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ICE to Discontinue TDMA Cell Phones in 2009

June 15th, 2008

Those of you who live in Costa Rica are probably quite familiar with the cellular phone system here and most of you are also aware of just how lousy is the GSM system in particular. TDMA is still the only reliable system here in Costa Rica.

To provide a bit of background for newcomers, visitors and tourists, there are currently two cell phone systems here in Costa Rica. The first, TDMA , often referred to as “the old system” and GSM, “the new system”. New is better, right? Often true, but in this case… totally not true.

The GSM system was installed some years ago by Alcatel, a French company under contract to ICE the government-run monopoly that controls all telecommunications in Costa Rica. Apparently not satisfied with just trying to win this huge contract in a competitive manner, Alcatel decided to spend some cash in order to bribe some key decision makers in ICE and in the Costa Rican government. About $11 million as I recall! This was also distributed to at least two and probably three ex-Presidents of Costa Rica, two of whom spent some time in prison for accepting these bribes, and a third who is currently hiding out in Switzerland, unable and apparently unwilling to return to Costa Rica for fear of also passing a few hours in the slammer.

This is important to know because the GSM system installed by Alcatel simply did not and still does not work well at all… and it will soon be the only system available.

Recently, ICE announced, in their incredible wisdom, plans to phase out the TDMA system over a three year period beginning in 2009. I am presuming that their intentions are good, pehaps wanting to update and maintain a more current technology. I would support this decision enthusiastically if only the GSM system worked! It does not.

There are huge areas where the GSM system simply does not work and far more areas where it just works poorly. I live and work midway between San Jose and the San Jose airport, and a GSM phone will not work in the home or office. I need to walk down the road 200-300 yards to get service. Many parts of Santa Ana, Urica, and other populous suburbs of San Jose have spotty coverage at BEST!

Even if you are lucky to be in a zone that does have coverage, you are often told that you cannot connect or are told to place your call later. I have lost count of the times I have called my son only to hear that service is not available. This does not mean he is out of service zone; it means the stupid system cannot process the call. During rush hour or bad weather, just forget calling anyone or receiving calls. Theoretically, GSM phones can be set up via Bluetooth to provide Internet access. Internet is offered as a costly service on GSM phones. I tried it and the service is terrible, often not working at all.

The Southern Zone (near the Panama border) has fine TDMA coverage but crummy GSM coverage. As many people use their cell phones as the only form of communication, when the TDMA system shuts down, they will be without communications. Remember it can take years to get a land line installed, so mobile communications is often the only option.

I think by now you get the point. GSM is not a good solution!

So how does this affect Ticos? It screws them of course!

ICE has announced that they want those TDMA phones back so they can be recycled. Good idea. So that means every person who is currently using TDMA must go out and buy a new GSM phone and return their old one. But… GSM phones are not cheap here. All are sold at retail. Buyers could easily have to pony up $300 or more for a new (basic) GSM phone. Some readers might think that $300 is not too bad, but you must consider that that is more than the entire monthly income for hundreds of thousands of Tico households! To place this in perspective, if you currently earn $60,000 per year in the USA, you would need to shell out $5,000 for a cell phone! That is a big expense and this will most assuredly be a burden on low and even middle income families. I am guessing that this will leave many low income families completely without communications. That, or they will buy on credit further exacerbating the huge outstanding credit problems in CR.

Another problem! Costa Rica is now becoming home to more and more foreigners who do not speak the language. The voice mail system on the GSM phones is not available in any language other than Spanish. Now I admit to not feeling real bad about this as it is my opinion that if you are going to live in a Latin country, you must learn the language! However few foreigners arrive here already speaking Spanish, and a cell phone really is a necessity.

All and all, this is a bad idea that helps nobody except the cell phone retailers and the credit card companies. It will hurt a lot of low income families. There should be a better plan.

9 Responses to “ICE to Discontinue TDMA Cell Phones in 2009”

  1. Andy Browne on June 17, 2008 7:03 am

    I am an American who will be moving to CR in abour 12 months. Due diligence currently underway. After reading this article about TDMA vs GSM phones, perhaps it my naiveity, but what is ICE’s vision for country-wide communications? Do they even care? Or is this more of the mañana mentality I have been told to be on the look out for?

