Island Hopping

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

Denis O’Brien, owner of the Digicel Group, graces the cover of the August 11th issue of Forbes Magazine. Their profile, titled ‘Babble Rouser’, begins with a tone of detached and vaguely supercilious astonishment at the risks that Digicel has incurred in the course of its lightning-quick expansion across the island nations of the world. It quickly sobers, though, when it reports that the Digicel Group earned $505 million in operating profit on $1.6 billion in revenue in the financial year ending March, 2008.

Forbes leaves it to O’Brien himself to explain his damn-the-torpedoes philosophy:

“Get big fast. [Damn] the cost. Be brave. Go over the cliff. [The competition] doesn’t have the balls.”

I suspect he used some word other than ‘damn’.

Most anyone would enjoy downing a beer with the honey-tongued chancer from Cork, but Denis O’Brien didn’t make the cover of Forbes merely because of a flamboyant devil-may-care attitude. He’s noteworthy because he saw an opportunity where others didn’t, and he got rich capitalising on it.

The idea is simple enough: If you give everyone – literally everyone – access to mobile services, you can make money everywhere. In O’Brien’s world, there is no such thing as low-hanging fruit. Every single market gets aggressively cultivated. The fruits of such labours are truly remarkable.

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Rebuilding the Nasara

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

About a month ago, I gave a talk [Powerpoint File] to telecommunications network operators from all over the Pacific region. It dealt with the social aspects of Vanuatu’s communications revolution. Many of the themes I touched on will be familiar to readers of this column.

In a nutshell, I talked about Digicel’s approach to so-called marginal markets and how they relied on Network Effects to generate traffic where there had been none before. Once you have more than a certain percentage of the population using a particular means of communication, everyone else is compelled to join them, simply because everybody is using it.

Mobile telephone services significantly enhance one – and only one – important aspect of Vanuatu culture. They enable family members and friends to stay in touch with one another much more easily than they could before. This has the effect of strengthening some of the bonds that keep small groups together. As such, it should be viewed as a positive reinforcement of many of the things that we hold dear.

But in Vanuatu society, there’s more to communication than conversations between family members. We’ve so far succeeded in re-creating the kitchen conversation by electronic means. But we have no nakamal, no nasara. We have no meeting place we can truly call our own.

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Painting the Country Red

[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.

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A National Plan

I have a confession to make. I’m a snob. At least, I am where technology is concerned. Okay, maybe I’m not the type to cross the street when I see someone with last year’s doohickey du jour. But I do notice when your smart phone looks (or acts) like a brick. I can tell at a glance whether your machine is a cutting edge screamer or the technological equivalent of East Germany’s Brabant automobile, legendary for its poor quality.

I like good engineering, good design and efficient performance. In short, I like things that do their job well, whatever that job may be. I like it so much that I hate to settle for less than the best. Not the biggest, necessarily, nor the most expensive. Just the best.

This focus on tools made me lose sight of a couple of important things: First, while doing things perfectly is a commendable ideal, it happens exactly 0% of the time in the real world. Second, Vanuatu is more, er, ‘real world’ than many other places on Earth.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a leftie when it comes to computing. I like to see as much power in the hands of the people as possible. While it’s nice – and often necessary – to rely on services provided by others, I’ve always believed that DIY is the most empowering way to go. So, when the news began to percolate out that Vanuatu would have truly national mobile phone services, I was interested mostly in how that might help the spread of computers into the islands.

What I didn’t consider is that the mobile might actually become the computer.
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