Ending the redundancy in the economy: a tale of addresses

What is the relevance of a ‘proof’ of address in the current world? With the advent of mobility, especially in communication, where you supposedly ‘live’ is of less importance than it once was. More generally, your ‘home’ may be one of several places where you may be found, regularly. Many people spend more hours daily in their offices and may feel that there is more likelihood of that location remaining fixed than their current residence. For that reason, many people put their office location as their address. To the extent that is done consistently, then the office address will be the one that is used whenever ‘proof of address’ is sought, but few, if any live at the office–despite claims to the contrary when hours at work become an issue in personal relationships. At best, ‘proof of address’ proves somewhere to which certain documents may be sent, maybe on a regular basis. Yet, for sure, I have a proof of address for somewhere where a document has never been sent.

Jamaica is one of those places (and they are plentiful in the Caribbean) that puts much store in ‘proving’ where you live. It goes to many lengths to get this ‘fact’ established. But, it’s of little true meaning. Yet, I had a testing time with it, recently, as I tried to transact something quite simple that seemed to get unnecessarily complicated.

I was excited at the prospect of moving my mobile service number from Flow to Digicel: enough had become enough. As with grades, a move from an F to a D was progress. (We’ve had number portability in Jamaica since June 1 2015, but many people are still unaware. Simply, you can port mobile or fixed-line numbers, but only within a service category, not between services, so no mobile to fixed, for instance.)

Digicel, like many companies in Jamaica, request proof of address, so they asked me to go through this loop. I’m a special case, but I easily highlight much of the meaninglessness of such requests. The normal ‘proof’ requested is a combination of utility bills, or government IDs, or letter from certain categories of people (JPs, Ministers of religion, or police officers–we can argue about that listing).

Now, it’s obvious that one can consume the utility services but not be the person whose name appears on the bill. That is a matter of personal financial arrangements in many households. It’s also the case that one can consume other services at an address, but this is (arbitrarily) not regarded in the same light (no pun intended) as a utility bill. If you have regular service of a pool, or use a gardening service, it would be clear how that goes.

I pointed out, somewhat facetiously, that being an atheist, with no contact with either policemen or JPs who could vouch for my residence, having moved my power source to solar, taking water from my well, and using small amounts of bottled gas or coal to cook, I had none of certain utility bill proofs. But, I had my local driver’s licence and my voter ID card, so why were they not sufficient, given that they vouched for me as a person (with my TRN) and location (as the voters registration involves a visit to my stated place of abode)? The reply was not at all convincing. I wont bore you with the iterations. I went off in irritation.

More frustrating was the fact that I had been a Digicel mobile customer for several years, my address for them was the same as on my government IDs, and my payment record was known and exemplary–I clear my bills on time each month. So, for what logical reason would I need to provide additional proof of address? The replies remained unconvincing.

The real concern, it seems, with their opening a post-paid account–which is really allowing customers to live on credit–is ability to pay. But, the so-called ‘proof’ offers no such guarantees. If we assumed that they had interest in coming to visit, to check out what living conditions were like, then I’m still not sure that the ‘proof’ really helped, as one could easily arrange to be there just for the visit. (That same concern applies for registering one’s voter ID, but I will not walk that path, today.)

Many people, feeling that ‘pay-as-you-go’ phone services are better and cheaper for them, go the pre-paid mobile phone route. Many people who cannot, or do not want to, provide a set of (accepted) proofs of address, also go the pre-paid route. The risk is that in an emergency or other unforeseen situation, one could be without credit or access to data. But, that’s a personal choice, with the attendant risks. (Increasingly, in a world where free wi-fi access is the norm, this latter concern matters less.) I prefer to know that I have continuous mobile service at all times. But, that’s a side issue in the story of ‘proving’ where I live.

I could not go through the loops to the satisfaction of the agent I was dealing with. I pointed out the impossibility of my meeting the conditions, and the absurdity of asking for this proof from someone who was already a customer. His stumbling block was that my bill from the competitor mobile provider had a different address. But, budge he would not. I left. This non-movement struck me as stubborn stupidity. Why would it matter what address I had on the other service, when I am coming to you for service, and you already have my address?

I went to another point of contact, and engaged Digicel in a ‘conversation’ on Twitter. They sent me a list of possible solutionsscreen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-35-34-am and assured me that what I had offered was sufficient. Emboldened, I went back to the Digicel branch to start the process again. I had offered bank/credit card statements, but Jamaican institutions seem to not understand that foreign financial institutions can have valid Jamaican addresses.screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-51-45-am So, my statements from my US bank and American Express, both of which carry my Jamaican address, were rejected. My head would have been hurting had it not been for the fact that I have it full of common sense (rather than red cents?).

