Involving cellphones and time: an intro to Digicel in Haiti

The American woman sitting next to me in the CaribeTours bus – we are headed to Cap-Haitien from Santiago in the Dominican Republic – smiles at me knowingly and nods “Yup, it’s true, if you thought that Haiti is primitive now, it’s nothing to how it was 5 or 10 years ago”.  My eyes widen in surprise; I’m having a hard time putting an image to what this stranger is telling me.  She continues, “10 years ago a lot of these roads weren’t paved, the kids didn’t wear shoes, ever… and cellphones and Digicel have only been around for about 5 or 7 years you know”.

Actually, I didn’t know.  So it’s thanks to Digicel’s intense investment in Haiti that I’m enjoying cellphone coverage in the remote mountains of the North-East department?  I was intrigued, and decided to investigate further.

Digicel, owned by Irishman billionaire Denis O’Brien, is a telecommunications giant in the Caribbean, Central America and Oceania regions.  The mobile phone network provider operates 31 markets, is incorporated in Bermuda and based in Jamaica; they first stepped into action on Haitian soil back in 2006.  They intensively developed the infrastructure network needed to provide Haitians with cellphone service.  The result: a currently estimated 4.8 million customers in Haiti (about half the population), making it Digicel’s largest customer base in the region.  Meanwhile, the Digicel Foundation is investing millions in education and athletics throughout the Carribean; they contributed roughly $5 million USD in aid during the devastating 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake.  When Digicel first came on the scene only about 5% of Haitians had access to cellphones – now we’re over 60%.  The improved communications affect life and the local economy on every logistical and practical level imaginable.  Additional competitors such as NatCom are present, as Haiti is now one the Caribbean’s fastest developing telecommunications markets.

My personal experience with Digicel?

Well, ever since I decided it would be a good idea to dupe my locked iPhone to function in Haiti I’ve been on a cellphone whirlwind of improvisation and creative thinking.  The crew at Digicel have been with me every step of the way, helping me get the best possible deals and calling in reinforcements when needed.  The result : my turbo-boosted iPhone now works on Digicel’s network, but none of the star functions (you know *120 or *150 and so on) work (don’t ask me to explain; I’m no expert – but it’s something to do with the turbo not using the regular GSM network).  So I’ve switched from pre-paid to a post-paid plan, as I wouldn’t have been able to check my phone credit anyways.  Originally, it was supposed to get me just a few GB of data a month and a meagre amount of local and international minutes.  Turns out for the equivalent of around $45 USD I have around 17GB of data, hundreds of minutes and SMS and I magically don’t get charged when I call Europe.  Seriously?  My dear customer service guy, Sylvèstre, assures me that it’s perfectly normal that I can make no heads or tails of the details of the plan that I am on.  The form explaining all of it, the one I am waving in his face, is outdated, he calmly tells me.  Are you sure I won’t pay five times more next month? I keep asking him, doubtful of how long my good fortune can last.  Everything is perfectly fine, he assures me.  I can’t help but begin to smile as I turn to the security guy by the entrance, relaxed and leaning on his machine gun in the air-conditioned room – I tell him in my improvised Creole that, as per usual in Haiti, I don’t understand what’s going on.  We laugh at this together, and I shrug my shoulders.  At least, it would seem that the incomprehension is to my advantage.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a phone plan this good.  Sylvèstre smiles from ear to ear and tells me that he likes it when I come to see him (to pay my mysterious phone bills).  Really?  You always leave here smiling and laughing, he says, and that’s a good thing!

Just as I may not be fully versed in the inner workings of telecommunications in my host country, so too I don’t get the singular phone plan I am on.  Am I worried about this? Nope, not too much, as it seems that both are serving me and Haiti quite well.

Additional Reading:

“Irish cellphone entrepreneur banks on a smarter Haiti” http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/16/us-haiti-digicel-obrien-idUSBRE90F0AQ20130116

“How an Irish telecoms tycoon became Haiti’s only hope of salvation” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/09/haiti-anniversary-denis-obrien-vulliamy

“IFC in the Caribbean – A Caribbean Success Story” – Digicel, Haiti http://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/region__ext_content/regions/latin+america+and+the+caribbean/strategy/ifc+in+the+caribbean+-+a+caribbean+success+story+-+digicel,+haiti

cover photo: typical Haitian street with Digicel tower in background – credit

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