When A Minute Isn’t Really A Minute
February 7, 2008
For those of us who’ve participated in various Troop Support efforts over the years, one of the things that we commonly send to deployed Troops are phone cards, so that they can call their families back home. When a Soldier is overseas for a deployment or a tour, such as in Korea, where their families aren’t able to move with them, phone calls are a crucial link to maintain that connection with their families. Currently A T & T is under contract with the military to operate call centers in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. They operate 70 such call centers. It’s often the most reliable way for a Soldier to call home. To utilize the phones in the call centers, Soldier must talk to an operator who prompts them to call an 800-number and then enter a personal identification number that comes with each prepaid phone card. The recording they hear tells them how many minutes they have left on the card…. never what the card has printed on it.
Recently Colin Sawyer, a US Army gunner serving in Iraq received a 550 minute prepaid phone card from his mother. As you can imagine, Colin was pretty excited to get the phone card, knowing that he would have plenty of minutes to be able to call back home and speak with his family.
“I went to use it one night after patrol and an automated voice came on and said, ‘You have 55 minutes left for this call,’” said Sawyer, recently home on leave to visit family. “I had barely used the card, so I thought that was strange. The thing is, letters can take two weeks or more through mail. Where I’m based, I don’t have Internet access or phone access every day, so I can go three weeks without contact. So when I can call home, I don’t want to worry about whether my call will go through or if I have enough minutes to talk,” Sawyer said. “It’s happened on other cards she’s sent me, too. I never get the number of minutes it says I get on the card.”
Sawyer isn’t the only one that’s experienced this problem. It’s not a glitch in the system or an error. With the pre-paid phone cards, whether they’re used by the military overseas, or perhaps the general public here in the United States, regardless if it’s AT&T or another carrier, the number of minutes stated on the cards and the number of minutes they actually get to talk are often quite different. In fact the amount of time the card user actually gets to talk, may not even be close to what is shown on the face of the card.
“Why can’t AT&T just tell you exactly what you’re getting?” asked Kathleen Sawyer, Colin’s mom. “How is it that when you buy a 550 minute phone card, your son or daughter is not even going to get half of that when they use it?”
Mrs. Sawyer isn’t real happy about this. She’s spent over $1000 purchasing 1,200 minute, 300 minute and 550 minute AT&T phone cards for her son and her 22 year old daughter who is on a Navy carrier in the Persian Gulf, so that they could call home. Often both of her children, wondered about the discrepancy in the amount of minutes listed on the phone card and the actual amount of minutes they could really call.
Other phone cards will also work at the AT&T call centers, but the costs for a call made with a non AT&T card is higher than the AT&T cards, because that company must pay a fee to AT&T in order to access it’s private network. Because of that, most Soldiers use the AT&T cards.
The best value for Soldiers are the AT&T prepaid phone cards that were designed specifically for military members. The rates we extend are more competitive than you would see for commercial long-distance,” said Amanda L. Ray, a spokeswoman for AT&T’s pre-paid service.
The special international AT&T phone cards can be purchased by anyone online at the AAFES website. Phone calls made with these cards cost 19 cents per minute. While it sounds good that AT&T has created a special phone card for military members and true that the rates are less expensive than most other phone cards, the way the cards are marketed to military family members is flawed and gives them the impression that they are getting more minutes for their money than they actually are. In my opinion, that borders on fraudulent advertising on the part of AT&T and other phone card companies. While the cards purchased through AAFES cost 19 cents per minute, an AT&T card that is purchased elsewhere can cost as much as 55 cents per minute. If a buyer isn’t aware of the difference, their loved ones and themselves are seriously being shortchanged and even mislead, especially if they don’t read the fine print carefully. On the AT&T cards, the number of minutes is displayed in bold letters on the card. The fine print underneath says “Within the US/International rates are higher.”
Lets see just how much talk time a person actually gets with an AT&T phone card purchased at AAFES. If a Soldier in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait uses a 550 minute AT&T/AAFES phone card, they aren’t actually getting 550 minutes, but instead 143 minutes.
According to Ms. Ray, US law requires that the cards sold in the United States must disclose how many minutes they get of domestic calls. In other words, calls made within the United States. That doesn’t do the Soldiers or their families who are purchasing these cards, much good. It really doesn’t make much difference to them how many minutes they can call in the United States, when they’re standing at the phone center on a FOB in the middle of Iraq.
Myself, this angers me. You’d think that AT&T could provide a bit more clarity for the family members and Soldiers that these cards are marketed for. While AT&T claims that they care about the military and their families, this practice doesn’t prove it to me. They should stop and think about the fact that many military families are living paycheck to paycheck and many of those deployed Soldiers are young and not making a lot of money due to their rank. To me, it’s about honesty and integrity and the fact that we expect that from our Soldiers, so we should expect the same from the companies that are contracted with to do business with our government and provide services to our Soldiers.