Cell phone windfall to be used for universal Internet access

President Laura Chinchilla Miranda discusses the cell telephone concessions and the new telecom fund at a signing ceremony Tuesday at Casa Presidencial. Photo: Casa Presidencial

Although the two cell telephone companies that have decided to set up shop here have invested $170 million for the right to do so, the cash-strapped central government will not see any of the money.

According to the law, the money goes to the Fondo Nacional de las Telecomunicaciones, a new agency that is designed to reduce the digital divide and guarantee access to the Internet. Casa Presidencial said that the fund will help hook up schools and medical clinics.

Like with many Costa Rican laws, the telecommunication measure allocated the funds outside the general treasury.

President Laura Chinchilla signed the decree Tuesday that awards cell telephone concessions to the two firms, Claro of México and Telefónica from Spain. Now the measure has to be approved by the budget watchdog, the Contraloría General de la República.

Central government officials are not expecting any trouble and praised the process of awarding the frequencies for its technical rigor and transparency.

The Cámera de Tecnologias de Información y Comunicación also praised the concession award. It said the telecom fund would use the money to make Costa Rica a truly green and intelligent digital society.
Casa Presidencial said that the telecom fund would use the resources for specific projects in infrastrcuture, connectivity, health, education and public access with an emphasis on vulnerable populations. It said details would come later.

In addition the telecom fund will work with a national project to expand the Internet band that Casa Presidencial said would be announced in the coming weeks. The idea for the project is to put Costa Rica at the head of the more advanced nations in digital connectivity, it said.

The project seemed to have the trappings of social work because Casa Presidencial said that the objective is to reduce the social digital divide to guarantee that the citizenry has access to digital tools. Another goal is to improve the competitivty of the productive sector, it said.

The cell phone concessions stem from the Costa Rican-U.S. Free Trade Treaty. Also under that treaty, private firms began offering Internet service, both wired and wireless. The telecom fund appears to be going into competition with these private firms.

A.M. Costa Rica has reported that one problem with providing universal Internet access is that service personnel and installers are robbed when they try to do their work in some of the rougher neighborhoods. In addition, customers with wireless systems there are clear targets for burglars seeking computers.

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