When I got back to the branch, the supervisor got involved. She told her junior that all that I had offered was indeed accepted, especially as the government IDs had addresses that matched the Digicel bill. Yeah!

But, I also mentioned my exceptional situation, which I had pointed out to the junior in my first visit: I have a diplomatic ID card (without an address), but that puts me into a different category, where the ‘proofs’ of address are not necessarily required. (I was asked for a letter from my ’embassy’, but I pointed out that the ‘ambassador’ was my wife, and that this seemed to be weak proof of anything except love. The point did not seem to register. Anyway, I said, no such thing would be requested, as it was utterly senseless.)

But, why should one have to be so stubborn in not accepting seeming foolishness to get to a point of sense?

So, the port request was submitted and…it did not go through! Well, that seemed to be down to some technical issues that Flow had. I’m not going into the conversation I had with a Flow contact centre agent, who told me that I ‘needed’ to visit a store to have the technical problem dealt with. I was stern and said that as I was not the cause of the technical problem, I did not see how my going anywhere could be the solution. The agent repeated the need, and said that she had given me an ‘explanation’. Sorry! I pointed out that nothing had been explained. The line went dead for several minutes. She came back and repeated her statement. My position didn’t change, and I suggested that maybe some departments within Flow needed to talk to each other, and someone call me when the problem was resolved. She said that would not happen. I said ‘goodbye’. (Interestingly, when I had a technical problem with my UK bank earlier in the week, they had done as I now suggested, and gotten some departments to resolve the problem and call me back.) I raised the issue with Flow on Twitter.  I did not bore them with the details, merely that porting was not happening. They promised to check: screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-53-20-am

That was at about 2pm. By about 6pm matters had been resolved. screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-56-55-amI was ready to be ported. I asked Scotty to beam me up on to the Starship Digicel and move at warp speed away from my ‘abusive’ relation. They did.

It’s early days in my new relation with an old partner, and it seems to be going smoothly.

But, there are serious economic implications in this simple little story. This kind of ‘saga’ happens often, in Jamaica. During the day, I had been with a friend (also a male spouse on a diplomatic assignment), who had gone through the same loops. He related how in a south-east Asian country the process had not been needed, and the whole transaction took a few minutes, and not the hour that seemed to be the norm–in part because the Asian country keyed information into a computer, when the Jamaican style was to hand write details.

Here’s the kicker in my story. I have just moved. The ‘proofs’ of address definitely do not prove where I live. However, I am now in another Catch-22 loop, where I need to provide proofs of my new address to be able to have my old addresses changed. I hope I don’t have to spell out how that cannot happen 🙂

This search for proof of address redundant! This search for proof of address is largely meaningless. It’s a bureaucratic loop that satisfies some checks but offers little of real significance. Yet, it consumes time and energy and in that way is a drag on the economy. I do not expect the Economic Growth Council to solve this sort of problem, but it may be useful for them to think about things like this as yet another strand of red tape that binds us.

The institutions need to think about what it is they really need, such as proof of ability to pay, which may be more difficult, but it is certainly pertinent.

Take your marks…Digicel puts on its knuckledusters and lands a hit on LIME’s head at Champs

Telecommunications are not everything, but they are an increasingly important part of modern life. Access to the Internet and availability of celluar telephone services have created opportunities for billions of people worldwide, even though they may still lack many of the basics of a decent life. So, it’s not odd anymore to find a remote village, that may have no drinking water, poor roads, poor sanitation, but excellent cellular services that can permit connections to places that have those things in abundance. Modern telecommunications have not made the world equal, but they have done a lot to even out the ‘playing field’.

So, it’s no great surprise, either, that those who play on that pitch will be like many who have to compete, and play to win.

Jamaica, and the Caribbean in general, are not known for wars, but they are also not known as a region of pure peace and love, especially over the small but important markets that people’s incomes create.

We have three telecoms giants. First, LIME (formerly Cable and Wireless; long-established and often representative of the region’s coloinal past; often reviled, but working on changing that), who operated mainly in land-line and cellular telephones. Second, we have Digicel (upstart from Ireland, bringing in fresh ideas and aggressive competition, befitting of a nation that loves to play Hurling and people well used to being hit on the head with a shellilagh),Hurling operating largely in the area of cellular telephones. Third, we have Flow (Columbus Communication; owned by Jamaican-Chinese billionaire Michael Lee-Chin, and incorporated in Barbados), operating mainly in cable-based services that cover Internet, television, and telephone offerings.

