PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — In one of the few offices of Teleco Haiti that survived January’s catastrophic earthquake, the customer service agents sit idle. The state-run phone company is barely limping back to service.

Before the quake, Teleco was a corruption-gutted, money-hemorrhaging albatross. Fewer than 2 percent of Haitians had service from its landline monopoly while Teleco’s high-speed data network was minuscule. And while it controlled wireless spectrum, it had no competitive cell phone service.
That makes one company’s decision to buy a majority stake in Teleco and commit to resuscitating it so remarkable.

That company, Viettel, is run by communist Vietnam’s military. A half-dozen of its engineers in crisp, button-down shirts pound away on laptops in a newly air conditioned room next to the empty Teleco customer-service office.

In its first foray into the Western Hemisphere, Viettel has made the biggest direct foreign investment in Haiti since the Jan. 12 quake. It bought 60 percent of Teleco for $59 million and committed $40 million more to get the company moving again.

Viettel is promising not just to rebuild Teleco’s infrastructure but also to deliver cheap Internet services to all corners of the hemisphere’s poorest country, says Michel Presume, who has been director-general of Teleco since 2006 and prepared its sale.

For now Haiti’s Internet access comes from private competitors that charge an average of $65 a month — far beyond the reach of all but Haiti’s tiny elite — for a connection of 128 kilobits per second, not much faster than dial-up.

Presume, who previously helped privatize Haiti’s cement and flour industries, says “this one is going to make a big difference” for the nation of 9 million people, 80 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day.

Viettel won control of Teleco through an auction the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank, organized before the quake. Haiti’s central bank had been Teleco’s sole owner, and the auction reduced its stake to 40 percent.

Haiti’s two dominant cellular carriers, Digicel and Voila, also made bids, but their offers were rejected as inadequate and potentially anti-competitive. Digicel is a subsidiary of the Irish-owned Digicel Group; Voila is owned by Bellevue, Wash.-based Trilogy International Partners.

The winning bid was announced in December, so the Vietnamese could have opted to pull out after Teleco’s physical assets were mostly pulverized in the quake, which the government says killed 230,000 and made 1.3 million homeless.

Viettel decided to soldier on.

It got Teleco’s prized spectrum and Internet licenses in return for committing to build a nationwide fiber-optic backbone, which carries data at high speeds, along with cell phone and high-speed WiMax wireless data networks.

Viettel also committed to laying a new submarine cable to Florida and to repair a quake-damaged undersea link with the Bahamas that Teleco never put into service.

Viettel says it can build the Internet backbone in a year, laying 3,100 miles of fiber and linking the country’s 10 biggest cities, according to Presume. Free Internet is planned for 1,300 mostly rural public schools and for government offices, hospitals and clinics.

For such a network to be built, far more investment is needed than Viettel has publicly committed, analysts and competitors say, especially given Haiti’s stymied development.

“We receive calls from abroad, but cannot call out. Internet doesn’t work and direct lines don’t function,” says Sulette Flurant, customer service supervisor at the Teleco office where the Viettel engineers labor.

Viettel has been silent on its revival plans. Repeated attempts by The Associated Press to interview Viettel officials were politely spurned, both at company headquarters in Hanoi and in Port-au-Prince.

Digicel’s chief executive for Haiti, Maarten Boute, says his employer did not match Viettel’s bid for Teleco because, for one, it considers building a nationwide fiber network a money-losing proposition.

The parent of his main competitor, Voila, apparently agrees. Trilogy Partners’ John Stanton has proposed Haiti become the world’s first all-wireless nation.

“Our vision for the rebuilding of Haiti is to leapfrog older technologies,” Stanton said in March. The proposal has been echoed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is co-directing Haiti’s reconstruction.

Stanton’s pitch to make Haiti “copper-free” may be self-serving; his company is the biggest U.S. investor in Haiti, where two in five people now have cell phones. But his argument also reflects the desperate poverty of Haiti, where the theft of copper wires is common.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writer Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Farah Doura in Port-au-Prince.