As yet there have been few manifestly positive social or economic developments in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake that devastated Haiti, but perhaps a new state-of-the-art telephony and Internet system and service will be one of them, as Martyn Warwick reports.
When the earthquake hit, killed so many people and mangled so much infrastructure, Haiti's tattered, battered and old-fashioned landline comms system was also destroyed. Thus, with the exception of some limited mobile cellular infrastructure, Haiti was effectively cut off from the rest of the world and early rescue efforts were severely hampered by the lack of communications facilities.
However, the opportunity now exists to build new comms systems and services based completely on the latest mobile technology.
In many parts of the world, emerging economies have been able, very successfully, to leapfrog entire generations of telecoms technologies and deploy mobile systems that are not only inherently better able to withstand natural disasters (and quicker to get back into operation if they do go down) but also create new jobs, empower the digitally disenfranchised and boost GDP.
Helping Haiti to reconstruct its comms infrastructure was the subject of a keynote speech given yesterday at the CTIA wireless show in Las Legas, Nevada, by John Stanton, founder of Voice Stream and sometime CEO of T-Mobile USA.
Mr. Stanton believes that by far the best option for the Haitian government would be to found and develop an all-wireless infrastructure for the country's 10 million population, and build an economy, focused on mobile, that will offer hope to the many, far too many, who live in the most abject poverty.
And, as Haiti begins the daunting task of reconstructing the devastated country, it does at least have a blank canvas with which to work. The opportunity is there and deploying mobile broadband could well be the quickest, most effective and cheapest way of reconnecting society.
That said, as is usually the case when outsiders turn their attention to places that have suffered appalling natural tragedy, Adam Smith's "Hidden Hand of Self-Interest" isn't all that well hidden for very long. Put bluntly, one nation's tragedy can be a business corporation's big opportunity and telecoms infrastructure and technology vendors from as far afield as China, Pakistan, South Korea, the US and Vietnam, sensing a sales opportunity, have been queuing-up to offer help, advice and kit - at a price of course.
The trouble is that when companies suddenly turn their attentions to markets they have hitherto largely ignored, they can be accused of cynical opportunism and come across as the worst kind of carpetbaggers dedicated to exploiting (and making big profits) out of misery.
Of course, commercial companies aren't tax-deductible charity organisations but, under the sort of circumstances that pertain in the case of Haiti, it behooves them to show that they are willing to spend money now to help the nation get back on its feet in the hope of a commercial return on investment a long way down the line.
This is no time of place for short-termism, a quick buck and a run back home with the loot.
And in this respect, John Stanton is putting his money where his mouth is. He has announced that his company, Trilogy, would commit up to US$100 million to expand the network it already has in Haiti.
Haiti actually has three competing mobile comms companies: Voila, Digicel (of Ireland) and Haitel, but penetration is low. Haiti is incredibly poor and only 30 per cent of the population can afford even the most basic wireless handset. ARPU is minimal and only the rich, few of whom were affected by the earthquake anyway, use what few data services are available.
Trilogy owns Voila, Haiti's second-biggest mobile operator, and John Stanton is asking the Haitian authorities to free-up a new tranche of radio spectrum - the idea being to use it to provide basic cellular services that would permit more people to text and use their handsets for ecommerce, banking, micro-payments and market intelligence.
Voila was the first overseas mobile operator to set up shop in Haiti back in 1997 and, over the years has gained a reputation for its philanthropic works on the island. For example, the company has endowed more than 7,000 primary school scholarships.
In terms of physical geography, Haiti is a big challenge. It is very mountainous, roads are few and far between and many of them can be all but impassable when it rains - and it rains a lot. So, once again, mobile is the best and most cost-effective solution.
Some industry observers and analysts say that the Haitian authorities should not be too quick to make a decision as to the nature of the ICT resources they might deploy and point out that mobile cannot be the answer to everything.
After all, they say, given the expected growth of traffic on a new/improved cellular infrastructure, there will still be a need for a fibre backbone to be deployed, not just for connectivity and backhaul, but also to serve organisations such as hospitals, schools and colleges, the police and law enforcement agencies and government. They also believe that projects to rebuild telecoms in Haiti should be open to competitive bid.
Bruce Mehlman, co-president of the Internet Innovation Alliance says, "It [Haiti] 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 and you must make sure that this doesn't preclude any competition."
Meanwhile, Robert Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in the US says,"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,"
Both are valid points but Haiti needs modern comms now and surely it would be better to get cellular infrastructure in place and up and running and worry about fixed infrastructure later? A bird in the hand and all that.
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