Cell Phone Service Options
Cells phones are extremely popular in Costa Rica and ever since the 2007 referendum approval of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR, or just CAFTA), the country has eagerly awaited an end to the government telecommunications monopoly and the arrival of international cell phone providers. Until now, the Costa Rican Communications and Electricity Institute (ICE, pronounce ee-say) has been the sole provider of telecommunications in Costa Rica.
ICE currently maintains three cell phone systems: TDMA, GSM, and 3G -- TDMA lines are no longer for sale. TDMA is the oldest cell phone technology, but many users state that it's the most reliable and has the best coverage in Costa Rica. GSM service allows for newer, more advanced cell phones and works with a SIM card, but numerous users claim that coverage is spotty, especially in rural areas. The 3G system, which rolled out in late 2009, is Costa Rica's latest cell technology and currently functions with basic services (calling, texting, and Internet).
3G, meaning 3rd Generation, is more fully featured than either TDMA or GSM services. 3G was first introduced in 2001 in Japan, but did not become commercially available in the United States until 2003. As of 2007, 40 countries operated 3G networks. 3G network development was stalled in many countries, including Costa Rica, due to enormous startup and equipment costs. A bidding war erupted between companies vying for ICE's 3G setup contract in Costa Rica; in 2009, Huawei was declared victor with its $235 million winning bid.
In December 2009, ICE began selling 3G lines, but noted that only basic services were available. The company announced that additional services would become available over time, but offered no schedule or list of services to be offered in the future. The company's 3G service is marketed under the Kolbi brand; plans begin at about $10.15 per month and range up to $75.
ICE is in the process of phasing out TDMA technology, and by 2011, they will no longer offer this service. There is currently no plan to discontinue GSM service. During the first five months of 2010, TDMA customers began to report random service failure. Despite numerous complaints and many lawsuits, ICE claims that there is no problem with the TDMA technology. However, some believe the company is trying to force TDMA customers to switch to 3G before their international competition arrives.
ICE's 3G service appears to function well, and many users report that its coverage is better and more reliable than GSM. New customers would be best served by purchasing a 3G line -- it's least expensive plan is only $2 more than GSM -- while existing customers may choose between upgrading to 3G or waiting to see what ICE's competition introduces.