by Garry Pierre-Pierre
For a while now, many observers have come to call Haiti the Republic of NGO, or Governmental Organizations because of the proliferation of these groups in the politically troubled country. I’d like to add another moniker, the Republic of Digicel.
Digicel, which is led by Irish billionaire entrepreneur, Dennis O’Brien, is a shrewd enterprise. O’Brien has earned a fortune in his telecommunication business throughout the Caribbean. In Haiti, Digicel has become ubiquitous. The company is building a Marriot Hotel in Turgeau and has refurbished the Iron Market, which was destroyed after the earthquake. Streets signs in Petion Ville feature the Digicel blood red color. But now Digicel, which prides itself of democratizing the cell phone system in Haiti, is involved in a quite monopolistic pas de deux.
Since June 17, Digicel has blocked all applications on the 4G network of the company (among others: Viber, Skype, Tango, Nimbuzz, MagicJack), which runs on devices using a SIM card. These same Internet applications are fully functional on all computers and tablets that do not use a SIM card.
The company is losing an estimated $500,000 to $1 million dollars per year because of unauthorized providers that offer voice service for free, in direct and unfair competition with the traditional voice service offered by the company, Digicel said. The unauthorized providers are using the bandwidth of the Digicel 4G network without compensation for financial investments made in its data network.
But according to an article in the Irish Times about the company:
Haiti is recognized as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It also happens to be Digicel’s biggest market by revenues, having launched there in 2006.
The penetration of wireless communications has risen in Haiti from 5 per cent in 2005 to 59.4 per cent in 2012, according to the 300-page document produced to support Digicel’s latest bond offering.
This was largely on the back of Digicel’s substantial investment in the country. It’s a significant advancement that has no doubt brought certain benefits to the country.
So the amount of money that Digicel claims it is losing is peanuts compared to its huge profits. Bear in mind these are the same services we enjoy almost everywhere in the world with cell phone connection. But in the Republic of Digicel, it is forbidden because the company deems these innovative technology companies as unfair competition. Bear in mind that Digicel enjoys a virtual monopoly in the cell phone market in Haiti after its purchase of rival Comcel. Natcom, the former state-owned TELECO, is currently a shoddy run corporation by Vietel, a Vietnamese corporation. The Haitian government owns a significant percentage in Natcom, but the government does more business with Digicel than with Natcom.
So what is the government doing to stop this blatant abuse of power? So far, they have not intervened and Digicel is getting away with this abuse of power at the expense of the Haitian people. The phone cards that one use to talk on a Digicel phone is exorbitantly expensive. When I go to Haiti I average about $30 for a couple of days and I don’t talk that much on the phone because I have my laptop with me and yes, I used Viber and Whats’ up to communicate with friends in Haiti and the United States. Imagine what its like for the average Haitian who doesn’t even earn that much money per month. So Digicel like everyone else doing business relies on the emotion of the Diaspora to keep sending its disposable income back to their struggling relatives so they can survive or gab on the phone so that Digicel continues to enrich itself.
I don’t have a problem with a company making money; but, it must do so fairly. In the last decade, the technological world has been disruptive and new innovations are being unveiled everyday. These technologies ultimate purpose is to make our lives easier and things more affordable. God knows that the Haitian people can use a break here and there. But in the Republic of Digicel, if innovation threatens its profit, it will act with impunity. Unfortunately, this is a dictatorship and not a Democratic republic.