There is not shortage of statistics regarding the adoption of cellphone technology for each country on this planet. There are reports from the World Bank, Internal Telecommunications Union (ITU), Global Information Technology Report, Internet World Stats, Global mobile Suppliers Association, StatCounter Global Stats, and Wikipeida. All the information feels overwhelming. Yet, the data tells a story about the current state of mobile technology in Central America. The data tells us what the challenges each country faces as they move to a mobile world. For those who travel throughout Central America, the data acts a guide to mobile phone compatibility, and the expected costs.
The penetration of mobile technology and access to the Internet comes down to cost in relationship to income. The Gross National Income (GNI) used by the World Bank is actually a better measure than average income. The GNI excludes taxes and income from foregin investments and foreign real estate. Since average income does not account for taxes, GNI is a better measure of disposable income. While not related to cellphones, the cost of Internet access has an impact on how mobile devices are used. For example, SMS banking services are more important, as the cost of Internet access increases.
2011 est. 
| Number of
|% Penetration||% Prepaid||GNI per
|Belize||321,115||203,050||63.4 %||–||$318||9.7 %||32.1 %|
|Costa Rica||4,576,562||4,404,000||96.2 %||52 %||$568||0.6 %||1.2 %|
|El Salvador||6,071,774||5,066,000||83.4 %||89 %||$282||3.4 %||8.8 %|
|Guatemala||13,824,463||18,528,667||134.0 %||95 %||$228||3.4 %||14.3 %|
|Honduras||8,143,564||5,190,000||63.7 %||93 %||$156||5.7 %||14.2 %|
|Mexico||113,724,226||86,470,000||76.0 %||85 %||$744||2.3 %||2.3 %|
|Nicaragua||5,666,301||4,200,000||74.1 %||92 %||$92||14.3 %||37.5 %|
|Panama||3,460,462||2,414,000||69.8 %||94 %||$581||1.5 %||2.9 %|
- Population data from Internet World Stats.
- Much of this data is from Wikipedia, except for Belize which is from ITU.
- Data extracted from “The Little Data Book on Information and Communication Technology (LDB)” from the ITU. The GNI is from the World Bank and is a measure of the monthly income. For the comparison with other costs, the data is monthly GNI.
- The Mobile Basket refers to the price of a standard basket of usage for 30 out-going call and 100 SMS messages, as a percentage of the GNI.
- Internet Basket reflects the cost of Internet access via cable, DSL, or satellite, as a percentage of the GNI. It does not include mobile Internet access.
The Little Data Book from ITU refers to “Mobile-cellular sub-basket” and “Fixed-broadband sub-basket.” I shortened these long names to just “Mobile Basket” and “Internet Basket.” The mobile basket reflects the global average for number of phone calls, and SMS messages. The ITU considered 256 Kbps as the basis for costing the Internet basket. Nether the World Bank or ITU provided data for mobile Internet access.
While 134% seems high for Guatemala, the country is split between CDMA and GSM. When I lived in Montana, I had two phones, a CDMA phone from Verizon and a GSM phone from AT&T. In just the county where I lived, a single operator did not cover the entire county. The same holds true in countries where you need multiple SIM chips to maintain access, as each SIM chip is counted as a subscription.
In terms of raw numbers, Belize wins the honors for the most expensive country for both the mobile basket and Internet basket. In terms of cost compared to GNI, Nicaragua takes first place. Costa Rica takes the honors for the least expensive country for both the mobile basket and Internet basket. When translated to raw numbers, Costa Rica is still provides the cheapest service. Costa Rica may not have the cheapest prices for mobile devices, but it has the cheapest service. These numbers are what make Costa Rica so attractive to foreign investors that depend on communication costs. It helps to explain why Costa Rica ranks #3 in Latin America on the Network Readiness Index (Global Information and Technology Report 2010-2011, World Economic Forum). Adoption of technology directly depends on the consumer’s ability to access and afford the technology. High cost exasperates the digital divide between those who can afford the technology and those who cannot.
With the exception of Belize, every country in Central America offers some form of prepago plan. For those whose income does not qualify a customer for a postpago plan, it is the only option.
