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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.
Filed under Cell Phones, Communications, Costa Rica, Costa Rica Tourism, ICE, Rants, Tourism, Travel, Travel to Costa Rica | Comments (9)