Last night, I was sitting in a local park, preparing to connect with the leader of our Lascahobas team on Skype first, and then our intern who’s coming down in September next. I was looking forward to the chance to get updates from everyone and answer their questions – it was going to be a long and valuable night of talking.
I’d had difficulties with Skype on my phone before, but I wasn’t expecting any problems now. I had borrowed my friend’s USB modem to stick inside my computer and bought a new SIM card for it: I was using the recommended equipment in a place that had a good connection. Email, Facebook, and all my other web pages were loading fine.
So, when Skype wasn’t letting me log in, I clicked on the “Forgot password” link, thinking it might be something with that. The page didn’t load, so I just typed in skype.com. That page didn’t load either.
I told my boss we’d have to talk on Google Hangouts instead of Skype, since the service seemed to be down for me. We tried to start a conversation, but every call was interrupted by a “network problem.” Google recommended that I check my firewalls.
A friend had recommended ooVoo, a low-bandwidth chat service. On a hunch, I decided to try downloading it. But again, not even the ooVoo webpage would load. Even Facebook videochat services “were not available at this time.”
“Digicel hates all forms of voice communication,” I typed to Adam. He said it made sense – no Skype for me means more money for them. If I can’t use VoIP services to make calls using the Internet, I’d have to pay to do the same thing with my phone.
Natcom, the other telco, has been giving me no problems whatsoever on the same computer. I joked with my friend that I was ready to start preparing the protest signs against Digicel’s new policy of not letting me talk to anyone, but I wasn’t quite ready to cry conspiracy until I happened to glance at an article in the tourist newspaper I picked up in the airport last week, Lakay Weekly.
“Digicel blocks VOIP applications running unlicensed in Haiti,” the title reads. The article mentions Viber, Tango, and Nimbuzz as some of the services targeted, conveniently leaving out more popular things like Skype. Apparently, “this measure was taken in order to recover the millions in lost tax revenue.” The president of Digicel, Maarten Boute, tries to explain it in a way people would understand: “A consumer does not expect to go into a supermarket and pick up the goods for free on the shelves, so these VOIP operators should be forced to pay their share.”
Except, Digicel doesn’t own the Internet. I pay them $25 a month in order to connect using their towers. That’s all the money they should be getting – website owners and applications shouldn’t have to pay so that I can access them on Digicel’s network. These licenses are bogus. Are Facebook, Google, and Youtube paying for the privilege of not being blocked by Digicel?
This has gone far beyond the point of me just complaining about an inconvenience. Here’s the thing: I understand and accept that my Internet signal won’t be strong everywhere I go. That’s just life. But when I do have it, I naturally expect to have full access to services, without them or me having to pay extra. Explaining it to my friend last night, I said, “I work for an organization called Unleash Kids. ‘Unleash Kids’ basically means give children liberty. That means I value freedom. Digicel’s taking away my freedom.”
One time, I was interviewing with a really liberal college and the guy across the table called the work I do “social justice.” I explained that’s not really how I see what I’m doing. My brother’s the political one in the family. He’s concerned about the government; I work with “nongovernmental” organizations.
In my last post about things not working, I tried to be light-hearted about the technical difficulties I experience here in Haiti. Bumpy roads and delays are just part of the experience. But now that I’ve been involved here for a while, the sense of adventure is wearing off. Putting up with it, saying “that’s just Haiti” and shrugging, that won’t work. It’s time to start pointing fingers. It’s time to fight circumstances instead of just adapting to them. Revolution, not evolution. The money is there to fix the roads. Digicel shouldn’t ask for money to make Skype available. Someone’s at least partially responsible, and certainly accountable, for everything that’s going wrong here.
But I’m just the crazy white girl who comes here and tries to make things happen. If there’s going to be real change, Haitians have to move from “Oh yeah, Digicel’s been giving me problems” to “Digicel shouldn’t be blocking access to services.” They can’t make that transition if they don’t know what’s going on – I only know this is happening because I happened to grab that paper in the airport and glance at it this morning.
In the end, poverty and everything that goes along with it is truly, partly an information problem. Before people can start to care, they need to know.