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Superfast Internet Fails to Meet Its Promise

by Garland M Baker on June 28, 2004

When it comes to Internet, ADSL is incredibly fast. It will give you a whole new world of content at your fingertips — in a flash. Whether it’s the latest music, a CNN news video, or a streaming movie, ADSL will beam it to you at lightning speed.

The only thing that isn’t fast about it is its rollout in Costa Rica. It is talked about much like the new highway from San José to Orotina which has been “just about done” for over 20 years.

Believe it or not, the problem started some 80 years ago — way before the Internet.

In 1914, Telefunken, a German company, asked the Costa Rican government for authorization to commercialize wireless communications on an international level. As with most government projects even today, there was immediate opposition, which caused a counter bid by a subsidiary of United Fruit Co., the Tropical Radio Telegraph Co.

The Costa Rican government, after some debate in congress and influenced by the events of the time, World War I, decided communications to be too important to the well-being of Costa Rica and decided to monopolize telegraphy and wireless telephony with Law Nº 34 of April 10, 1920.

However, one year later Law Nº 47 of June 25, 1921, the concession to exploit the market was put into the hands of two private Costa Rican citizens who were electrical engineers, José Joaquín Carranza Volio and Ricardo Pacheco Lara. The concession was to last for 25 years with an automatic extension for 20 more years. They began the company Compañía Radiográfica Internacional de Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican government via Law Nº 3293 of June 18, 1964 mandated that once the concession ended in 1965, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, ICE, the electric company, was to take over the firm formed in 1920. ICE was not ready to do this, so it made a deal with the company holding the concession and created a new company called Radiográfica Costarricense S.A, or RACSA as it is known today. Each entity was to own 50 percent of the new company, and the concession was extended for 13 more years.

At this point, in 1964, the playing field was divided into two camps. RACSA controlled the rights to telex, telegraph, video conferencing, data transmission, facsimile, data and value-added services. ICE controlled the rights to the telephone land lines.

Here is where it gets messy.

ADSL, short for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, is a way to transmit data over traditional copper telephone lines at speeds higher than were previously possible. Data travels downstream faster than it travels upstream, hence the name “asymmetric.” The copper telephone lines were and still are part of ICE and not RACSA.

RACSA, on the other hand, controls the backbone to the Internet, because, based on its original mandate, it manages everything in connection with the outside world.

In 2001 RACSA connected to the the MAYA-1 submarine cable and in 2003 to the Arcos-1 cable. Both these cable systems gave RACSA access to high speed Internet. So why are most people in Costa Rica still using dial-up or cable connections?

Two different companies mean two different management styles, and, surprise, they can’t agree on the deployment of ADSL in Costa Rica. Most every other country in Latin America enjoys ADSL, and Costa Rica is eating their dust.

The Fundación Comisión Asesora en Alta Tecnología de Costa Rica (Fundación CAATEC), had high hopes for the country in its publication of 2001, rating Costa Rica above the United States in ADSL deployment.

This, today, is a pipe dream. ADSL still is just a pilot project. The technology has turned into an on-again off-again game. You call ICE one day, and employees say they will be installing ADSL in a week. Call a week later, and another employee says the project has been postponed for a year.

During the latest march against the Free Trade Agreement, ADSL was reduced to unusable levels by the employees as they used deliberate sabotage in support of the demonstration to put the service out of action for a long weekend.

Lately, there are so many problems with the connection and speeds with the existing ADSL in San José, companies need to have dial-up connections as backups and need to use them frequently. Once you are used to ultra fast Internet, dial-up is a frustration.

This problem is so typical in Costa Rica. Politics and infighting get in the way of real progress. And the bad news is that the situation doesn’t look like its going to get any better anytime soon. There is no good news in this arena.

Costa Rica is falling behind as the world becomes increasingly reliant on information technology and e-commerce. The country is at risk of becoming a “critical economy” as described by the Y2K Foundation and one that might not be able to keep up with the next phase of world economic growth.

How ADSL works

AM Costa Rica Graphic

The copper wires that are used to carry telephone lines into most homes and offices are capable of transmitting more information than is necessary to convey a telephone conversation. The extra bandwidth that the wire could support is wasted at the moment. ADSL takes advantage of this wasted bandwidth by using additional equipment to transfer data at a higher frequency than that used for voice calls. Ultimately ADSL ‘squeezes’ more capacity out of the same telephone line without interfering with your normal telephone services.

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