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Technology Wins Out Over Guns and Poverty

Wednesday, 24 Mar 2010 | 5:27 PM ET

Greetings from the Wireless Conference in Las Vegas. Everyone is talking about Google getting out of China.

Models show Samsung Electronics Co's Android smartphones during the unveiling ceremony on February 4, 2010 in Seoul, South Korea.
Getty Images
Models show Samsung Electronics Co's Android smartphones during the unveiling ceremony on February 4, 2010 in Seoul, South Korea.

By far my most interesting interview today was with John Stanton, the founder of WesternWireless, the former CEO of T-Mobile, and now the founder of Trilogy Partners. I asked him if he would have made the same decision as (Google CEO) Eric Schmidt and gotten out of China. Stanton says he would not have made the same decision. He very bluntly says Google is wrong to get pull out of China.

Stanton told me, "Technology will win out over guns." He says technology has overcome dictatorships, citing the "Voice of America" during the Cold War, fax machines during the Tiananmen Square uprising, and the use of Twitter in Tehran last year. (Watch video of the interview here).

Google vs. China
John Stanton, founder of Trilogy International Partners, the second largest operator of wireless systems outside the US, talks to CNBC.

"In the long term", Stanton says, companies "need to be willing to take some losses, some casualties... in order to succeed. You've got to be willing to take on that government. You've got to be willing to make a difference."

I’m still thinking about what he said, and frankly, undecided still on how I feel. Stanton’s company Trilogy is a wireless service provider in Haiti. As a result of the earthquake, they are the only providers of nearly all cellular communication right now.

Several of Triology’s employees died in the quake, and many are living in tents. Trilogy’s work in Haiti reminds me of why I have a soft spot in my heart for the wireless industry. I’ve covered Latin America off and on for nearly two decades. For years, if you were in a home in Latin America with a phone, you were in the home of a rich person. Land lines were controlled by the various countries’ governments, and unlike the United States, they didn’t have the money, the know-how, or the will to install enough wiring to provide everyone a phone. So only the wealthy had them.

The Wireless Connection - CTIA Wireless 2010 - See the Complete Coverage
The Wireless Connection - CTIA Wireless 2010 - See the Complete Coverage

Luckily, by the time wireless technology arrived, most of those economies had been liberalized, and wireless was open to private investments and competition.That has led to high levels of penetration into even the poorest parts of the world.

Here at the CTIA conference, everyone is focused on 4G technology, watching movies on your phone, and the next cool thing. But I am always reminded that this is an industry that has done more for the poor than nearly any other. Wireless has been transformational in the emerging markets.

Brazil, Haiti, Africa, India, and Spanish-speaking Latin America are all showing enormous growth in mobile phone use, despite high levels of poverty. When I worked at Univision many years ago, we frequently got calls from parents worried about their young sons, who had secretly crossed the border into the United States, and whom they hadn’t heard from. Could we please put their sons picture up on television and ask if anyone had seen or heard from them?

But the world has changed dramatically since then. Have you been to a construction site lately? There are two facts you should know. One: Nearly 25 percent of the workers are likely to be undocumented (according to the Pew Research Center). Two: Nearly all of them have a cell phone. Usually it’s a pre-paid phone of some sort, easily available at a convenience store such as 7-Eleven (from my observations.)

Their ability to communicate is a dramatic improvement in their lives. And that is the result of private enterprise and competition. No government involvement at all. Think about that next time you watch a movie on your phone.

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