COSTA Rica just might be pulling into the fastlane on the information superhighway, thanks todevelopments this week that have observers makingbig plans for the country’s online future.On Monday night, the long-awaited AdvancedInternet Network – originally slated to begin operationthree years ago – was inaugurated at the MelicoSalazar Theater in downtown San José, at the launchof a two-day Latin American Internet conference.The same day, a few blocks away, the similarlylong-anticipated Law of Electronic Certificates,Signatures and Documents was approved in firstdebate 40-2 in the Legislative Assembly. The lattermeans people may soon be able to conduct myriadbusiness and government transactions online, whilethe former promises a nationwide high-speed Internetnetwork incorporating more Costa Ricans into thedigital age than ever before.The electronic signatures bill, which is expected topass in second debate next week and go directly toPresident Abel Pacheco to be signed, would give certifiedelectronic signatures and other vital electronicdocuments the same legal validity as hard copy versions– a huge step forward, according to some.“THESE are radical changes for the country,” saidFernando Gutiérrez, Minister of Science andTechnology, who would oversee the implementationof the new law. “This is a great advance.”The law would create a national registry of certifieddigital signatures, established when individualsor company representatives go in person to provide their signatures to the Science andTechnology Ministry. Authorized partieswould then be able to use their certified digitalsignatures for all online transactions. Thelist of authorized signatures would be availableto the public on a ministry Web site.OBSERVERS say the law – first proposedin early 2001 by the Science andTechnology Ministry – would have a majorimpact in three areas: private business, governmentoperations and judicial procedures.Gutiérrez explained that digital signatureswould allow Costa Rican businesses toestablish digital contracts and expand theiroperations in previously unthinkable ways.“Today, a digital document does not haveany legal legitimacy, which makes electroniccommerce impossible, or nearly impossible,”he said. “What the digital signature does isgive [documents] legal security.”Alexander Mora, president and CEO ofInfonet Centroamerica, the Central Americandivision of BT Infonet, which handlesglobal communications for multinationalcorporations, told The Tico Timesdigital signatures will give online businessa serious boost, which could draw investmentto the country.“Once people see that the conditionsare more secure for those who want toinvest, that there is more security and protections,it will bring more foreign investment,”Mora said.DAY-TO-DAY government operationsmay experience a more drastic transformationthan any other area as a result of theproposed law. According to Lilliana Salas,a legislator for the Social Christian UnityParty (PUSC) who has been following thebill closely, the ability to sign and processdocuments digitally would save CostaRicans and foreigners an incalculablenumber of trips to government offices andhops through bureaucratic hoops.“The wonderful thing about this reformis that it authorizes all government agenciesto use the digital signature,” Salas said.For example, before any architect canstart a project, the current system requiresthat he or she take the building plans to theFederated Association of Engineers andArchitects (CFIA) for approval. With thedigital signatures law, architectural planscould be submitted in a few minutesonline. Transferring property titles, payingbills, turning in forms, making changes togovernment services – all these transactionscould be made through a computer ifthe law is passed.In addition, documents could be submittedto the National Registry online, savingusers a trip to Zapote, east of San José.Such a change could make a world ofdifference to residents of remote areas suchas the Osa Peninsula in the Southern Zone,who currently drive at least six hours to filedocuments in San José.IN addition to saving people’s time,experts say the digital signatures law couldalso save the government money whileincreasing efficiency and transparency.Science and Technology MinisterGutiérrez said the government has a Website ready where it will publicize all goodsand services it wishes to contract out.Private companies would then be able tobid on them and their bids would be publishedalongside all the others in a processthat is open and visible to the public.In a country where three formerPresidents and other public officials areunder investigation in corruption casesrelated to public contracts, increased transparencyis a sought-after commodity.“This is another tool for the fight againstcorruption,” Mora said. “If there is somethingshady, it won’t be easy to hide. A lot ofpeople will be following the process.”In terms of judicial processes, the billauthorizes all notifications to be made viaelectronic forms of communication.Currently, they must be done in person or byfax. Documents can also be sent fromlawyers to the courts via e-mail, cuttingdown greatly the amount of paperwork andbureaucracy in legal procedures. This alsomeans people would be able to submit manymore types of evidence of electronic or digitalorigin in trials, said legislator Salas.The law would take Costa Rica a bigstep closer to what is being referred to as a“digital government,” with the launchingof the new Advanced Internet Networkgiving many more Costa Ricans access tothis government, as well as the many servicesand information the Internet offers,Gutiérrez said.“OUR dialogue with the world is presenttoday in a symbolic way with thelaunching of the Advanced InternetNetwork,” Gutiérrez said Monday at the ceremonyinaugurating the conference on therole of the Internet in Latin American development,held Tuesday and Wednesday at theHotel Herradura outside San José.The launch of Costa Rica’s broadbandInternet network signaled the completionof the first phase of the project, whichcomprises 75,000 connections in 26 areas,mostly in the Central Valley, according to astatement from the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute, which oversees the project.Gutiérrez said at the inauguration that bythe end of this year that number would riseto 100,000 connections in more than 200areas across the country.The project will put routers in all telephonecenters in the country, said ICE,establishing a network of high-speed,broadband Internet connections that willbe passed through existing phone lines at adifferent frequency than voice data, allowingusers to be online and still use theirtelephone. The service will be billed at afixed rate, not dependent on how manyhours a user is online. Prices range from$22 a month for a speed of 64/32 kilobytesper second (kbps), $25 a month for128/64kbps, up to 512/128 kbps for $64 amonth. To sign up for the service, dial 115.The Advanced Internet project was initiatedin 2001, and slated for completion in2002. It was delayed because of contractproblems and technical issues – alongwith, according to some onlookers, corruptionallegations and lack of political will(TT, Nov. 19, 2004).