Friday 9 December 2022

ICE Couldn’t Keep The Lid On Its Can of Beans

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9 December 2022 - At The Banks - BCCR

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TICO BULL by Rico – I can remember, as little as a few years ago during Costa Rica’s opening of the telecommunications sector, the state telecom, ICE, doing all its ‘legal’ might to block it.

extranjeras-telefonia-introduccion-portabilidadAfter that loss, it concentrated on blocking, albeit temporarily, new services. One of them number portability, the ability of the consumer to choose their mobile service provider without changing their number.

For many new to Costa Rica that seems like, so what? But consider that many in Costa Rica have had the same cellular phone number for a long time. In my case more almost two decades, back in 1998, when cellular lines were a commodity, obtaining one was a challenge, getting one in your name was the holy grail.

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A few of years ago, in 2013, when ICE lost its battle to stop number portability, many flocked to competing services.They were no longer tied to ICE.

And ICE knew this would hurt them bigly.

At the beginning of number portability ICE retained most of its customers. Number portability was ‘complicated’ and if you owed ICE money, pay up first. Luckily for many, ICE still was antiquated, it tied a debt to a phone number and not the person. That is, you could owe ICE big bucks for one number, not pay it and still continue to have anothe rnumber. This goes back to a time when ICE only allowed a maximum of three numbers to a person, its safety mechanism. With modernization, ICE caught up with the times.

But it couldn’t stop customers fleeing, looking for better deals, more services, whatever.

Many ICE customers who wanted to see what the new services brought picked up a second or third line, but never cancelling ICE. I was/am one of the those.

No way José was I  or will ever going to give up my ICE number. My number is known to countless for more than a decade. But even with number portability, what happens if I want to go back to ICE and they don’t want me. The folks at ICE are a vindictive bunch. For years, before the opening of the telecom market and almost impossible for a tourist to obtain cellular service, not like today, I was in the business of cellular rentals and worked closely with ICE – the only provider then.

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I remember having to closely guard that relationship, forging allies within the ICE administration, managers at two branches and counter staff, not to get favours, rather to keep my lines going without a hassle. I was clear up front of my business model, they never said OK, but were tolerant. I paid thousands of dollars each month in telephone bills. Never complained. Made the line, sometimes hours on end, to deal with a small problem. I always took the time to say hello to the counter staff that had served me, the manager. Over paid for phones buying ICE-approved devices. Ass kissing? You betcha!

I remember one would be competitor was cut at the knees (figuratively) when they tried to be smart about it. Costa Rica is a small market, everyone knows each other, competition many times have to work together to meet the needs of a customer. This would be competitor tried to buy his way in, allegedly offering bribes, cutting lines, created attention to himself, added non-ICE services to his offer, purchased non-ICE approved phones (cheaper) and so on. Not a good ending.

But I digress.

A report this week by  Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones (Sutel) – the mobile telephone regulator – confirms ICE worries back then and why they fought so hard for the change, trying to keep a lid on the can beans that they knew well could never be recovered if opened. It did open and the beans have spread.

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The report reveals that ICE has lost 435,000 customers since 2013. Meanwhile, Movistar (Spain’s Telefonica) has connected 299,000 and Claro (Mexico’s America Movil) 256,000 new customers in the same time period.

The Sutel numbers reveal that in the last three years, ICE under its Kolbi brand, snatched 82,000 cellular phone lines from its competitors, meanwhile, competitors snatched from ICE 518,000 lines.

In Costa Rica there are, according to the Sutel, a total of 7.5 million cellular telephone lines – in the country, a country with a population of less than 5 million.

Article originally appeared on Tico Bull and is republished here with permission.

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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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