Unhappy customers have long list of complaints
January 21, 2007
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — AAFES customers who contend they’ve suffered price gouging and poor service say they want decisive measures to better shield the community from corrupt officials, monopoly contracts and rogue companies.
Their comments to Stars and Stripes came after the newspaper on Jan. 7 reported that the names of two Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials — Clifton W. Choy and H. Lee Holloway — had surfaced in a probe of bribery allegations involving Samsung Rental Corp. Ltd.
The South Korean company, also known as SSRT, is contracted by AAFES through 2019 to provide private Internet and phone service to U.S. military installations on the peninsula.
South Korean prosecutors have accused SSRT chief executive Jeong Gi-hwan of paying thousands of dollars in bribes to the AAFES officials. Jeong’s lawyers have said he is innocent. Choy and Holloway declined to discuss the case when contacted by Stars and Stripes.
‘Is this fair?’“I don’t know how anybody can look at the contract within AAFES or the agencies responsible for oversight … and say, ‘OK. They’re going to provide service for $40 a month for basic Internet service” when off-post rates are much lower, said a U.S. military officer who lives on Yongsan Garrison in Seoul .
The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while it’s mainly the responsibility of AAFES to safeguard customers, U.S. military leadership in South Korea can assume a useful watchdog posture toward AAFES contracts.
“They have a responsibility to look at the contracts objectively,” he said, “and they need to make judgment calls: ‘Is this providing the service that the customers need and is this fair?’”
Sheila Kensinger-Clark, an SSRT customer at Yongsan Garrison for nearly two years, said she hopes the scandal “will force a change with not having just one company providing us choices.”
“If I could go to SSRT and cancel my service and know that I could go to another company, I would have done that 22, 21 months ago,” she said. “We just don’t have that type of luxury, when you live on post. It’s one company and they know it.”
Capt. Christopher Perry, a former SSRT customer, lives on Camp Casey in Dongducheon, where he works as the 2nd Infantry Division psychiatrist. He said he was so indignant over the service and pricing from SSRT that he “was tempted to show up and tell the command how upset” he was.
“I would like to see AAFES throw out the current contract and open it up to competitive bidding and let other companies bid, or offer competition. I think the fact that there is no competition is ridiculous, at least in a free market society,” Perry said.
Top dollar for poor serviceCustomers also complained of chronically poor service from SSRT.
“We pay top dollar for poor service,” said Kensinger-Clark, who said her Internet connection was unreliable.
Capt. Norman Morris, 2nd ID nurse, lives and works at Camp Casey and has been an SSRT Internet service customer for about six months. He said he often can’t get online.
“I would say at least once a day my service goes down. ... I would say four out of five days I have to restart my modem,” Morris said. “And they would say, ‘We’ll send someone out to look at it. And then a day later he’d come and say ‘You’ve got to restart your modem.’ That’s the only solution I’ve got: ‘Restart your modem.’”
Customers also say the company’s help desk leaves much to be desired. Technicians seldom seem able to fix problems, and, according to customers, the firm rarely follows up with calls to customers telling them the cause of their problems and whether they have been or can be corrected.
If it’s after duty hours, you call the central help desk,” said the Yongsan-based officer. “They absolutely cannot help you with your problem. ... So you go without service until the office at Yongsan reports for duty.”
Perry, who became an SSRT Internet customer in July, said he found downloading files was far slower than what he expected.
Customers also contend SSRT has charged rates far higher than what companies selling comparable services outside the installations charge.
“It’s extremely high,” said the Yongsan officer. “Off-post, the prices range from $17 up.”
Said Perry: “I think they provide extremely slow service for an extremely expensive price, twice what you would pay just a hundred yards off-post across the street.”
‘Getting even worse’Because many serving with the U.S. military in South Korea are on one- or two-year tours, they are especially vulnerable to abuses by companies doing business on their installations, said former SSRT vice president Peter Jang. Complaints of poor service and price gouging have been made for several years, according to customers, Jang, and South Korean and U.S. law enforcement authorities.
“It’s been almost regular complaints every year, every month, every meeting,” said Jang, who left SSRT in December. In late November he formed a new telecommunications company, Interbyte Holdings Inc., and is readying the company for business, probably in the South Korean domestic market, he said.
The fact that most servicemembers eventually rotate to new assignments leaves them open to poor service, Jang said. By the time they realize they’re paying too much for an inferior service, they’re on their way out of South Korea , he said.
“So it stays the same” and has not “been improved so far,” he said.
Since the contract was awarded in 2001, the service has “not been improved and [is] getting even worse,” said Jang.
Unless officials move to better protect military customers, Jang predicted, “the end users … soldiers and airmen [have] to pay the same price and live with the same poor quality of service.”