Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sri Lanka diary #1. My fruitless attempts to arrange mobile internet service

Sunday July 11,

Even for a frequent visitor, adjusting to Sri Lanka’s different rhythms and culture of efficiency does not happen at once. When we disembarked from the plane and walked down the corridor to the arrivals hall, we were greeted by a succession of six foot high posters advertising the “Luxury Train Service to Colombo.” The journey would take only half an hour. Tickets would be available at the counter in the arrivals lounge.

Before passport control, there was a new “Information Desk” staffed by three attractive young women. I stopped to express my delight about the new service, the early fulfillment of a promise in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifesto, The Mahinda Chintana (sayings of Mahinda). The women looked puzzled when I asked for details. They seemed unfamiliar with the new service or even that it had been announced. Presently, they told me, there was only one train, which departed at 7AM ach morning. It was not clear the posters were announcing future service, rather than service presently available, but that was the case. I could find no counter with information about luxury train service in the Arrivals Lounge.

However I was pleased to see that there was a counter advertising plug in mobile internet service. I was hoping this would be available, enabling me to avoid the predatory pricing that the AT&T iPhone monopoly imposes on international travelers. Thanks to AT&T, I must already carry a separate mobile phone when traveling internationally, in order to receive reasonably priced service from a local carrier, however iPhone internet connectivity in Singapore, while expensive, is priced reasonably enough that I avoid a separate PDA. I only have to carry a separate cell phone. Not so in Sri Lanka. My carrier in Sri Lanka, Dialog GSM had a reasonably priced contract and I gladly signed up. ...But to be certain before leaving the counter, I decided to check out the service on my computer. It didn’t work, perhaps because my computer is a MacIntosh - they are rarely used in Sri Lanka - who knows? On my last trip I had borrowed a plug in from a friend and used it without difficulty. After working for an hour with the Dialog GSM technician/salesperson we had to give up. I was going to be late to a dinner party at which I was the guest of honor. The technician suggested that I try the Dialog GSM main office in Colombo in the morning where expert assistance would be available.

The next morning I did try. After a brief wait, I sat across from the technician who was to help me - but he had no help to offer. After I explained my problem he told me that neither he or anyone and the Dialog GSM main office knew anything about MacIntosh computers. His suggestion was that I drive across town to another office where assistance for Apple computers might be available. Then he might be able to sell me the service. What struck me most about our exchange was his apparent indifference to whether or not I received the service his company was in business to provide. I like to think he may have been exception among Dialog GSM Sri Lanka employees. His colleague at the airport, under far more stressful conditions, with other customers waiting, made a good faith effort to help.

Dialog GSM’s competitor, Mobitel, was worse. In the hope that they might offer software more compatible with MacIntosh I walked down the street to their office, which, upon entering seemed depressingly down at the heels. Like Dialog GSM, the office had a “customer service” desk and several technicians in cubicles. The customer service desk was unmanned. I stood there for several minutes, thinking the responsible staff member might have stepped out to the rest room or for a tea break. No one came. Finally I decided that AT&T’s preditor-priced monopoly iPod service for international travelers was my only Sri Lankan option, at least for this trip. Using email frugally and eating the exorbitant costs incurred would be my only option.

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