2G Mobile Access
TDMA (also called D-AMP) is first generation technology. GSM and CDMA are considered as second generation (2G) technology. GPRS (maximum download speed of 80 Kbps) and EDGE (maximum download speed of 236 Kbps) provide data access over a GSM network. EDGE is also referred to as 2.5G. GPRS works for SMS and MMS, but is too slow for actual Web use. Some mobile network operators offer data packages for 128 Kbps and 256 Kpbs that use EDGE. Both GPRS and EDGE use the same GSM frequency that is used for voice communication.
There are four GSM frequencies: 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 1900 MHz. This are usually referred to as 850/900/1800/1900. The communications authority for each country determines which bands are licensed in that country. The Mobile World Live database provides information as to the frequencies used by the various mobile operators in each country. It is not current, as it does not include some new mobile operators in a country. While it does not list license information, the World Time Zone lists the frequencies in use for each country. The rates in the following table are based on prepaid rates. Since Belize only offers bundled post paid plans, it was not possible to determine a voice rate. Some countries offer per second rates, which were converted to minutes for comparison.
/ min 
/ Msg 
|Belize||DigiCel, Smart||CdmaOne, GSM, GPRS||1900/850||DigiCel|||||
|Costa Rica||ICE/Kolbi, Claro, Movistar, TuYo Movil, FullMovil||GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1800/850||Kolbi, Claro, Movistar||$0.068||$0.0034||Kolbi|
|El Salvador||Tigo, Claro, Movistar, DigiCel||TDMA, CdmaOne, GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1900/900/850||Tigo, Claro, DigiCel||$0.174||$0.06||Tigo, Digicel|
|Guatemala||Tigo, Claro, Movistar||CdmaOne, CDMA2000, GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1900/900/850||Tigo, Claro, Movistar||$0.282||$0.125|
|Honduras||Tigo, Claro||CdmaOne, GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1900/850||Claro||$0.202||$0.06|
|Mexico||Telcel, Movistar, lusacell||TDMA, CdmaOne, CDMA2000, GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1900/850||Movistar, lusacell||$0.223||$0.082|
|Nicaragua||Claro, Movistar||TDMA, CdmaOne, GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1900/850||Claro|||||
|Panama||Movil, Movistar, Claro, Digicel||GSM, GPRS, EDGE||1900/850||Movistar, Claro||$0.156||$0.07|
- TuYo Movil and FullMovil are mobile virtual network operators, who use the Kolbi network.
- Prices are an average. For details see the individual operators.
- DigiCel in Belize only offers postpaid plan starting from 250 minutes for $50 to 1200 minutes for $200. Smart offers prepaid plans, but is a CdmaOne network. Their Web site lacks a lot of details, but a single text message costs $0.15.
- Prepaid plans in Mexico are really packages of minutes and SMS messages. In general, calls to the USA are priced the same as calls to another state in Mexico. The rates shown are those given by Movistar, as no other operator discloses the actual rates per minute or per text message.
- Neither Claro or Movistar provide actual rates on their Web sites.
Costa Rica offers the lowest rates per minute. If you are traveling to any country, you need to check the coverage maps of each mobile operator. The problem is that not every mobile operator provides a coverage map on their Web site. If you plan on traveling to a number of different countries in Central America, you definitely need a quad-band GSM phone.
While most countries support the EDGE technology, very few have plans that explicitly use EDGE. For cellphones that only support GSM, this is the only connection to the Internet. While not extremely useful for surfing the Web, it does provide access to email. EDGE also provides for faster downloading and uploading of MMS messages.
The issue of bridging the digital divide is not new. In 2003, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) included the following in their Declaration of Principles:
“We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the Information Society offers.”
