Painting the Country Red

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.

[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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