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#4616: A Cyber-Revolution Dawns in Haiti (fwd)


A Cyber-Revolution Dawns in Haiti
Despite All the Odds New transmission methods enable Internet cafes to
operate without phone or power lines. 
By MARK FINEMAN, Times Staff Writer
PETIONVILLE, Haiti--Dmitri Fourcand started out early at Station 2 in
the Art Deco cafe known as Click 123 one  morning this week. By
nightfall, the 28-year-old graphic designer had marketed an array of
products from his cyber-mall. He'd made a tidy commission and swapped
dozens of e-mails with customers the world over--all without phone or
power lines in a nation that ranks among the world's poorest.           
"When I look at that screen, I'm not in Haiti anymore," Fourcand said as
young Haitians all around him downloaded research papers from France,
explored job opportunities in Florida and, yes, ventured into steamier
subjects with far-off cyber-suitors in chat rooms.  "When I'm on the
Net, I'm a citizen of the world. I can see how the world is evolving.
And I can see forever." It is a scene that is repeating itself daily now
in more than a dozen generator-powered cyber-cafes that have sprouted in
 this mountainside suburb of the Haitian capital in the last year like
spaceships in a scrap yard. It is a phenomenon that many analysts here
say ultimately Could revolutionize Haiti. And it already is beginning to
offer a precious sliver of hope for the younger generation of a country
that 2 million Haitians have left behind. 

Tapping the Potential 
Haiti is, after all, a nation in utter disrepair: There are just      
60,000 phone lines in the nation of nearly 8 million people--less      
than half the per capita average for the African continent. Most of the
country has no electricity, no clean drinking water and no Paved roads. 
  And at least two-thirds of the population is illiterate--after a     
succession of dictatorships taught that information was an unnecessary
evil."The Internet is important because it has the potential to open up
the nation to the rest of the world," said Francois Benoit, general
manager of the company that pioneered the Internet in Haiti. Benoit's
Alpha Communications Network is the first of  three servers to set up
shop, using a technology declassified by the U.S. military in the
mid-1990s. Spread spectrum technology, he says, has made it possible to
relay Internet connections without phone lines or cable TV lines,
through a  network of repeater stations that--despite government       
obstacles--his company intends to extend nationwide. Benoit's
cyber-customers buy an antenna for $4,000 that links them to ACN's
satellite ground station and then pay a $250 monthly fee for the
service. Although far cheaper than a new national phone system, the
prices remain far beyond the reach of most Haitians. "Let's get real. In
Haiti, the first step is [to] give the people something to eat," said
Wilhem Trouillot, administrator and co-owner of the Click 123
cyber-cafe, which mostly draws Haiti's well-educated elite. "I'm sorry,
but the Internet is auxury here." 
Cost Steep for Many 
In a nation where the annual per capita income is less than $400, the
fees are indeed steep: At Click 123, members pay  $37.50 for a 20-hour
block of time on the Internet.  Nancy Roc, who opened a combination
cyber-cafe and cultural center a month ago in the capital,
Port-au-Prince,agrees that most Haitians can't afford such an
extravagance.But Roc, a prominent journalist, stresses that the Internet
remains in its infancy here. This tool has to be made available to the
poor--to the masses--and it will in time," said Roc, who offers
membership discounts to students and the poor. "But it is a luxury and
shall remain so for several years, and that's why you have the success
of the cyber-cafe." In fact, many Haitians use the cafes not to surf the
Net but to reach relatives in the diaspora, using rented headsets to tap
into Web sites offering free international phone calls. But young
entrepreneurs such as Fourcand see the cyber-phone fad as fleeting.
"When I see the people using the Internet as a phone, I imagine Superman
cradling a baby--the vast power of this thing being wasted," said
Fourcand, who has a degree from the  University of Florida and U.S.
residency but came home "to help save my country."  "And I do believe
this thing is our key," he said, "to a new  and better Haiti."