Digicel Rolls out Mobile Internet Service

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Update for online readers: Digicel Vanuatu’s Manager for Commercial Operations did finally contact me, too late, alas, for the publication deadline, which had been pushed  forward this week to accommodate the Good Friday holiday. We had a thorough discussion, and he cleared up a few things that were left as question marks in the original column. I’ve updated the text below, and have tried to show what’s changed between the original version and this one. – DM

About 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday this week, an email hit the VIGNET mailing list, announcing that Digicel had rolled out its long-awaited mobile Internet service. Using radio waves to send data over the Internet, Digicel’s GPRS service significantly increases the value and flexibility of their services.

Charging rates cheaper than many in the US and Australia, Digicel have raised the bar in terms of customer expectations once again. Now, Digicel subscribers can send multimedia messages to one another or browse the web from their laptop or mobile phone. You can now take a photo with your camera and send it to a friend, send them a ring tone they like, read your email from your phone, or check out an important web page.

Sending photos from your phone may sound frivolous, but think about it for a second: Hubby is sent to pick up some baby products at the supermarket. Faced with a dizzying array of choices, he take a photo of one, sends it to his wife with the question, ‘Are these what you meant?’ Domestic harmony is well worth the expense.

A caveat before I go on: I’m composing this column less than 24 hours after the initial public roll-out, and Digicel management have yet to reply replied too late to my requests for information, so whatever information you find here is of necessity incomplete and possibly mistaken. Some of the information in the print version of this column is incomplete.

In fact, if it were not for the intervention of a kindly technician, I wouldn’t have GPRS service on my phone at all. As things stand right now, Digicel formally supports about 14 different mobile models from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and Motorola. If you have one of the supported phones, all you need to do is phone Digicel customer care at 123, and the very courteous and professional support staff will automatically configure your phone for you.

There’s no charge to enable this new service. Both pre-paid and post-paid phones are eligible, and though fees have yet to be formally announced, I’ve been told that customers are charged about 400 vatu per megabyte downloaded. In real terms, if you’re reading 20-30 text-only emails per day on your mobile, you’ll likely find it costs less than 2000 vatu more per month.

My Motorola W375 was not on the list of supported phones, but a very helpful technician was kind enough to go above and beyond the call of duty. Well into the evening, he called me and helped me through the configuration, which turned out to be trivially easy. (It’s a curious thing, but even though I’m capable of writing complex software applications, I’m still the kind of guy who has trouble changing the time on his phone.)

The technician reassured me that any mobile that supports GPRS will be compatible with Digicel’s service. This was later confirmed by Digicel. If you have one of the 14 currently supported models, Digicel customer care will set everything up for you. If not, you’ll might need to enlist a local geek to lend a helping hand. In either case, you do need to ring 123 in order to get your account enabled for digital data service.

I spent several hours last night and this morning playing around with the service. It was a little up-and-down last night, but that’s to be expected in the early hours after the roll-out. So far today, it’s been pretty solid. Again, full credit goes to the hard-working technical staff who, I don’t doubt, are a little short on sleep right now.

One of the more interesting things I can do with my mobile is to plug it into my computer and use it as a modem. This means that someone with a laptop and an appropriate mobile phone can hook into the Internet from just about anywhere in Vila or Santo and get a quick hit of Internet.

GPRS isn’t particularly cheap, and it won’t take the place of a full-time Internet connection (like TVL’s ADSL broadband service) in the home. But if you need to get online from anywhere and you don’t get too download-happy, you should find Digicel’s service remarkably useful and more affordable than similar offerings in developed nations.

Reaction among the online community has been almost universally positive. One person who had a preview of Digicel’s mobile Internet service was writes:

“As a foreigner coming to Vanuatu, the ability of picking up a GPRS enabled SIM card and putting it in my phone is just wonderful. No longer am I limited to checking my Push email on my phone in the hotel’s lobby or going to a friend’s place and using his wifi… Now I can have my email on the move, when ever I want, wherever I want.

“I think this is a great advancement for Internet in Vanuatu.

“When/if Digicel start selling USB GPRS dongles that will make the internet much more accessible to the average home user with a computer. Sure it will be expensive, but if all you are doing is using google chat (or variants) and sending small emails, then it will be affordable.

“The speed for looking at mobile optimised websites such as news.com.au is fine. Last week i sat down at [the Last Flight kava bar] and checked what was news back in Australia – too easy!”

A member of the Vanuatu Government’s Geohazards Project wrote in to tell me that GPRS will likely be an invaluable part of their overall service plan. GPRS in the islands would allow them to send important visual and sensor data via email, and do so more cheaply than satellite. This could make the difference between life and death in the event of a volcano, tsunami or other natural disaster. “For us,” says Sylvain Todman, “it is a revolution!

Digicel’s mobile Internet service isn’t the final piece in the connectivity puzzle, but it’s an important one. There’s every indication so far that it’s being rolled out with the same dedication and professionalism as their original GSM service.

I strongly suspect that one of the biggest drivers of this service will be international traffic. The ability to send email from a mobile will make it easier for families of those working abroad in New Zealand or Australia to stay in touch. Likewise, business travelers visiting Vanuatu will be extremely glad of the service and pricing.

If and when GPRS service reaches the islands, it GPRS is available throughout Digicel’s coverage area. In the islands especially, it could prove a real boon to business. Imagine being able to send a photo of your prize kava plant, batch of fish, produce, what have you, and get an immediate commitment from a buyer before you put it on the plane.

I tried to contact Digicel’s management in order to get authoritative information concerning the service, to no avail but they responded too late for me to include their feedback in the print version of this story. Questions concerning the service coverage area, pricing for post-paid customers and which mobile phones exactly are supported by customer care all went unanswered.

Digicel’s mobile Internet service is an important piece in the communications puzzle. Despite the unanswered questions, o One can’t help but feel good seeing another entrant into Vanuatu’s Internet market. There will be more, and different, but this is a big step in the right direction.