Telecom companies seek to make Haiti a mobile nation

With much of its communications infrastructure destroyed by the earthquake in January, some have suggested that Haiti go mobile.
With much of its communications infrastructure destroyed by the earthquake in January, some have suggested that Haiti go mobile. (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The earthquake that devastated Haiti also destroyed the nation's feeble network for phones and Internet service. Except for cellphones, the population was largely cut off from communication.

But out of the rubble, one U.S. wireless industry pioneer sees opportunity.

John Stanton, founder of Voice Stream and former chief executive of T-Mobile USA, wants the Haitian government to forget about rebuilding its copper wire communications network. Instead, he thinks Haiti should go mobile.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," Stanton said.

In a keynote speech prepared for delivery at the wireless industry's CTIA trade show Wednesday in Las Vegas, Stanton called for the Haitian government to create an all-wireless nation with more robust networks for the population of nearly 10 million and to build an economy centered on mobile technology.

"By deploying state-of-the-art wireless systems, we enable less-developed countries to leapfrog older technologies, and those systems become the foundation for a new economy," Stanton said.

Stanton is asking Haiti to release more spectrum for commercial carriers to get more people to text and use their phones for commerce, banking and other daily needs. He pledged that his company, Trilogy, would commit up to $100 million to expand its network there.

Trilogy owns Haiti's second-largest cellphone company, Voilà. The three cellphone providers there -- Voilà, Digicel and Haitel -- compete vigorously for customers who have come to rely on cellphones even more after the earthquake. But only about 30 percent of the population has one.

Accepting the proposal would be a risky bet for the government, experts say, because fat fiber networks would still be needed to serve hospitals, schools and government buildings.

"This could be a good strategy for as long as 20 years even, but I just don't see it as an ultimate strategy because at a certain point you need fixed wire for services that require more bandwidth," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

But as the country begins to reconstruct homes, government buildings and other key infrastructure, some experts say the nation faces a blank canvas of opportunity. And building a more robust cellphone network could also be the fastest way to get the island nation connected.

"Haiti is very mountainous and the people are very fond of their cellphones," said Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States. "In that sense, a wireless system would just be leaping over all sorts of impediments to connect the whole country."

Joseph said that recovery has overwhelmed the nation but that in recent days he's received calls from South Korean, Vietnamese and Pakistani investors interested in rebuilding the nation's textile and hotels industry.

Trilogy told the Haitian government that more spectrum is needed for commercial carriers and that it has committed $80 million to $100 million to build its own network.

Voilà was the first cellphone operator to enter Haiti, in 1997, and has built a strong relationship with the government with its philanthropy arm. It was recognized by the State Department last year for its social responsibility programs in Haiti that include funding 7,000 primary school scholarships. But Digicel, run by an Irish telecom investor, has become a fierce competitor, surpassing Voilà in number of subscribers in recent years because it offered free incoming call service.

Experts say any project to rebuild infrastructure in the nation should be open to competition. That would include laying down fiber for a stronger backbone to connect calls. Dozens of new cellphone towers would be raised to support traffic that will grow as Internet use takes off.

"It can be a fantastic opportunity, but all over the world there is also a push to have a mix of wireless and fixed-wire networks supporting broadband and communications," said Bruce Mehlman, co-president of the Internet Innovation Alliance and former assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy. "And you must make sure that this doesn't preclude any competition."


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