Costa Rica recently stepped into more modern times when the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the country’s state-run telecommunications monopoly, launched cell phone Internet service.
This service allows GSM cell phone users to connect to the Internet anywhere they have phone service, but there’s a catch: no GSM lines are available, so those who want cell phone Internet must be one of the approximately 1 million clients who already own this type of line.
And even they must act fast – the service is available to only 82,000 users, though ICE plans to “make adjustments” should demand surpass this amount, spokeswoman Adriana Víquez told The Tico Times this week.
If the 5,416 people who connected their cell phones to the Internet in the first five days after this service became available are any indication, Costa Ricans are ready and eager to get their hands on this technology.
ICE launched cell phone Internet April 9, the same day most people went back to work and things ground back to normalcy after Easter Holy Week, or Semana Santa.
The slowness of the week didn’t stop people from motivating to get their cell phones connected, which ICE considers a “very good sign,” Víquez said.
For a flat fee of ¢3,500 (about $7) per month, users of ICE-approved models of GSM cell phones can activate them to connect to the Internet or use them as modems to provide Internet service to a computer or another handheld device, Víquez explained. (A list of compatible GSM phones, as well as more information about cell phone Internet, is available on ICE’s Web site, www. grupoice.com.)
New clients or those with a TDMA line (the other cell phone technology in Costa Rica) won’t be able to obtain the service until more GSM lines become available, which the institute hopes will become reality by the end of this year, according to ICE spokeswoman Rosemary Monge. At that time, any of the country’s 549,000 TDMA phone clients can request to switch to GSM.
Using wireless application protocol (WAP) and general packet radio service (GPRS) technologies, the new service creates a “fusion of two technologies – Internet and phone,” Víquez said.
The advantage: users can stay connected to the world by accessing the Internet anywhere they have cell phone service.
Downsides include a slower connection (42 kilobytes per second) than is available with computers and a smaller screen, meaning some images cannot be displayed, though this depends on the phone model, she said.
WAP simplifies images such as photos to make them viewable on a small screen in a format called WML, while GPRS allows information to be transmitted in small flashes through an Internet protocol (IP) network, giving users access to some of the HTML Web pages they’re used to seeing on their computers, according to information posted on ICE’s Web site.
About 60,000 people have been using this service for the past five years free of charge through an ICE pilot plan, which allowed the institute to work out most of the kinks before offering the service to the country’s 1 million GSM users, Víquez said. So far, only some of the pilot plan participants have signed up to keep their Internet access paying the monthly fee, according to Monge.
One participant told The Tico Times he doesn’t plan to pay to keep the service because he found it difficult to read e-mail on his small cell phone screen.
In addition to fixing problems, ICE had to answer to the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP) to be able to launch the service.
In March, ARESEP established the fee at ¢3,500 per month, citing faulty methodology used by ICE when the institute requested it be set at $10.
ARESEP argued that ICE low-balled its estimates of how many people have cell phones capable of accessing the Internet and that because the country has the infrastructure for 82,000 people to use this technology, the cost should be lower.
Regulator General Fernando Herrera also criticized ICE for “advancing very slowly in this area” compared to other countries, including Mexico, Colombia and other Central American countries.
Additionally, ARESEP gave ICE six months to conduct a market study on users of this technology worldwide and reassess where Costa Rica stands.
Those who have a GSM line and are interested in cell phone Internet service can call 115 for more information, but ICE recommends that they visit one of its agencies to sign up. They should bring their identification cards (foreigners must bring their residency cédulas), as well as their cell phones, so that technicians can make sure they are compatible and activate the WAP function.