Costa RicaCosta Rica

Cell Phone Market Opens

Until 2007, Costa Rica's cell phone market was restricted to a government monopoly, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE). ICE provided inexpensive coverage – monthly cell phone service started around $6 per month – but reception could be spotty, and cellular technology was not cutting edge.

Approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) promised an open cell phone market, but new options were slow to materialize. In 2010, we saw the beginnings of an open cell phone market. Tuyo Movil and Full Movil arrived with prepaid cell services to rival ICE's Kolbi brand. In 2011, Claro and Movistar began marketing prepaid and postpaid options – including service for Blackberry smartphones. Then Kolbi offered an iPhone 4 data + voice plan, and both Claro and Movistar announced that they would have iPhone 4 service available in late 2011 or early 2012.

An open cell phone market spells great news for tourists and new arrivals. When I first moved here five years ago, it was impossible to get a cell phone without residency or a Costa Rican corporation. Now, tourists have easy access to cheap prepaid services – Claro, Full Movil, Kolbi, Movistar and Tuyo Movil all offer prepaid SIM chips starting at $5, with credit included. Rates are fair at about 5-7¢ per minute. You can pick up a prepaid SIM chip just about anywhere in the country, including the Juan Santamaria International Airport.

Additionally, competition for customers creates a different dynamic between providers and consumers. Customer service is better and technologies have improved: between CAFTA's approval and the arrival of international cell phone companies, ICE's Kolbi worked to launch national 3G service, which has better coverage as well as Internet access and mobile message services (MMS). Claro has upped the ante, announcing plans to explore 4G service for the country. This would promise faster data transfer, allowing options like video chat and Internet television via cell phones.

Increased competition has encouraged low prices. Claro, Kolbi and Movistar, Costa Rica's current post-paid cell phone providers, all offer services starting around $7 per month. Plans include basic minutes, text messages, and in some cases, mobile messaging. Fierce competition has also prompted these companies to offer previously unavailable services, like Movistar's My Favorite minutes, which are free minutes to your favorite Movistar customer.

Cell Phone Market Opens in Pictures