Wireless Entrepreneur Sees Opportunity In Haiti

The devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January destroyed the country's already weak phone network. Now, some entrepreneurs see an opportunity rising out of the rubble. John Stanton — whose company owns the second-largest mobile carrier in Haiti — thinks Haiti should go copper-wire-free. He says the country should forget rebuilding the old system, and instead build a more robust cell phone network. Robert Siegel talks to Stanton about his idea to leapfrog land-line technology.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a question for the leaders of Haiti and the international effort to rebuild it after the earthquake: what's not worth rebuilding? And here's an answer from John Stanton, a U.S. wireless executive: don't bother rebuilding the damaged copper wire communications network, go entirely wireless. Mr. Stanton's company, Trilogy, owns Haiti's second biggest cell phone company, Voila, and he joins us from Seattle.

Mr. Stanton, what would Haiti gain by going all wireless and skipping the copper altogether?

Mr. JOHN STANTON (Trilogy): In a country like Haiti where security has always been an issue, the wired network has had great challenges. It's very difficult in part because copper is actually stolen often. By building an entirely wire-free system to replace the old wired network that was there, you are able to build it for less cost, you're able to maintain it at a lower cost and you're able to do it much more quickly.

SIEGEL: As I understand it, there are three competitive cell phone companies in Haiti and 30 percent penetration of the market. That means most Haitians don't have a cell phone. Would abandoning the copper infrastructure mean never again an old-fashioned public telephone, no common telephone anywhere?

Mr. STANTON: Before the quake, Haiti, with a population of 10 million people, had about 10,000 wired phones. When you think about that, it really wasn't an essential part of communications for the individual. Most of those lines were business lines.

SIEGEL: How much does a cell phone call cost in Haiti or how much does a month of service cost in Haiti?

Mr. STANTON: Well, there is no such thing as monthly service in Haiti for any of the carriers. It's 100 percent prepaid. The prices vary depending on how big of a charge card you take, but our average revenue in Haiti is about six cents a minute.

SIEGEL: Six cents a minute. And people buy cards for their phones is what you're saying, as they do in much of the world. At that rate, frankly, is there that much of a market in Haiti beyond 30 percent. We're talking about a few minutes on the phone starting to equal a couple of hours labor.

Mr. STANTON: It's actually not quite that bad. But the minimum wage is now $5 a day in Haiti, which is terribly low. But remember, a significant part of the economy in Haiti is actually money being sent by family from the United States from the Dominican Republic back to Haiti. And those calls are very important.

SIEGEL: One argument that I read that was critical of the idea of becoming copper free is that fiber optics will be necessary and if you don't maintain anything Haiti won't be there. That may seem like a very luxurious concern for the Haitians at this moment, but do you really believe that if you skipped copper infrastructure today, that would be the end for all landline service, for data transmission or any other purpose?

Mr. STANTON: Well, none of the technologies that you described exist in Haiti today. And it's not clear that the government-owned telephone company that was able to sell between 10- and 11,000 wired phones over a 50-year period is an entity that was going to roll that out.

SIEGEL: Your company owns Voila, a cell phone company in Haiti. How would you describe your company's own rebuilding efforts in Haiti since the quake?

Mr. STANTON: Well, in terms of our people, that's the real tragedy. We think about three-quarters of our staff lost either a spouse, parent, child or another close relative in the quake. So, it's hard to fathom. In a relatively small country, virtually everyone was directly affected by the quake.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Stanton, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. STANTON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's John Stanton of Trilogy. That's a company which owns Haiti's second largest cell phone company Voila. Talking about his proposal for Haiti to go completely wireless.

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