“Every group, every category, (and) any class in Haiti uses Whatsapp as a means of communication,” said Jean-Junior Joseph, a Haitian media blogger. “Whatsapp is implicated in politics, business, love, romance, friendship, entertainment. You name it.”

Digicel Haiti Headquarters. Photo credit: Vania Andre

By Sam Bojarski

Yola Moiso of Rockland County, New York, still remembers calling cards. Before Whatsapp burst onto the scene in 2009, she recalled purchasing cards for $19.99 per month, to speak with family and friends in Haiti. 

“It became so expensive that I had to reach out to my local phone company to inquire about an international plan,” said Moiso, a Haitian American and director of operations for the nonprofit Haitian community organization Konbit Neg Lakay. 

But when Whatsapp burst onto the scene in 2009, Moiso said it enabled her to communicate with loved ones for free, as long as they have a smartphone. 

In Haiti, there are few aspects of life untouched by social messaging applications Whatsapp.

“Every group, every category, (and) any class in Haiti uses Whatsapp as a means of communication,” said Jean-Junior Joseph, a Haitian media blogger. “Whatsapp is implicated in politics, business, love, romance, friendship, entertainment. You name it.” 

The ubiquitous presence of social messaging has made communication easier and less expensive than ever before. But it has all taken place over Haiti’s existing mobile data network. In response, major telecommunications companies like Digicel Haiti have changed their business practices and rolled out new infrastructure plans, to accommodate what the industry calls over-the-top (OTT) applications. 

“If you look back 10 years ago and you think about the telephone or you think about the wireless phone, 90 percent of what we did was voice. But today, 90 percent of what we do is data,” said Jeff Kagan, a telecommunications analyst based in Georgia. 

In Haiti, OTT services became overwhelmingly popular in 2015, when the Facebook-owned Whatsapp launched its calling function. Although OTTs threaten international call revenues, companies like Digicel have since adapted by primarily selling data instead of minutes, according to Diderot Musset, general manager of Surtab, an Android tablet manufacturer based in Port-au-Prince. The company works to integrate technology into schools and has several distributors, including Digicel.

Mobile applications like Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp helped precipitate a shift from basic mobile phones to smartphones among Haitians. Both apps allow users to exchange text messages and photos, as well as make video and voice calls. 

“When Whatsapp came along it looked more natural and more user friendly so everybody started using it,” said Musset, initially to keep in touch with the Diaspora. 

Musset estimated that nearly 75 percent of Haitians age of 18 or older own a smartphone that allows internet access, mostly at 2G and 3G speeds. Some 4G access is available in the Port-au-Prince area and Natcom, an internet and mobile data provider created in 2010 after the privatization of the state-owned Teleco, began trialing a limited 4G LTE network there in 2016. 

Residents of both urban and rural regions use smartphones, and “the main thing they use it for is to be on Whatsapp,” Musset said.

For Digicel Haiti, “traditional voice communications which would be billed by the operator are now handled by what we call OTT players,” said Maarten Boute, the company’s CEO. 

Call revenues have dropped severely, he added, with revenues from international calls down 30 percent from five years ago. 

Hardly anyone in Haiti purchases calling cards or international minutes anymore, and access to data has become relatively affordable. This has saved Haitians money, according to Joseph, since a regular international call to the U.S. could cost more than 35 cents per minute. 

Musset said Haitians can easily access about 200 megabytes (MB) of data for 9 gourdes, or about 10 cents, per day. 

Digicel’s top-selling data plan costs 15 gourdes per day and provides access to 15 MB of data, according to Boute. He also said Digicel offers monthly plans, including the popular 2,000-gourde plan with unlimited calling and 30 gigabytes of data. 

Infrastructure changes in Haiti

Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo credit:
Rickard Nilsson

Over the past decade, social networks have forced telecommunications companies to adapt to consumer demand for internet voice-over, photo and video sharing services by offering faster data speeds. 

“(SMS) messaging is going to continue to remain strong and voice is going to continue to remain strong, but the real growth is going to come from these data services,” Kagan said. 

Overall, there is room for improvement in Haiti’s mobile network, said Charles Edouard Denis, who started working for Haiti’s first cellular company, Haitel, in 1999. He now owns a small seaford export business called Haitian Organic Product Export (HOPE) Haiti. 

When speaking with someone abroad, he said Whatsapp is mostly reliable if standing in a stationary position or when connected to a Wi-Fi network.

“It’s not something you can count on all the time if you have to make an emergency call or if you have to make a business call,” said Denis. 

But the reliability is better than domestic, inter-network calls. For example, he said that calls from Digicel to Natcom frequently do not go through. 

“When they do get through, the quality of the call has deteriorated so much that you actually cannot hear the voice or even identify the person that you’re talking to,” Denis said.

But Haitians under 25, or about half the population, do not always rely on voice calling, when speaking with someone else in Haiti. Increasingly tech-savvy younger residents mainly use Whatsapp to send pictures and videos, Denis noted. 

In a population with a high illiteracy rate, Whatsapp has also opened up new alternatives to text messaging. Denis said that fishermen who might not know how to read or write frequently send pictures of their catches and mechanical issues with their boats. 

