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Fast Internet is Great, Except for ICE Shuffle

by Garland M Baker on December 5, 2005

Everyone knows what a test pilot is. How about a technology tester? In this day and age, it is almost the same thing. “Pilot program” is the term used today.

In Information Technologies, development stage engineering is broken down into three parts: The alpha stage is the beginning stage of a technology when it is in a very rough form. The beta stage is an active debugging or problem-solving phase, when a technology is heavily tested in preparation for its market introduction. The stable stage is when a technology is ready.

About five year ago, GrupoICE was looking for testers for advanced Internet also referred to as ADSL, short for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, a technology that allows more data transmission over existing copper telephone lines than is normally possible. ADSL supports data rates from 1.5 to 9 Mbps when receiving data (known as the downstream rate) and from 16 to 640 Kbps when sending data (known as the upstream rate).

GrupoICE is Costa Rica’s monopoly over communications and electricity. It is made up of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), Radiográfica Costarricense S.A (RACSA) and Compañía Nacional de Fuerza y Luz (CNFL).

At the time, deciding to sign up along with 600 other techno junkies was easy. However, years have passed and being a tester for ICE has been no piece of cake. Costa Rica is famous for implementing something new and then oversaturating the use of it until it blows up and does not work anymore.

The evolution of ADSL in Costa Rica has been no exception. At first, the system did not work very well because there were no qualified trained personnel. After a year of trial and error configurations with ICE technicians, the service stabilized. However, while using inadequate equipment, ICE started to add more and more customers because they wanted to start charging. Once the monopoly did, things started to fall apart again. Conversations with insiders at the phone company found the famous Tico hitch, too many subscribers connected to a test system.

Today there is a new problem. The service is expanding so fast ICE is running out of certain IP addresses and converting customers from private to public numbers without informing them.

Each machine connected to the Internet has a number known as an Internet Protocol address (IP address). The IP address takes the form of four numbers separated by dots, for example: 123.45.67.890. The number identifies each sender or receiver of information that moves in a packet across the Internet. A packet is the fundamental unit of a block of data in modern computer networks.

One public IP address is replacing the five private addresses assigned to most customers over the past years. This fact is techno mumbo jumbo to most people but it is a nightmare if it is changed without notice.

This was the case at the Cybercafé Las Arcadas in downtown San José, the morning of Nov. 24 when ADSL just stopped working. The Cybercafé is the preferred Internet café for tourists downtown. Frantic phone calls to the support line of ICE ended with technicians stating nothing was wrong and everything should work. Late in the evening, an ICE employee showed up with a new ADSL modem.

The ICE employee said “Plug in this device (a new modem) and your Internet will work.” It did not work. “Give me a momentito.” He went and pulled his personal modem out of the trunk of his car. “This one will really work, but I need it back in the morning.” At around 1 a.m. the light bulbs went off. ICE had changed the IP addresses. This meant new equipment was immediately necessary.

Calls to local suppliers only turned up SOHO equipment and bottom-of-the-line hardware at that. SOHO means small office or home not a cybercafé with many users. Trying desperately to explain this fact to sales persons turned out to be a joke. It was obvious most of them were not even out of puberty.

A full week passed with no Internet connection, ICE personnel did not care in the least. ADSL hardware suppliers lacked knowledge and adequate devices. Being a test pilot felt pretty lonely. The financial loss was large.

ADSL is here to stay and ICE will probably get it right given enough time. When it works, it is the best. The problem is the lousy service provided by the country’s communications monopoly.

William Burroughs in his book “The Naked Lunch” put it very well when describing monopolies: Never give anything away for nothing. Never give more than you have to give. Always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait. Always take everything back if you possibly can.

What to do if you are an ADSL subscriber and this happens to you? Say a prayer and call 119, the ICE support line for ADSL. Tell them you are going to support the Free Trade Treaty vigorously if they do not fix your problem immediately. If they are unresponsive within 24 hours, call Costa Rica’s new consumer complaint unit at 206-1010.

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