Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 02 August 2009
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Melita compensates. Shouldn’t Enemalta?

There are certain questions in life which simply cannot be answered. For instance: what exactly is it about the local energy provision sector, that enables it to operate in complete defiance of all known free market economy principles... without anybody in the entire country so much as noticing?
Yes indeed. I have been trying to fathom this particular enigma ever since Thursday at around 1.30am: a time when – being the kind of person who prefers working late into night – I was busy testing a free (and completely legal) trial version of Age of Empires III – The Conquistadores, and had just embarked upon a full-scale invasion of New England with my trusty regiment of Spanish rodoleros.
So there I was, engaging in sporadic skirmishes with native American Indians, investing in new military technologies and striking trade alliances with the Comanche and Iroquois... until, in full sight of the enemy walls and with the sound of musket-fire ringing in my ears: PHUT! Out goes the light, and I am left darkling.
And I mean really darkling – absolute pitch black, to the point that you can’t see a deftly thrown tomahawk until it’s protruding right out of your forehead. And the silence! No background hum of the fridge-freezer; no fans in perpetual motion; no air-conditioning units blaring out from nearby apartment blocks; only the insipid, high-pitched whirr of dozens of mosquitoes, as my (electric) insect repellent device is suddenly unable to repel.
Picture the scene: one minute I was cool, utterly mosquito-free and engaged in mortal combat with 16th century CGI warriors; next thing I know, it’s hot as hell, I’m engulfed in darkness, and slowly being eaten alive by countless, invisible specimens of the genus Culicidae.
If I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed it was a “JABO”. In other words, “Just Another Blackout”, of the sort we grew accustomed to back in the ghastly 1980s – you know, when the Labour Party was in government, and life in Malta was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and corrupt.
But no, wait, this cannot be! After all, we are now in Year of Our Lawrence, 2009. The Nationalists (Hail! Hail!) have been in power ever since the reign of Queen Isabella II. And this means that the energy deficiencies of the 1970s and 1980s have long since been solved; and we even have a massive, ugly and environmentally ruinous power station in Delimara to prove it.
For these and other reasons, blackouts, power-cuts and other such suspensions of normality cannot conceivably be entertained any longer... not only because we have now evolved from the Dark Age of Labour; but specifically because energy provision is now the direct, personal responsibility of the Great and Infallible Austin Gatt himself – or as he is fondly known among his minions, “he for whose mistakes we all must pay” – and, repeat after me: if Gatt says there isn’t a problem, then there isn’t a problem, full-stop.
Erm... ye-e-e-s, but the fact remains that there is no electricity in my apartment tonight: not a Watt, not a Volt, not an Amp and not an Ohm. And judging by the blackness out in the street, I would wager that there are no Watts, Volts, Amps or Ohms anywhere in the vicinity of around four miles, either.
Nor was Wednesday night the first time my proposed invasion of the New World had to be postponed for lack of Watts and Volts. Apart from the rather glaring example of Tuesday 16 June – an eight-hour power cut, costing the country around €10 million in lost business – there was another, shorter power cut on Tuesday night, lasting some two to three hours (or 2-3,000 mosquito bites, depending how you measure these things.)
And now, this morning (Thursday 31 July), I discover there is no water in the mains, either. Not just my mains: but the mains of approximately one third of all Malta’s households, as the Pembroke reverse osmosis plant was temporarily put out of action by the previous night’s power-cut.
My, oh my, oh my. Looks like we are right back where we all started in 1987, with the same old erratic electricity supply; the same old regular water shortages; the same old party in government for 22 years; and the same old ministerial arrogance, whereby nobody is ever responsible, no matter how shoddy, unsatisfactory and downright inefficient the service provided by the State.
But with a significant difference – the cock-up now comes from a Nationalist, and not a Labour administration... so of course, everything is absolutely fine and dandy.
What’s that again? Oh, all right, I concede there were a few intrinsic differences between the 1980s and today. Here are the important ones, in no particular order:
1) Electricity interruptions were by and large limited only to Sliema and other well-known Nationalist strongholds.
2) On the whole, 80s pop-stars tended to have much more interesting hairstyles than their counterparts today.
3) Back then, power cuts were more or less expected. Lights go out? Never fear, there is an entire arsenal of candles, candelabras, lamps, torches and emergency flare guns in the second kitchen drawer on the right. (Today, I’m not even sure what a candle looks like, let alone where to find one at 1.30am...)
4) Age Of Empires III - The Conquistadores had yet to be launched. (Instead, there was Pacman, Tetris and Donkey Kong.)
Wait, there was another one... oh, yes I almost forgot:
Yes, indeed. No sooner are our water and electricity bills jacked up by a scarcely credibly 196%... than the service automatically goes to the dogs. And kindly note we are not paying these exorbitant rates for luxury commodities. This is ultra-essential stuff we’re talking about here. Water is essential for all life on earth; and electricity is essential to fire up my computer... without which all life on earth is rendered essentially meaningless.
Besides, electricity is also kind of useful in attracting “smart” foreign investments for our supposedly IT-based economy... (after all, it’s difficult to indulge in “online gaming”, without an online facility in which to actually “game”.)
And last but not least: why on earth are we (that is, you, I, and all Malta’s businesses, great and all) expected to pay such astronomical rates, when the service we are paying for doesn’t even meet even the most basic of entry-level requirements for decent standards... and sometimes, doesn’t materialise at all?
Melita Cable (or at least, its subsidiary Onvol) is what is known in IT circles as an “Internet Service Provider”. The set-up couldn’t be simpler: the client pays his monthly bills, and in return gets access to the World Wide Web. Well, that’s how it works in theory. In practice, there was some kind of cock-up this week (not sure exactly what) and clients were deprived of the service for several hours.
Now, unlike Enemalta, Melita Cable is not actually a monopoly – although occasionally you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There is a very real possibility of losing clients through failures such as these... so they responded by apologising for the suspension, and compensating users with a month’s free subscription.
So why does Enemalta not compensate its clients for its multiple failures to provide the paid-for service throughout this summer? And while I’m at it... who the hell shot John F. Kennedy, anyhow?
Alternatively, you can consider the example of the pizza delivery sector, which operates on a fairly similar business model to Melita Cable (i.e., you order the pizza, and then you pay for it when it is delivered to your door.) Just imagine for a second that Enemalta were to branch out into the pizza delivery market....
Ring, ring!
“Hi, is that the Enemalta Pizza Station?”
“Erm... I’s just received a bill for two Capricciosas and a Margherita...”
“The only trouble is... I never got the pizzas!”
“Yes? And your point is...?”
“My point is that you are billing me for a service I never actually received...!”
“Who cares? Don’t you know that we are not in a position to guarantee that your pizza can actually be delivered?”
“What? But... then what the hell am I even being billed for?”
“And it’s not just because we’re a shameless monopoly, either. No pizza delivery service in the world will ever be able to guarantee a single pizza delivery. Not a single one. It has never happened, and it never will!”
“OK, but since when do three pizzas add up to €540.57c??”
“Look, I don’t make the prices. I don’t even make the pizzas. All I do is answer the phone and be rude to people. Now either pay your bill, or piss off!”
(Luckily for local pizza enthusiasts, there are other pizza delivery services apart from the Enemalta Pizza Station in Delimara. Pity we can’t say the same for energy provision in this country...)

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