service and get the call package costs added to their monthly bills or buy them like pre-paid subscribers also from load retailers.

To make calls under the service, all one had to do was dial *6400 then add the 11 digit mobile Smart or Talk and Text number. The promo was supposed to last until the end of September next month.

When I first availed of the service in early July, I was initially pleasantly surprised with the ease with which one can register for the service and how quickly my calls got connected. Voice quality and clarity were much better than I expected and I felt then that Smart had finally done something good for its customers for a change instead of being constantly accused of stealing pre-paid load credits or overcharging its subscribers.

But as the days passed by I began to notice certain problems with the SmarTalk service. It became increasingly hard for those itching to register their phones to access the 6400 number. Load retailers began reporting similar difficulties registering customers even for the Talk500 package. Then connecting with one's calls using the service became a nightmare as dialed numbers immediately become disconnected or rejected with the ubiquitous "network busy" notification.

For the many Smart subscribers like me in Lianga who have become essentially addicted to unlimited calls, placing calls especially in the evening became a marathon of continuous dialing for long periods of time in the hope of getting lucky and being able to place a call. I also know of Smart mobile phone users who tried getting up in the wee hours of the morning in order to better their chances of being able to register for the promo and wasted a good night's sleep with nothing to show for it.

For Smart Communications Inc. to say that the unexpected and overwhelming response to the SmarTalk promo was the primary reason for the overloading of their systems and the cause of the resulting connection problems is simply bullshit of the highest degree. They knew the promo was going to be popular and should have anticipated the deluge of subscribers eager to use the service. The company could not have conceived and implemented SmarTalk without preliminary market studies and projections with regards to the capability of their systems to accommodate the anticipated increase in caller traffic.

What is crystal clear here is a blatantly devious attempt to lure additional new subscribers to the Smart brand by offering an overwhelmingly attractive new product and service that the company, with evident foreknowledge, could not, in reality and in the long term, continue to provide and support to their customers' satisfaction. In plain and simple terms, we were screwed by Smart once again. Mama mia!

Several days ago, I called up the company's customer service hot line to make a formal complaint regarding my connection problems with the SmarTalk service. The service representative, all oil and consolation, profusely apologized for my predicament and blamed the "overwhelming response" to the promo
(that phrase once again!) as the root of the flood of customer complaints like mine.

When I asked for advice on how to improve my chances of being able to connect with my calls while using SmarTalk, he did offer me one suggestion. "Try calling between 11 PM and 4 AM, " he said, "Your call should have more chances of getting through."

Talk about frustration and aggravation. If my blood pressure had not risen up by 10 points ( it still does every time I recall that specific conversation), I could have just simply thrown up my hands and laughed at the great absurdity of it all.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


News reports on the piteous situation of the more than 1000 displaced mountain villagers who have fled their homes in the hinterlands of the municipalities of Lianga and San Agustin in Surigao del Sur and who now call the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Tandag, the provincial capital, their temporary home continues to occupy space in the print media and in many Internet news sites. The "bakwits" (a derivation of the Bisayan word bakwit which literally means to evacuate or flee), as the evacuees like to call themselves, have accused government soldiers belonging to the 58th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army of forcibly occupying their villages and harassing local residents who the military suspects are supporters of the communist New People's Army.

I have written several posts already on this subject but the situation in Tandag does provide an opportunity to focus some much needed attention on the so called local "indigenous peoples" and their bitter history of being constantly caught in the crossfire of the decades old counterinsurgency war between the Philippine government and the revolutionary left.

The term "lumad" has been used to describe the Tandag evacuees. Other news reports cite them as belonging to the Manobo tribe which is a major ethnic minority in the Caraga region and Surigao del Sur area. Lumad, of course, is a Bisayan term which means "native" or "indigenous" and, as used in the local terminology, encompasses or includes most if not all of the non-Muslim and non-Christian ethnic peoples native to Mindanao and descended from Austronesian stock. The Manobos are, therefore, lumads of the first order.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kansilad Bound

Once again, for those interested or planning to go to Lianga and the Kansilad Beach Resort for the coming weekend or a few days of sun, sea and surf, here's the way to get there from Butuan City which is actually the closest urban center with port and air carrier facilities.

Using your own private vehicle would be the ideal since Lianga is over 120 kilometers east of that city. But public transportation is available and, in most cases, thoroughly reliable. Buses leave the Butuan bus terminal on an almost hourly basis but, if one is a first timer, making sure one does get eventually to Lianga means knowing where to go and how to get there.

By bus, the direct, no fuss route to Lianga means taking the buses bound for Tandag (the provincial capital of Surigao del Sur province). The two to three hour journey takes you through the western edge of Agusan del Norte into Agusan del Sur where the major stop is San Francisco town which is at the crossroads of the main highway going separately to Lianga and Davao City (some almost 200 kilometers away).