Throughout the Caribbean, data is in high demand. Digicel faced blowback from customers outside Haiti several years ago after it blocked popular OTT apps. In Haiti, Digicel has responded by pursuing infrastructure upgrades, which will offer faster internet and download speeds for social messaging. 

A network modernization project is scheduled for completion by June 2020. The transformation will improve service quality by providing 3G and 4G LTE nationwide. This includes rural regions, which have been served by 2G networks since 2006, according to Boute. 

By investing in high-speed networks Digicel hopes to recoup some lost revenues from people wanting to use data instead of voice, Boute said. 

Denis said the shift to 4G networks will improve the reliability of Whatsapp in areas still served by 2G and 3G networks. 

Cutting-edge 5G technology, still in its early stages in the U.S., is a few years away from adoption in Haiti. But Boute added that Digicel plans to start testing 5G at limited locations next year. 

OTT services have also led to more demand for internet access in homes and businesses. On the business side, Musset said Haitian companies, including Surtab, frequently use Whatsapp to help employees communicate with each other. 

He attributes the increasing demand for home internet to the growth of streaming services like Netflix. Natcom, the leading internet provider in Haiti, offers fiber-based internet to homes and businesses. Haitians also use miniature Wi-Fi routes and 4G WiMAX internet, provided by Access Haiti

Demand for internet continues to grow, Musset said, although home internet access numbers remain relatively low compared to mobile. According to Freedom House, just 12 percent of Haitians have internet access. 

Musset noted that home internet is “much more expensive than having your data plan on your phone.” 

Minimum fiber-to-the-home internet speeds cost $50 per month, according to Natcom’s website. Digicel, which competes with Natcom in home internet and mobile data, has recently rolled out a wireless fixed broadband network for homes around Port-au-Prince. 

If the rollout proves successful, Boute said, the company will expand these services to other areas of the country. 

Upgrading Haiti’s telecommunication infrastructure to accommodate data use comes with risks. Digicel Haiti depends on expensive diesel fuel to power its cell towers and faces high maintenance costs on its generators. Given the costs of doing business, Digicel’s profit margins are relatively low. 

Digicel also pays taxes to the Haitian government, which has seen its revenues affected by the decline in voice calling. In addition to the 30 percent income tax, the Haitian government charges a controversial 5-cent-per-minute levy on international calls. Boute said Digicel was consulted but not involved in the decision to institute the tax. 

He voiced support for revenue-based taxes on Facebook and other large tech companies. Money from sources like advertising allows OTTs to offer their services to consumers for free, while also not paying to use telecommunication networks. 

Developing countries in particular need any tax revenue they can get, to fund development. 

“OTT players, none of them pay any taxes in Haiti today, so not only is the operator losing out, the government is losing out tremendously,” Boute added. 

The future of mobile communication 

Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo credit: Vania Andre

While telecommunications professionals have major concerns with the practices of big tech companies, the sector largely acknowledges that OTTs are here to stay. 

In the years ahead, “social networks will increasingly become more powerful,” Kagan said. 

Digicel Haiti has no plans to interfere with legal OTT activity in the future. While the company temporarily blocked the Viber app five years ago while investigating the illegal termination of calls to Haitian subscribers ‒ an activity known as bypass ‒ Boute said his company has never blocked Whatsapp. Digicel, he added, has no plans to block any OTT service as long as it behaves legally. 

Joseph called Whatsapp a “savior” in the information-sharing revolution that has helped Haitians save money on international calling, in particular. But the app has unleashed a Pandora’s box of information-sharing issues that remain largely unaddressed. 

Using Whatsapp, anyone can create a story and have it shared widely within minutes. Amateur journalists, as well as supporters of both the opposition and government have used Whatsapp to spread disinformation, or fake news. 

“It’s used for political means, it’s used on various levels so I think this is one of the cons for Whatsapp,” Musset said. 

Haitians can verify facts on sites like T-check Haiti, but formal action to combat fake news has been minimal, he said. 

Pornography has also spread rapidly on Whatsapp groups. To protect himself from this, Musset said he had to adjust his settings so that media would only download to his phone after clicking on it. He added that the spread of pornography has had the most impact on teenagers. 

Despite the social challenges they bring, OTT networks will only grow more prevalent in the coming years. Features like photography and video in particular should grow in popularity and use, with 5G playing a larger role in the near future, Kagan said. 

Given their reliable, built-out networks and high barriers to entry, Kagan said he does not see telecommunications companies facing an existential threat from OTT services. 

Companies like Digicel, Musset said, have embraced the transition to data and remain in a good position, as Haiti’s technology ecosystem grows. 

“In terms of business opportunity and market share, they have plentiful days in front of them if they can keep pace with all of the innovations that are taking place,” he said.

Konbit Neg Lakay’s immigration services should continue to benefit from Whatsapp, according to Moiso. Residents of Rockland County constantly use it to communicate with family members in Haiti who want to come to the United States. This communication no longer requires a calling card, and Whatsapp has made the process more efficient, she said.

“When they come here and they need information, it’s quicker for them to place a call and get information from their loved ones,” said Moiso. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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