Frustrated denizens of Grecia take note: The wait for Internet is over. And the solution is not coming from the state.
A private company is now offering wireless Internet connections in that Central Valley coffee town just west of San José and some parts of the surrounding region.
Puro Wireless (www.purowireless.com) opened its wireless signal to the public last weekend, and co-founder Faruk Muhti said the company plans to have the whole mountainside to the north networked within five months.
“People have been basically begging us since the moment we mentioned the service,” said Californian Perry Shenas, one of the partners in the company. “They’re dying for it.”
Muhti reports that in its first few days in operation, Puro Wireless has signed up over 100 customers at speeds between 256 and 512 kilobits per second – broadband-quality Internet speeds that are hard to come by in much of the country.
It remains to be seen, however, how long this party will last. The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and its subsidiary Radiográfica Costarricense S.A. (RACSA) hold de facto monopolies on the offering of Internet connections, making what Puro Wireless is doing illegal.
While it’s possible for third parties to offer Internet connections on behalf of RACSA, Puro Wireless owners say they don’t have one of those agreements, though they are in talks to get one.
In any case, it may not matter. Since the approval of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) in the Oct. 7 referendum, Costa Rica is set to open the telecom market –including Internet – to private competition by March of next year, pending approval of the necessary laws.
Muhti said Puro Wireless’s eventual goal is to spread wireless Internet access over the entire country.
“We’re basically helping the people of Costa Rica to get Internet wherever they live because the (current) RACSA and ICE infrastructure doesn’t allow it,”Muhti said.
Internet for the Masses
Puro Wireless began with a stolen laptop. Shenas arrived in Costa Rica in 2006, planning to run his online document management company from here. But he got a rude welcome in San José, where he was violently taken hostage and robbed of his laptop.
He headed out to Grecia to try to relax and rethink his plans, and without his laptop, had to stop by an Internet café. It happened to be the one owned by Muhti.
The two started talking and Shenas liked Muhti’s idea to launch a wireless Internet service in Grecia. The two became partners along with another U.S. citizen, Glen Nickerson.
Altogether it took a year and a half of work before Muhti and Shenas could launch the service last weekend.
The network Puro Wireless is setting up has several layers. First, the company has a main antenna located in downtown Grecia.
The antenna emits a signal using WiMax technology that can be picked up directly by laptops and computers with wireless modems.
Second, Puro Wireless is sending that same signal long-range, through a line-of-sight radio signal to antennas hosted by certain subscribers who live in the mountains outside of town. Those antennas receive the signal and then spread it locally to individual computers.
Third, in addition to individual computers, that signal can be picked up by “access points,” or smaller antennas owned by other individual subscribers. Those small antennas amplify the signal farther and relay it on to other subscribers and antennas.
The idea is to create a network of small antennas relaying the signal, rather than one big antenna. Many U.S. cities are in the process of setting up similar systems right now, and some – like Tempe, Arizona and Corpus Christi, Texas – have their networks up and running.
Monthly subscriptions to Puro Wireless services cost $25 for 256/128 kilobits for upload/download, or $35 for 512/256 upload/download. Shenas said Puro Wireless will be offering higher speeds after the beginning of next year.
Subscribers in and around Grecia can sign up for the service using a credit card on their computers once their wireless cards pick up a strong signal from the Puro Wireless network.
They also have the option of purchasing a large fixed antenna or a small hotspot antenna to improve coverage in their locations and help extend the Puro Wireless network.
By the end of 2008 the company hopes to have the network in Grecia completed and begin expanding to other nearby areas like Atenas and Palmares. Eventually, the company plans to cover the whole country and offer roaming wireless service, which means people could buy special handsets and use the wireless Internet connection to make phone calls, much like a cell phone.
“Costa Rica being a middle-class country, it should be more advanced,”Muhti said, adding later: “What we’re trying to do is help the country.”
The Costa Rican authorities, however, may not see it that way. Juan Manuel Campos, a telecom lawyer who worked for ICE for more than 20 years and now heads the Infocommunications Chamber, said court decisions in the past have qualified the Internet as a “public service,” and therefore only state entities – specifically ICE and its subsidiary RACSA – are allowed to distribute it.
“Until the law is changed, no provider can offer services to the user,” Campos said. In fact, the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP) has the power to shut down any private company offering a public service without authorization.
Some private companies do offer public services – for example, Amnet and Cabletica, which sell RACSA Internet access through their cable networks.
“If (Puro Wireless has) some contract or agreement with RACSA or ICE, it is legal,” said Roberto Alfaro, director of telecommunications for ARESEP.
Muhti said the company is discussing the possibility with RACSA officials. RACSA spokesman Mario Zaragoza said while those discussions could be taking place, Puro Wireless is operating illegally and without authorization from RACSA.
“That company legally can’t offer Internet services,” Zaragoza said, adding that RACSA is investigating. Zaragoza confirmed that RACSA does not offer high-speed Internet connections in and around Grecia, although it does offer its own WiMax wireless Internet network around the southwestern San José suburbs of Escazú and Santa Ana.
Meanwhile, Puro Wireless owners are unfazed, saying they have had helpful discussions with RACSA and they believe they have good legal standing.
“We have had quite a few meetings with various officials and we are continuing our discussions with them,” Shenas said.“The only thing we can say is that there is a history of third-party service providers in Costa Rica.”
A law in the Legislative Assembly right now would make the potential disagreement a moot point by opening up Costa Rica’s telecommunications market – including Internet service provision – to private companies like Puro Wireless.
Intended to fulfill the requirements of CAFTA, the assembly must pass the law before March in order for the treaty to go into effect. “We’re trying to be cooperative,” Muhti said, noting that the company is in talks to offer free Internet connections to schools and nonprofits in Costa Rica.
But he added later: “By the time (the government) tries to fight and shut us down, I think the telecom law would already be implemented.”