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Digicel overcame early clash of cultures to become a global player


Digicel owner Denis O'Brien

Digicel owner Denis O'Brien

Digicel owner Denis O'Brien

It all started when businessman Denis O'Brien spotted an advert in the 'Financial Times' in 2000. The Jamaican government was deregulating its telecoms market and was seeking applications for a mobile licence it intended to award.

With cash from the sale of Esat, Mr O'Brien pounced, forking out about $57m for the licence on the Caribbean island that became a springboard for launching Digicel across the region and further afield.

It wasn't all plain sailing at the time. Mr O'Brien jetted in executives from Ireland to help set up and initially manage the business. But there was a clash of cultures. In a study undertaken by academics of a UK university on the Digicel launch, one Irish executive highlighted the differences.

When faced with a challenge, he said that the Irish executives would be happy with a solution that was about 90pc right and which was arrived at and implemented rapidly, while local management tended to take longer to try and deliver a 100pc right solution.

But within 15 months of its launch in Jamaica in April 2001, Digicel was the market leader in the country. Rapid expansion followed, as the company expanded its footprint, first across the Caribbean.

In 2005, it entered Haiti, a market where at the time just 4pc of the country's population had a mobile phone. "We saw a high-cost market, with a poor network and few subscribers," Mr O'Brien said in an interview with the 'Financial Times'.

"It was nothing more scientific than that," he added. "We turned it on its head." Mr O'Brien has extensive business interests, including a significant stake in INM, the publisher of this newspaper.

While Digicel has been a big success, it has also come under pressure from increasing competition, not just from rival mobile operators, but also from the internet.

Subscribers around the world use smartphone applications such as Viber and WhatsApp to send messages and make calls, creating somewhat of a headache for mobile operators.

But Digicel has been busy trying to future-proof itself by developing into more than just a mobile operator.

It has invested heavily in its fibre networks to support the provision of bandwidth-intensive services.

Digicel has also bought cable TV and broadband companies in some of the territories where it operates.

It's also investing heavily in super-fast 4G networks. Digicel is evolving from telecoms into a wider communications provider and the planned IPO is about raising money on the markets to drive that agenda.

Irish Independent