[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
Digicel launched their mobile phone service in Vanuatu this week with a splash the likes of which have not been seen since Independence. Outside observers will find it hard to believe just how much excitement the arrival of a new phone company has engendered in Vanuatu. This column needs to be read in the context of a nation that, in terms of communications, has been utterly impoverished, but whose poverty seemed to vanish in a single day. In this light, the prospect of nearly ubiquitous mobile coverage at affordable rates is takes on historical proportions.
This week’s column isn’t so much a commentary as a sketch of first impressions about Digicel, its services and people’s reactions to both.
Digicel’s launch was a coordinated campaign designed to make it look to most people as if it sprang fully formed from the ground on the morning of the 25th. Billboards went up overnight, the flagship store was unveiled, the largest bandstand in Vanuatu history was constructed in the aptly-chosen Independence Park. Top-up signs appeared on store fronts everywhere, sometimes four to a block. Even newspaper sellers were transformed into Digicel vendors. One of the biggest concerts in Vanuatu history went off on-time and without a hitch. Hundreds of people – athletes, the disabled, the wealthy and the powerful – were entertained with food and drink that flowed smoothly and in apparently limitless quantities. It culminated with the biggest fireworks display in living memory.
Digicel wasn’t just showing off. There was a deliberate point to be made, and they made it emphatically: Digicel delivers.
Anyone who’s done any amount of work in Vanuatu knows just how remarkably difficult it can be to coordinate everyone’s efforts. This usually leads to things happening in sequence, rather than all at once. That, in turn, leads to delays, because one little failure can hold up the entire chain of events. These failures can compound quickly as a delay in one area can – and usually does – affect the once-ready state of others.
Digicel has proven that they have an organisation capable of delivering a large-scale event in a coordinated and coherent manner, and that they are willing to commit the resources required to do it.
This has two interesting implications. The first and most obvious is that there is every reason to believe that Digicel can operate successfully throughout the country at the level promised. They can do so by relying on nobody but themselves. It is clear now that when they offered a very large performance bond to the government, they did so with complete confidence.
The second implication will take time to play out. The Digicel Group has given a great deal of autonomy to each of its 27 national operations. They make a policy of investing significantly in local knowledge and capacity in order to tailor each company to the local environment. There is obvious wisdom in this strategy, as their business plan is predicated on effective operation in heretofore marginal markets.
How will this strategy play out in a country with largely undeveloped technical capabilities? It will require extensive engagement and a higher degree of commitment than any other outside entity has proven willing to invest in the past. Only time will tell whether Digicel’s leadership will continue to invest the resources necessary to the task.
But I’m writing this neither to praise Digicel, nor to bury them. What follows are anecdotal observations of the first few days after the birth of nation-wide communications in Vanuatu:
On opening day, I went down to the opening of the new store where Ma Barker’s used to be. Absolute madness. There were about 40 people allowed into the store at a time, with a line-up that was never less than about 100 people all the time I was there. There was an air of tangible excitement in the crowd. One would think they were selling Rolling Stones tickets, not mobile phones.
I was told that Au Bon Marché Nambatu was lined up out to the parking lot, as was Top Video.
At the launch party, I spoke briefly with John Delves, the General Manager of Digicel. I asked him about sales figures for the day, but he would only say that they were very pleased with results so far. Interestingly, he said that their primary form of measurement is call volume. The phones, obviously, are just a means to an end, and their reporting reflects that.
The next morning, I went down to the Digicel store, and found out that 3 different models were out of stock. Apparently the phones are in-country, but not enough were prepped for sale. Staff said they expected to have more before lunch time, but by end of day the phones had still not arrived. One staff member estimated that they sold over 500 mobiles at the main location on the first day alone. That’s not at all a reliable number, but it gives some of perspective on the rough level of interest. Five hundred phones in a single day, in a town of roughly forty-thousand people.
Interestingly, the cheapest phones, which start at 2000 vatu, were still in good supply. The sold-out models were in the lower middle range, between 8-15,000 vatu. It seems that Digicel misjudged the market slightly. It’s equally possible that people are simply conditioned to spend more on mobile service, and that Digicel has so exceeded their expectations that people simply up-sold themselves. It will be interesting to see if Digicel adjusts its marketing tactics, or the market adjusts to Digicel’s aggressive price point, or both.
A significant number of people were buying two or more mobiles at a time. When asked, more than one of them said they were purchasing them for family back on the island.
Crowds remained excited on the second day, even a tiny bit rowdy. They would have benefited from having staff outside to manage the line, but nobody seemed to have considered just how excited people would be. One intrepid security guard eventually brought order to the situation through a combination of wily talk and a little bit of chest-puffing.
Some technical notes: I bought a SIM card for an existing phone, and later when I checked my credit levels, it told me that I have 0 vatu credit. The good news is that my expiry date was ‘9999/12/31’. I hoped at first that my SIM card could be handed down through the generations, but the problem was rectified later the same day without any intervention from me. Nonetheless, I hope they’ve incorporated the year 10,000 bug into their IT planning.
Call quality seems to be excellent so far, but there are problems texting from TVL to Digicel. I’ve been told by reliable sources that the problem originates on the TVL side (Digicel’s error message says tactfully that the problem originates on ‘another’ network), and that it will be fixed within days. I’ve also heard reports that the service is down in Aore and Malo islands, and that coverage in North Efate leaves a little to be desired. Villagers in Epule have to walk to the shore or up the hill in order to place a call.
None of these initial wrinkles are surprising. What does surprise me is that Digicel turned up the entire network, rolled out its marketing and sales effort and then threw a party of historic proportions all on the same day. That is a logistical feat that is without precedent in Vanuatu history.