The radio frequency spectrum is a limited resource shared by every country on this planet. In 1865, the International Telegraphic Union (ITU) was founded to promote and coordinate the telegraph as a mode of communication. With the advent of radio, the ITU changed its name to the International Telecommunications Union, and in 1947 became a specialized agency of the United Nations. Currently, the ITU membership includes 193 countries. While the ITU manages the global radio spectrum, each country is responsible for managing the radio frequencies assigned to their country. For Costa Rica, the Superintendent of Communications (SUTEL) is the agency responsible for radio frequency management, and is equivalent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA. The broader mission of both the ITU and SUTEL is to promote Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in support of the fundamental right for people to communicate. While SUTEL performs many roles, this article focuses on the 2G/3G mobile devices, Wi-Fi, and Internet portions of ICT.
SUTEL and 2G/3G Mobile Devices
Cellphones, and all 3G mobile devices, use radio frequencies to communicate with a cell tower. GSM is a set of technologies used in second-generation (2G) cellular networks. The standard bands, in MHz, are 850, 900, 1800, and 1900. All three carriers in Costa Rica (Kolbi, Claro, and Movistar) use the 1,800 Mhz band for GSM. Movistar also offers 2G service on the 850 Mhz band. GSM supports voice, SMS, and data (data speed limited to 9.6 kbps). While the data transfer rate is rather slow, GSM does support multi-media messages (MMS). For those who own feature phones, which constitutes the majority of Costa Ricans), the 2G service is still the standard.
The data demand for Internet connections drove the adoption of additional GSM compatible standards. Costa Rica followed the European's in adopting the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) as the basis for its 3G networks. Kolbi uses the 850 MHz band for UMTS, while Claro and Movistar use the 2100 MHz band. The 850 MHz band offers a wider coverage area, but supports fewer users. The 2100 MHz band has a much smaller coverage area, but supports more users. All three carries support High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), although the download speeds vary. According to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), the maximum HSPDA speeds are 3.6 Mbps for Kolbi and 7.2 Mbps for Movistar. Claro has already adopted HSPA+, which provides a maximum download speed of 21 Mbps, and Kolbi is in the process of deploying HSPA+. Currently, there are no plans to deploy Long Term Evolution (LTE), or 4G, networks in Costa Rica.
In addition to radio frequency management, SUTEL certifies 2G/3G mobile devices for compliance with Costa Rica standards. As with similar agencies in other countries, mobile device manufacturers submit their products to SUTEL for certification. Besides certifying compliance with Costa Rica's frequency requirements, engineers insure that device works correctly on Costa Rica's cellular networks, including the ability to make 9-1-1 calls, even when the device does not contain a SIM card.
Once certified, the mobile device manufacturer registers the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number of each device shipped to Costa Rica with SUTEL, and identifies the device as SUTEL certified. Every certified mobile device has a SUTEL sticker located under the battery. For sealed devices, their is a menu option that states that this is a SUTEL certified device. You can also verify that the device is certified by going to either the CETCA or FRUNO Web sites. When you enter the IMEI number of your 2G/3G mobile device, you should get back a description of that device. If you do not get a valid response, then the device is not SUTEL certified. This doesn't mean that the mobile device will not work in Costa Rica. It just means that it is not certified to work.
SUTEL and Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi devices also use radio frequencies to communicate with each other, as do Bluetooth and NFC (Near Field Communication) enabled devices. SUTEL authorizes the usage of specified frequencies for all three modes of communication. Bluetooth and NFC are not a problem, because they are low-power, single-frequency modes of communication between devices. Wi-Fi presents a different problem because of the number of bands authorized by ITU for Wi-Fi communications. Individual countries authorize a set of these frequencies for use in that country.
Until this year, there were 14 defined Wi-Fi channels. Channels 1 through 11 are common to all countries. Channels 12 and 13 are available in countries that follow the European ETSI standard, which excludes the US and Canada. Channel 14 is only legal in Japan. Costa Rica follows the ETSI standard and allows the use of channels 1-13. Costa Rica also authorizes the use of the 5 GHz band for 802.11n and 802.11ac. The IEEE 802.11ac is the newest standard, and offers the greatest bandwidth and theoretical speeds up to 1.3 Gbps. As a point of interest, the TriQuint 802.11ac Wi-Fi RF module is manufactured in Costa Rica.
SUTEL and the Internet
In September of 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that access to the Internet is a fundamental right to all citizens of Costa Rica. While the lawsuit against the government was about the slow implementation of cellphone competition, the court took the opportunity to establish the constitutional right of access to new information technologies, the right to equality, and the right to the eradication of the digital divide. Achieving this goal is no small task.
The monies received from the auction of frequencies to Claro and Movistar were placed in the National Telecommunications Fund (FONATEL). SUTEL and Banco National de Costa Rica are in the process of selecting a team to manage the $190 million dollars in the fund. The purpose of this fund is to reduce the digital-divide through the implementation the Digital Social Agreement signed by President Laura Chinchilla Miranda in June of 2011. The digital divide disappears when 100% of the citizens in a nation can choose to exercise their right to access Internet.