Only six countries have declared that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right: Costa Rica, Estonia, France, Finland, Greece, and Spain. Since the ITU sponsored the WSIS conferences, the ITU continues to promote access to the Internet. Internet penetration is a measure of the progress made by each country towards meeting this goal.
|Belize||35,580||19.8 %||323.9 %||94.56 %||5.44 %|
|Costa Rica||2,000,000||43.7 %||700.0 %||86.69 %||13.31 %|
|El Salvador||1,257,380||20.7 %||3,043.5 %||95.48 %||4.52 %|
|Guatemala||2,280,000||16.5 %||3,407.7 %||91.79 %||8.21 %|
|Honduras||1,067,560||13.1 %||2,568.9 %||92.22 %||7.78 %|
|Mexico||42,000,000||36.9 %||1,448.4 %||94.31 %||5.69 %|
|Nicaragua||663,500||11.7 %||1,227.0 %||96.00 %||4.00 %|
|Panama||1,503,441||43.4 %||3,241.0 %||93.91 %||6.09 %|
- Population data from Internet World Stats.
- Deskop versus Mobile statistics from StatCounter Global Stats.
When you compare the percent of penetration with the cost of access in Table 1, you will see that there is a correlation between the two. Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico have the lowest costs and the highest levels of penetration in Central America. Nicaragua and Belize have the highest cost relative to income, and the lowest penetration.
The last two columns indicate the method used to access Internet. The PC is still represents the dominant mode of access. Only Costa Rica shows a shift towards access from mobile devices. The cost of mobile devices and mobile data plans slows the expansion of mobile access. As more low to middle cost Android mobile devices become available, there should be an increase in mobile access. With the lowest cost for mobile service, Costa Rica should continue to lead in this area.
3G Mobile Access
The demand for higher speed access to Internet prompted the development of the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), which is commonly known as 3G. The frequency bands for UMTS are 850/1700/1900/2100. With UMTS, the maximum expected transfer rate is 384 Kbps. Building on UMTS, HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), referred to as 3.5G, increased the maximum transfer rate for downloading data to 14.4 Mbps. The next evolution was HSPA+, which raises the maximum to 42 Mbps or 84 Mbps. While some companies market HSPA+ as 4G, this is not complete accurate. LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a more advanced technology that allows theoretical speeds 326 Mbps, with higher speeds in the future. Thus, the term 4G really belongs to LTE, and HSPA+ would be more accurately referred to as 3.5G+ or 3.75G. This is an important distinction, as there are no LTE networks in Central America. The theoretical speeds sound great, but the offered speeds are much less. Furthermore, network loading determines the real speed at any particular moment.
In the following table, Y means that the data speed is available to both prepaid and postpaid customers. Those marked iwth a P are only available to postpaid customers.
|COUNTRY||Operators||Technology||Frequencies||512 Kbps||1 Mbps||1.5 Mbps||2 Mbps||4 Mbps||5 Mbps|
|Costa Rica||Kolbi, Claro, Movistar, TuYo Movil, FullMovil||HSDPA, HSPA+||850/2100||Y||Y||Y||Y||P|
|El Salvador||Tigo, Claro, Movistar||HSDPA, HSPA+||850/1900||P||P||Y|
|Guatemala||Tigo, Claro, Movistar||HSDPA, HSPA+||1900||P||P||Y||P|
|Mexico||Telcel, Movistar, lusacell||HSDPA, HSPA+||850/1700
|Packages are by volume, without specifying the speed.|
|Panama||Movil, Movistar, Claro, DigiCel||HSPDA, HSPA+||–||Y||P|
The Global mobile Suppliers Association provides a general guide to which operators have implemented HSPA+, and those who are planning implementation. However, it is not completely accurate. There are mobile operators that advertise 4G (HSPA+) that are not listed in the GSA database. In Costa Rica, Claro simply calls it 3.5G. Generally, only postpaid customers are offered the highest speed. While HSPA+ makes a difference, not all phones implement this technology. HSPA+ is normally only found on high-end smartphones. The low to middle cost range phones just implement HSDPA, which still work on an HSPA+ network.
The mobile world changes rapidly. Currently, Costa Rica holds the lead in all categories. The biggest challenge facing all countries in Central America is expanding Internet access, and expanding mobile access to support the new generation of mobile devices. Expanding Internet access means bridging the Internet divide so that each person has the ability to access the Internet. Beyond building an infrastructure, the cost of access needs to be affordable.