Haiti…And Telecom

25 Mar

Had at least 1/2 dozen folks email me this today to ask what I thought. Even popped up over at NewsOne.

This is what is left of the Teleoco Main Building and Central Office

Telecom Companies Seek To Make Haiti A Mobile Nation

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.”

Quite frankly, I can’t think of a more disastrous solution for Haiti – other than just walking away and leaving the country as is. This solution may be wonderful for the foreign owned wireless companies – but economically screws the country into the ground for the next 20 years. There are actually 4 wireless providers in Haiti, three of which are owned by foreign companies with the acquisition of the old land line company, Teloco by Viettel (Vietnam telephone company) competing for a total market of about 3.5 million phones in the 8 million population country where I would guess the average ARPU (Average Revenue Per User)  is about $6 a month based on income.

Ergo, despite the wonderful corporate generosity of Voila (and unless I miss my guess, “vig” paid on the side to corrupt officials), damn near nothing is going back into the country to develop their economy, create jobs – or to assist in the development of an economic growth plan.

Further, for all intents and purposes, the wireless carriers in the country are completely unregulated, as the Haitian Government has no ability to enforce regulations (a truly dysfunctional conservative wonderland). It is essentially a “Wild West” environment.

Immediately after the earthquake – the two foreign-owned cell companies operating at that time lost 80% of their service. They also suffered severe service degradation during the two hurricanes which hit Haiti last fall. The one company with significant local ownership maintained a 90% service capability throughout all of these disasters.

Why? Haitel built their towers to US disaster resistant standards – the others (Digicel and Comcell/Voila), in order to cut costs placed their equipment on building tops, in church steeples, and rooftops… which collapsed. As an example, during Hurricane Katrina 90% of the purpose built cell towers (those tall concrete and steel pylons along the side of the Interstate) survived structurally ( The loss of service was due to electrical outage) whereas less than 10% of the other radio towers not built to those standards survived. And the Haitian earthquake from an infrastructure destruction, and loss of life standpoint was a lot worse than Katrina.

In today’s world, you need a couple of things to build an economy. One of the key platforms is a reliable, secure (and yeah, I know the US Government is screwing that pooch with IP mania, and we will pay for that stupidity at some point with a few million dead) , and resilient communications infrastructure – with an ability to grow as needs drive capacity. Wireless only meets one of those – resiliency.

What Haiti needs to do is to focus on basic infrastructure – which in this case includes a high speed optical backbone covering the major population centers in the country, connects to existing fiber optic undersea cables – and provides a backbone from which to base the country’s economic efforts. They need another cell carrier like they need a hole in the head. Once they get that in place, they can actually start developing IT based Services and commerce, which could certainly be augmented and facilitated by wireless network access. The country would be well served by the construction of a nationwide WiMax/WiFi network providing a portal to-from Government Services – as well as the core infrastructure for e-education. It needs to be owned by the Haitian Government, or a Haitian Company operating services on behalf of the Government…

Anything else – just adds rape to injury.

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Posted by on March 25, 2010 in News


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