They’ve been duking it out for a good few years now, since the various national markets moved to telecoms deregulation in the late 1990s/early 2000s. So, the nice monopoly position that Cable and Wireless used to have across the region was quickly whittled away. The competition brought many benefits in the form of readier access to mobile phones, wider service access, and competitive pricing.

To me, it’s not really important who had the lead in any one area, as the technology lends itself to seepage, in that, each provider can creep over into another’s area of apparent superiority. However, the lines of demarcation started to disappear recently in notable ways. First, Digicel moved into the area of television content by acquiring a regional sports broadcaster, SportsMax. Then, LIME announced that it would merge with Flow, which was a move of such disruptive nature that it was hard to see what the new merged entity would not have control over. Digicel, understandably, did more than flinch. It shook furiously and started to bare its teeth.

There’s a lot of bluster that comes out in the face of competition, so I’m not going to touch the verbal posturing that has been going on for a few months, with Digicel crying foul, and LIME/Flow saying that they played the ball cleanly, and it’s a ‘man’s game’, so ‘suck it up’. But, like with all competitive sport, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

We’ve seen the ‘marshalling of troops’ going on in Jamaica with the recruitment of ‘soldiers’ who are well-known in the arenas of sport and entertainment, two massive markets in terms of popular interest and passion.

So, for simplicity sake, we have Usain Bolt, near demi-god in the world of athletics, and a long-time Digicel ambassador. Add to that, Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce, his female near-counterpart. Add to that new potental mega-star, Tessanne Chin. Similar, ‘capturing’ of stars goes on across the region.

LIME, by contrast, recruited singer Konshens, and all-round super-talent and recently former beauty queen, Dr. Sara Lawrence (a former Miss Jamaica and also a gynacologist).

How much of this capturing of talent and brand association matters can be a subject to debate. But, it goes on, and like many things, if you don’t participate, you miust lose.

LIME and Digicel make themselves popular by also being the main sponsors of a range of cultural, sporting, and popular events. Such associations are often seen as win-win investments, with brand association with goodwill being very important in countries where funding is always a problem. Digicel is well associated with West Indies cricket–a twisted fork, if ever there was one.

In that vein, however, LIME seemed to have put a lock on one of the most important pieces of Jamaica’s heart by being a main sponsor (along with Grace Kennedy) of the ISSA (Inter-Secondary Schools Association) annual boys and girls high school athletics championships (‘Champs’). Champs is not for chumps, and its clear position as the best conveyor belt in the world of some of the most spectacular young track and field talent is clear.

LIME is Champs. But, wait. In what is not normally a contact sport, some serious fouls were being committed. During the latest edition of Champs, just ended last night, Digicel decided to put on knuckledusters and go after LIME.

First, Digicel did a little being of naughty guerrilla marketing, associating its name with the event in a way that made it seem that they were really at its heart. Take a look at one of the images on its Instagram page.

This was not so clear, in that, it mixed nice snappy pictures of Champs alongside well-curated images of school athletes along with a brand message. However, ISSA smelled the rat and put out a warning against ‘unauthorized’ use of images from Champs. Interestingly, some of the potentially offending images now seem to have been pulled from the Internet. But, the story is not straight-forward, given that Digicel-affiliated media outlets (Loop and SportsMax) were not given official accreditation by ISSA for Champs.

But, Digicel could seem like good citizens by listening to ISSA–“Yes, sir, you’re right…It won’t happen again.” But, fingers were crossed behind the back. Digicel had bigger fish on the fire. One major star was living up to his billing. Young Michael O’Hara was winning, and winning well, and doing it in multiple events, and had the seal already of Champs sponsors, Grace Kennedy, who had given him a scholarship.

But, the boy was no one’s brand ambassador. Yet. As he passed the finishing line in the 200 meters final for class 1 boys that changed in a flash.

Michael O'Hara: chest for sale
Michael O’Hara: chest for sale

He donned a new vest with the words ‘Be extraordinary’, a Digicel brand message, right there in front of all the viewers in the stadium, but more importnatly in front of all the television eyes in Jamaica. It was also on any screen that was watching live online, and it would stay on any footage of the end of that race.

Digicel formally ‘announced’ their new brand ambassador in a series of adverts soon after. Timing is everything, but “Just win, baby!”

Hail, Michael!
Hail, Michael! Next in line to follow Bolt?

How O’Hara was not snared by LIME will be a story to follow in coming days. The initial reports are that he refused their offers. Now, I want to see if ISSA have sanctions ready for him for the manner of his unveiling or the manner in which he was ‘tempted’.

The issue of whether the proposed merger of LIME/Flow gets the go-ahead is being guided throuigh each of the national jurisdictions. So far, it’s getting nods of approval. But, it’s clear that a serious fight is on. How bloody will it be? It’s hard to say. Will the consumers really win in terms of service and competitition? I’m inclined to say yes. Will everyone be happy and get into a few verses of Kumbayaa? You must be mad.