  2. Tim on June 17, 2008 8:39 am

    Naive? No… but boy will YOU have some serious adjusting to do if you think a government monopoly would have a vision! You must work in a bank or large corporation! 🙂

    Vision? In Costa Rica? Sorry sir… ain’t happenin’ here.

    As for the mañana thing… that is Mexico, not Costa Rica.

  3. Julie on June 18, 2008 2:54 pm

    Hi Tim –
    We bought a basic GSM cell phone in Costa Rica last year for just under $60 – very basic, but worked.
    We were able to set the outgoing voice mail message (of course) after making out way through the maze of voice mail options in Spanish. Not too terrible if you are accustomed to voice mail options and understand *some* Spanish – I am not yet an expert…
    I had heard that another company (don’t ask me the name) had a contract to add/fix GSM service, so GSM coverage was increasing.

  4. Girlblue on July 22, 2008 6:40 pm

    Oh I know exactly the type of pain you’re going through right now. We switched from TDMA to GSM about three maybe four years ago and it was a pain, everyone held onto their TDMA phones until the very last minute. GSM works but you have to have a lot of cell towers up and running. I worked for a year on a team that had to set up these cell towers here and it was very difficult to get town and country planning as well as many other things. People are willing to lease their land out but others are worried about the radiation and caused a stink. We finally have it working to the point that there are fewer dropped calls actually hardly any at all. It helped a lot that another company came in from the outside and gave our company hell. Competition is indeed a good thing in some instances.

  5. andres on August 6, 2008 10:30 am

    Great article, you couldnt have said it better! I am costarican myself, and the ICE Monopoly (all telecommunications) is absolutely a joke. GSM is complete garbage.
    No reception at home, no reception at work, no reception at the beach house, no reception even in my local ICE branche, no mms, no reliable or fast internet, blackberry or smartphone support?? yeah right, I could go on and on and on and on and on…

    And if that wasnt enough, there are no GSM or TDMA lines available. This means that if I want a cell phone right now, well Im basically screwed. It has been this way for the last 8 months, ridiculous right? Every now and then they release a new batch of lines which dont meet then demand for even a week.

    Sorry for my rambling, but this ICE Monopoly is a joke for a country that is trying to escape from a third world…

    The situation does look better in the mid/long run however, as the free trade agreement with the US is about to be approved by the current government, and one of its key points is to open the telco monopoly.

  6. paulEwog on August 2, 2009 7:59 am

    Hola. Actually, I don’t know more than a few words of Spanish which is proving to be real challenge with my cell phone in Costa Rica.

    I do have a new GSM phone. According to this article a GSM phone cannot have the voice mail menus in English.

    This is controversial as the Executive Director of the largest title company in Costa Rica who I use “sent a messenger to I.C.E.” and they told her how to program her phone to English. However, it didn’t work

    Then, she personally referred me to the manager of Scotiabank in Guanacaste to open an account; his phone on the GSM network is in English! Although his Spanish and English are both perfect, he wants his phone in Spanish and I want mine in English. I just don’t understand this.

    I worked in the telecom industry for over 15 years both in mobile telecom and I also worked in the C.O. (central office) where all the switching equipment is housed. I have worked on both the old analog and the digital switches and I can assure you all that is necessary to put a menu in ENGLISH is a few keystrokes on a computer at the switch.

    IF I.C.E. told the messenger sent to ICE by the Executive Director of the largest title company in Costa Rica obviously this can be done. Perhaps the messenger forgot one step, that’s why he is a messenger and speaks only Spanish and the Executive Director speaks impeccable English and Spanish. She was been God sent for me and she continues to assist me in getting settled in Costa Rica.

    If you notice in the United States ALL of the cellular carriers provide both English and Spanish speaking users to have a choice. In fact, have you ever called ANY U.S. business? I’m sure you have and the first thing you hear is “press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish” or a similar order.
    Apparently Spanish is slowly phasing out the English language (and the American population) in the United States.

    The United States sees to be very accommodating to every single country in the world, in case you haven’t noticed.

  7. sharon Van Dorn on August 11, 2011 11:24 am

    I want a phone that I can use from Ojochal Costa Rica to call my family in Oregon. Is this even possible?

  8. Tim on August 11, 2011 12:24 pm
  9. Margaret Greene on September 5, 2011 8:09 am

    From what I hear, if you have a computer then Skype is the way to go. Check it out