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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Cuban Exile Pioneers High-Tech Frontier

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Roman Gil just can't stop talking about how useful WAP-enabled mobile phones are.

In December, the founder and head of Moscow Business Telephone Guide made his directory accessible to mobile phones with wireless application protocol (wap.mbtg.ru), but weeks later, he says he is still excited about WAP.

The system allows subscribers to access a select subsection of the Internet through their mobile phones.

During an interview at a restaurant Thursday, the music had stopped, the lights had been turned on in a signal to diners to leave, the waitress had brought the bill, and Gil was still speaking about the convenience of wireless data services as he flipped open his mobile phone and pointed to the tiny lit screen.

"Wireless access to corporate data bases — big business," he said. "Wireless e-mail — big business."

He talked about the time in New York — where he spends half the year keeping up to date on the latest gizmos and gadgets — when he lost the lens cap on his camera and had to find the nearest photo shop. He punched in a few letters on his cellphone and found the address of the store.

Or, back in Moscow, there was the time when he was driving around and couldn't find the European Medical Center … he looks at his phone to indicate that the wandering didn't last long.

Reminded of the little use of WAP, how it has not yet taken hold in Western Europe and of the comparably nascent market for wireless services in Moscow, he admits he gets carried away with touting the advantages of wireless data.

However, he insists there is a potential market in Moscow and that mobile operators have not done enough to meet a looming demand.

"They have to wake up — they're clueless," he said of the city's leading mobile operators, Mobile TeleSystems, and Vimpelcom, though without naming them.

Raymond Gil, his younger brother by 16 years, who joined the company in 1996 as vice president of the Internet division, agrees, adding that the operators should create a network of trained dealers who can educate the public.

Both MTS and Vimpelcom offer WAP and boast a handful of subscribers, though they have pushed back the commercial launch of their General Packet Radios Service, an upgrade of GSM, by a few months.

"You can't be a dinosaur. I will never be that. I like to pioneer things," the elder Gil said.

That pioneering streak is perhaps what brought him to the Soviet Union in 1987 to sell computer software. He came back permanently in 1992 to start up the telephone guide, which then amounted to a few sheets and resembled a newspaper. It is much thicker now and since 1996 has been available on the web (www.mbtg.net).

His ventures east are just part of the long string of big changes that began when, at 11 years old, he and his parents left Cuba for California in 1962. Six years later, after seeing the Vietnam war on television, he volunteered for the U.S. Army on the condition that he could fight; he ended up a sniper on the Cambodian border.

"At that time, I felt I had to repay the United States for having allowed us to escape for political reasons. You can say I had some resentment against the Communists."

The war, he said, purged all those "negative feelings." He returned home a war hero and went on to earn a degree in political science and business in San Jose, California, an education courtesy of the U.S. government.

Veterans' benefits also gave him the chance to buy a house when he had no credit history. Soon he discovered his "golden touch" in real estate, and the four houses he resold in the early '80s, during the inflation jump in the United States earned him enough cash to start his own business.

He started with publishing, producing a TV guide for the cable business when cable television was growing in California. He sold that to a local investment group and invested in a personal computer business, which eventually led to the Soviet Union.

"When I saw the market change from communist to free market, I saw there would be a need for a publication."

There are complications with compiling a directory in Moscow — businesses either misrepresent themselves or are not willing to give information, Gil said.

And companies are constantly expanding, closing and redefining themselves. All this requires a lot of calling and inquiring by the sales team, which results in around 1,500 changes to each new directory, upgraded and published every five weeks.

"In a developing economy like the U.S., it's possible to update once a year with minor changes. Here it's impossible," said Raymond Gil.

The brothers view the August 1998 economic crisis as rock bottom, though the guide weathered it well since companies cutting advertising tended to at least hold on to small ads in local directories.

"It's a fatal mistake to not register in a business directory," Gil said.

All revenues come from advertising — the sphere in which they compete with the city's other two guides, Yellow Pages and Euroaddress.

But Roman Gil returns again and again to the cellphone in his palm.

"I'm an optimist, and I tend to think that there will be a future for wireless technology," he said, "because the Russian population that is involved in business will gravitate to what makes their life convenient and increases their productivity."

http://www.mbtg.ru/ Moscow Business Telephone Guide