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Trying to reconnect Haiti to itself and the world

When the earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday, Trilogy International Partners’ first instinct was to make sure the phones would start working again.
Image: A resident sits at a destroyed area after a major earthquake hit the capital Port-au-Prince
Bellevue, Wash.-based Trilogy International Partners is working to restore cell phone service in Haiti, which suffered massive damage in Tuesday's cataclysmic earthquake.Jorge Silva / Reuters
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When disaster strikes, many people’s first instinct is to reach for the phone.

When the earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday, Trilogy International Partners’ first instinct was to make sure the phones would start working again.

The Bellevue, Wash., company owns Voila, the second-largest cell phone operator in Haiti. The company, which has about 1 million subscribers in Haiti, dispatched planes as soon as possible to the island nation and was one of the first to land at the airport.

Ann Saxton, Trilogy’s treasurer, said the airport buildings were so badly damaged that employees had their passports stamped on the tarmac.

Voila was able to get service up and running late Wednesday, although Saxton said about 30 percent of the company’s sites still require some kind of maintenance.

“While it may be spotty in some parts, it will improve, and at least a great number of people are able to now communicate,” she said.

Cell phone communication is especially important in this impoverished nation of around 9 million, where land lines are rare. It is ranked 142nd among countries in land-line use, but 105th on cellular access. There were about 3.2 million cellular phones in use as of 2008, for a population of about 9.8 million people.

The company is working to repair damaged sites as quickly as possible, although Saxton said progress is inevitably going to be stymied by damaged roads, felled buildings, power outages and security concerns.

The company can send workers out on motorcycles or on foot if needed, she said, but some access issues will simply be beyond their control.

Saxton said the company’s 500 local employees are all accounted for and none of its buildings were badly damaged. The company has an existing security team to protect employees who are working there.

In addition to flying in their own supplies, Saxton said the company is using its airplanes to ferry food, water and medicine to Haiti. On Thursday, she said she spoke with a representative from the aid group Mercy Corps, which she said has some staff camped out at one of its facilities.

Saxton said the company also was working to get cell phones to aid workers.

“This is amazingly tragic, and I think things are just beginning to unfold,” she said. “I worry that we’re going to start having a security issue for the locals who live down there.”

Even before the disaster struck, the company already had been lauded for its steps to help the Haitian economy. In December, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Voila with an Award for Corporate Excellence for efforts including education and youth programs.

Saxton expects Trilogy will have some financial impact from the disaster, although she said the first priority was making sure that such a basic service as communication was restored.

The company has a long list of priorities, she said, and “way down the list is how much this is going to cost us.”

The privately held company is not required to disclose its financials.

Trilogy also owns a controlling stake in cell phone providers in New Zealand, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.