By: Larry Luxner
Impoverished Haiti, its economy devastated by the recent earthquake, has a rare chance to forego copper and build the world's first entirely wireless phone network.

So says Brad Horwitz, president and CEO of Trilogy Partners International.

Through its Haitian subsidiary, ComCEL - which operates locally as Voilá - Trilogy has about one million subscribers, or roughly 38% of Haiti's wireless market. Irish conglomerate Digicel controls most of the remaining 52%, while the 10% that's left over, about 400,000 lines, is claimed by a much smaller operator, Haitel.

That translates into an overall Haitian wireless penetration rate of about 30% - a dramatic jump from 10 years ago but still far lower than that of the neighboring Dominican Republic or nearby islands like Puerto Rico and Jamaica.

Horwitz, whose company has invested $200 million in Haiti since 1982, recently toured Port-au-Prince and the town of Petit-Goâve along with Lola Poisson, wife of Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph.

At an event to raise money for Poisson's foundation - which seeks to rebuild Petit-Goâve from the ruins of the Jan. 12 quake - Horwitz outlined his vision of the future.

"There is a very real chance that the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere could be the first country in the world that has no copper," he said. "Our vision is to leapfrog the old technologies and participate side-by-side in the reconstruction of Haiti, by creating the basic platform to allow Haiti to move forward at an accelerated pace."

Since the quake, hardly any fixed phone lines have been functioning. Even before the disaster, Haiti had at most 10,000 wired lines, according to Horwitz.

"I'd like to look past the current tragedy and imagine where Haiti can be. My company has been in Haiti for over a decade, on the belief that good works go hand in hand with good business. We have provided hundreds of direct jobs and thousands of jobs in Haiti, which for us has literally become our passion," he said.

"It is our profound belief that only the private sector will raise Haiti out of the poverty it finds itself in today," Horwitz continued. "Since Jan. 12, we feel even more strongly about this mission. Haiti needs to turn away from the culture of dependency that exists today. The economy today is sustained by a community of NGOs, instead of the civil sector, and NGOs can no longer be the backbone of the economy."

ComCEL launched wireless service in Haiti in 1999 and is today the largest contributor of tax dollars to the Haitian government, and the largest single U.S. investor in Haiti. It's also a supporter of Yélé Haiti, the foundation of Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean. In addition, Trilogy is actively involved with the Haitian diaspora, underwriting a variety of events such as New York's Labor Day Festival of Eastern Parkway, Miami's Compas Festival in Miami and the Greater Miami Mardi Gras.

Seattle-based Trilogy, a private company that doesn't provide revenue figures, is the only pan-Hispaniola wireless operator, operating in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Trilogy acquired its Dominican operation from Centennial Communications in March 2007.
Over the ensuing 12 months, it overlaid Centennial's legacy CDMA network with a new GSM network and revamped its commercial strategy.

These efforts culminated in the April 2008 unveiling of Trilogy Dominicana's new brand, Viva. Today, that network serves nearly 500,000 people.

In addition, Trilogy owns a controlling stake in Nuevatel, which has over one million mobile subscribers in Bolivia, and owns 52% of Two Degrees Ltd., a GSM operator in New Zealand.

Last December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Trilogy with her 2009 Award for Corporate Excellence.

Since the Haiti quake, Trilogy has pledged to invest a further $100 million in the country. It hopes the government will open up more spectrum for commercial carriers. As Internet traffic increases, many more cell phone towers will have to be built, offering opportunities for equipment vendors and construction firms down the road.

"This is an emerging model for information in the 21st century, a place where there are no wires, where schools are connected through wireless broadband," he said.

"Innovations in mobile banking and remittances will stimulate economic development and jump-start the Haitian economy."

But more importantly, said Horwitz, widespread mobile technology could ensure political stability in a Caribbean nation that's notoriously unstable.

"International efforts need to be directed toward building capacity in the government. Haiti must be open for business, but not business as usual. New technologies in the areas of e-commerce and e-government must be employed," said the investor. "But first, a private-sector model has to be in place, and build-operate-transfer models need to be implemented. My company is already acting along those lines." ■

Zaragoza Alvarado

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