A new national telecommunications strategy, announced on May 31, will seek to provide broadband Internet access to the most remote areas of the country while encouraging the development of new information technologies.
That’s the goal of the National Broadband Strategy, overseen by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) as part of the National Development Plan for Telecommunications (PNDT). The plan requires the government to facilitate the expansion of telecommunications services countrywide.
This plan also seeks to create awareness of the economic and social importance of broadband technology and Internet expansion.
To carry out the plan’s objectives, key areas of the country in need of development must be identified, and then networking infrastructure will be boosted in those areas once funding is secured.
According to the government’s goals, this strategy should be finalized by November, and and a plan of action would be designed to influence three areas of the economy, according to Vice Minister of Telecommunications Hannia Vega.
“First, more accessible broadband will boost productivity by allowing the implementation of more efficient business processes,” said Vega. “Innovation will also improve because new applications and services that require broadband will be explored.”
“A third positive impact is the economy, as broadband access would attract job opportunities and convert Costa Rica into a provider of remote-area services,” she said.
Many countries already have similar projects up and working, including Chile and Colombia, Vega said.
In Costa Rica broadband expansion has been a public policy goal since the first National Development Plan for Telecommunications in 2009 (TT, Aug. 28, 2009).
“Access to fast Internet connection has become a vital need in our societies,” said John Hewitt, a telecommunications researcher at the High Technology Advisory Committee, a foundation that seeks to improve Costa Rica’s international competitiveness. “It is as important as breathing or eating, and whoever is not connected will face difficulties catching up with the times. It’s so important that recently the United Nations declared Internet access a human right.”
According to the latest statistics from MINAET and the International Telecommunications Union, in 2008, 2.38 of every 100 Costa Ricans had broadband service. This falls below the international average of 6.08 per 100 residents, but is above other countries in the region.
“It is a fact that countries who increase their broadband presence also increase their gross domestic product,” Hewitt said.
“Increased Internet connection positively impacts a country on many levels,” said Hewitt. “However, connections should not only be universal, but also constant and cheap, taking into consideration that a computer has become the ‘information home appliance’ for many consumers. It’s much more beneficial for a country if broadband connections are offered at flat rates. That way people won’t be limited in their search for knowledge.”
Vega said that if the national broadband strategy were not fully implemented soon, different institutions would compete to provide Internet access across the country, resulting in a waste of resources. “In addition, we would be throwing away the opportunity to improve the Costa Rican economy,” she said.
Private businesses are key to the strategy’s implantation, Vega said. Companies will be asked to take part in several workshops to help develop long-term goals.
“Private businesses can help supply services in different regions where providing services may not profitable. Companies can do that by proposing projects funded by the government,” she said.
Challenges of Nationwide Internet Access
According to Eduardo Trejos, a telecommunications researcher at University of Costa Rica’s Information and Knowledge Society Program, government officials should be cautious to avoid market distortions or bad management of the public companies that compete in the market.
Currently, Radiográfica Costarricense, or RACSA, and the Costa Rican Electricity Institute are the two government-run agencies offering Internet access.
“One of the biggest challenges when designing a national broadband strategy is to have reliable information handy,” Trejos said. “However, Internet providers have become more reluctant about releasing internal service information, which is key for the government to determine Internet coverage and the way it is used by consumers. That information would allow government officials to come up with accurate policies.”
“The whole idea is that those who are economically vulnerable would have access to the Internet,” he said. “One of the main challenges is to join the public and private sector so that the whole country benefits.”
According to Trejos, any strategy designed by the government should also establish penalties for unfair practices by private Internet providers.
“Sometimes through hidden agreements companies split the market and create de facto monopolies,” he said.
“Certainly, from a technical point of view there are challenges to be addressed and some of them have to do with infrastructure,” said Vega. “Leading countries, such as South Korea and Germany, are able to provide fiber optic lines that reach citizens’ homes directly. Costa Rica is still far from reaching that level of infrastructure.”
Another challenge is how to keep prices competitive and affordable for the average citizen, especially if private companies are encouraged to provide services in non-profitable areas.
“Prices in Costa Rica are not bad at all,” said Hewitt. “Sometimes people compare our situation with countries like Switzerland or Norway, where Internet access starts at $2 a month. We are far from that. But in the rest of Central America connectivity is terrible, and compared to them we are doing really well.”
The national strategy for Internet access is timely, as it is important for drawing foreign investment.
“Though Internet-related products may generate lots of money, it takes huge companies to profit from it,” explains Hewitt. “Products like Voice over Internet Protocol and Internet-connected TV require huge infrastructures to work. This leaves many small companies out of the game.”
According to Trejos, despite the economic benefits of a plan that seeks to universalize Internet in the country, officials should look beyond monetary advantages.
“Internet is a generator of progress, better living conditions and democratization of knowledge. Hopefully people in charge of designing this plan will understand this is a huge tool to achieve real development,” he said.