LIME have pumped and are pumping millions of dollars into Champs and events leading up to it (as they are doing with a range of sports). That’s not a trivial investment, for them as a brand, but also for those who benefit from it. It’s not rocket science to figure that they cannot afford, literally, for that to be undone by either advertising theatrics, confused messages, or other media coups by a major rival. But, what to do? Take the high ground, and move on, regardless? Look for ways to retaliate? The market if full of fickle folk.

Downtown revival: make the rewards outstrip the risks

Digicel organized its second annual nighttime 5k run/walk in downtown Kingston this past weekend. My daughter and I were among the 7200 participants who walked or ran, after paying our J$1000 entry fee. The number of entrants was some 2000 than the year before. The money goes towards funding 11 charities through The Digicel Foundation. People love supporting good causes.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how a major challenge for Jamaica would be to get organic change happening in downtown Kingston. Digicel is a clear leader in trying to help revitalize this part of Jamaica, and it’s part of a clear corporate strategy to help its brand be associated with positive developments, which includes athletes, musicians, sports events, and more. It’s good business and it’s good for business. It’s also a good cause that needs much support.

For many people, being in the 5k gave them a chance to see what downtown Kingston is like, without having to deal with any of the usual day-to-day issues that may seem or be unpleasant. Parade was full of people at 8pm, and many of the daytime scenes were still evident, including a busload of people from country, packed like sardines, with bags in the back of the bus, on the top of the bus, with just enough space for a few passengers on the roof too.

The run through downtown should also have given some people an idea of what this part of the capital could be like. I had a discussion with a fellow participant yesterday, and we talked about how easy it was to see that rehabilitation was a better and seemingly easier option than to tear down, with so much of the basic architecture still in place and the grid structure of the area giving a certain integrity to the space.Downtown_Kingston “Gentrification” may not yet be part of the Jamaican vocabulary in terms of what is happening in its economic and social development, and it may not be a word that inspires positive reactions. However, I believe that it has to be something that is put clearly on the agenda of things to push. My partner in conversation quickly went to the fact that tax incentives may be the answer, to help defray the heavy costs that will be involved in rehabilitating such a large area.

Companies like Digicel have clearly put their money where their mouths are. So, too, have a small number of newer enterprises which are presently closely associated with middle class life styles, leisure and pleasure, such as Cannonball Cafe.

Let’s not pretend that changing the perception and face of downtown will be easy. As I wrote before, there are many tensions at work, and one of the major obstacles will be to get those who do not have much and want to obtain some of what they see those who have enjoying to accept the changes that may start working. Jobs wont come out of thin air or suddenly be plentiful. People who are making their lives on the streets, begging, hustling, making furniture, robbing, selling, etc. may find themselves under pressure to stop those activities. But, that’s their livelihood and getting out of one set of activities into another will take more than wishing, including training and repositioning of attitudes.

Those who want to venture into downtown have many things to deal with, but one of the largest blocks to move will be fear. The image is that the area is dangerous. News reports of violent crime will dominate people’s thoughts and be hard to displace. Stories of little glimmers of change and pleasant developments will be blips and not something that will alter the overwhelmingly negative impressions.

Downtown is not ‘cool’ and certainly not ‘swanky’. It’s seedy. It smells bad. It’s dirty. It’s a mess. No critical mass of things that are the opposite of those impression exists in a large space, besides the developments along Ocean Boulevard. People with money to spend wont choose to go downtown just to ‘look good’. They have little to attract them there or make them stay there after a visit to do some errands. Let’s not paint it rosy when it’s black. If, out of thin air, downtown was awash with sidewalk cafes,fromageB20130416GT nice-looking eating places and bars, sounds of soft music, and some fashionable clothes stores, then it would be clear that it had changed. But, they wont come out of thin air. The change has to come because enough people feel the ‘risks’ are going to be outweighed by the ‘rewards’.

It will be one step at a time, but it needs to happen. It’s potentially one of the better pieces of economic and social policy the country can develop. People having hope can do a lot to ward off the dangers of hopelessness.movie_kingstonparadise

Digicel opened the eyes of at least 7000 people, and I would estimate that nearly as many were there to look on and experience without too many concerns. If their target of 20,000 participants is to be realized soon, then it could be the spur that some need to try to be part of a movement that wants to put shape and heart back into the city centre. That means positioning early.

If my supposition is right, and downtown land and rental prices are under valued, that may well be what can drive the change to happen a little faster. Would a tax break help? It probably wont hurt.