Those unable to get on the Tandag bus in Butuan can take the Davao bound trips, get off at San Francisco and take the smaller buses and jeepneys there which service the Lianga and San Francisco area. Tandag bound buses from Davao are also available if your timing is lucky.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Signs Of The Times

Even at this stage in time, with politicians and would be politicos eager to run for public office in the 2010 local and national elections eying the period for the submission of submission of certificates of candidacy in November of this year, there are still a lot of Filipinos who have the lingering fear that the elections may not push through as scheduled. This is, of course, in view of what they suspect as veiled attempts by the political allies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to find ways to postpone or derail next year's elections so as to the extend GMA's term of office.

They also dread the political chaos and uncertainty that may result from the possibility that, through the much maligned and widely discredited charter change movement (whether of the Cha-Cha or Con-Ass variety), the same cohorts may be able to remove the constitutional prohibitions in the 1987 Constitution that would allow her to run again for reelection in May 2010 and possibly serve another six years as head of state.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Real Score

The transfer, last week, of some almost two thousand evacuees who have been occupying the Lianga municipal gymnasium to the Diocese Pastoral Center in Tandag, the provincial capital of Surigao del Sur, some 89 kilometers north of Lianga must have caused this town's officials to heave a huge sigh of relief. The evacuees, who were from several mountain villages in the hinterlands of Lianga and its sister municipality of San Agustin, have cited the unwelcome and destabilizing entry of government troops and armed paramilitary forces in their communities as the reason for leaving their homes.

In the more than three weeks that they have occupied the municipal gym, the Lianga town government has been in quandary as to how to feed, shelter and provide for the basic needs of the evacuees, most of them women and children. The move to Tandag has apparently taken care of that dilemma and, in view of the fast approaching annual commemoration of the town fiesta on August 15, a quick and timely solution to what was fast becoming a desperate humanitarian crisis far beyond the capability of this town to handle.

As the problem of taking care of the evacuees passed from the hands of Lianga's municipal officials to the Catholic diocese of Tandag (which operates the pastoral center), the propaganda war between local military forces and non-governmental organizations said to be speaking for the displaced mountain villagers has escalated. The Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP) and Ecumenical Mission for Peace and Development (EMPD), both church based NGO's have called upon government troops belonging to the 58th Infantry Battalion under Lt. Col. Benjamin Pedralvez Jr. to leave the affected villages. Both organizations have claimed that the presence of soldiers in these villages has "disrupted the lives and livelihoods" of the indigenous peoples living in these remote settlements straddling the municipal boundaries of Lianga and San Agustin.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Carrying On

One cannot be emotionally moved and affected by the massive outpouring of sympathy and sorrow in this country and all over the world over the death of Corazon Aquino. As I watch the television coverage of the wake at La Salle Greenhills Gym in Mandaluyong and the procession that transferred her remains to the Manila Cathedral in preparation for the funeral mass on Wednesday, I was simply astounded at the massive crowds that braved the unpredictable weather in order to giver their last respects to the former president and icon of the EDSA people power movement of 1986.

There is no doubt that the death of Cory Aquino last August 1 from the complications of colon cancer had touched something deep within the psyche of many Filipinos, even those who did take part in EDSA 1 or were born after that historic event. It is that part within our collective consciousness that recognizes instinctively the singular greatness of a life virtuously and exceptionally lived through decades of often selfless dedication to the service of others and the country.

Cory had always described herself as an "ordinary housewife" forced by circumstance and the tragic 1983 assassination of her husband and opposition leader, Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, to become the symbol of the Filipino's dream and yearning for a return to democracy during the dark and turbulent years of the Marcos dictatorship. To the surprise of many, most especially Ferdinand Marcos, millions of Filipinos quickly felt an almost mystical, emotional resonance with her and began to identify themselves with her in the almost quixotic quest to topple down an authoritarian regime that had lasted already for almost two decades.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Category Of Her Own

This morning as I turned on the television set to watch the morning news, I was immediately hit by the report that former president, Cory Aquino, had passed away at 3:18 AM at the Makati Medical Center where she had been confined for some time now during the final stages of her long and courageous battle against colon cancer.

As I watch the video images of this unfolding news event, I thought that I would not be affected emotionally by the event of her death. In many ways I have become, over the many years, rather cynical, if not downright skeptical, about Philippine politics in general and Filipino politicians in particular.

But Cory, as a person and, yes, as a politician (how can she not be one when she had, in essence, led a bloodless revolution that toppled a totalitarian regime and then assumed the leadership of her country during one of the most tumultuous periods of its history) belongs to a category of her own. She was no ordinary political leader, she was, well, Cory Aquino and the unlikely bearer of the torch passed on to her by her martyred husband, the charismatic Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino who, for the many of us raised during the turmoil of the Marcos dictatorship, had come to symbolize the Filipino nation's desperate yearning for a return to democracy and political pluralism.

Others could have been crushed if not corrupted by the adulation, sympathy and respect millions bestowed upon her upon the assassination of her husband in 1983 but she remained as she had always been - strong, steadfast, deeply religious and humble. It was precisely these attributes that eventually made her a credible, effective symbol and icon of the non-violent, people power revolution that galvanized and electrified the whole world in 1986.