Measuring broadband progress with an iterative process

Due in part to its extensive investments in backhaul infrastructure and a substantial jump in smartphone adoption, Costa Rica ranks third on A4AI’s 2019 Affordability Drivers Index. One of the elements behind Costa Rica’s success in promoting digital connectivity is its 2015-2021 National Telecommunications Development Plan (PNDT), which not only sets out the role of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Telecommunications (MICITT) in promoting telecommunications adoption throughout the country, but also determines how to measure and evaluate progress.

The structure of Costa Rica’s telecommunications market is relatively new. Following the market’s liberalisation in 2007, where private operators were allowed to enter the market, Costa Rica passed its General Telecommunications Law (Law 8642) and the Strengthening and Modernising Public Entities Law (Law 8660), the latter which defined the state’s roles as the supervisor, regulator, and one of the operators of the telecom sector.

The first National Telecommunications Development Plan (PNDT) was ratified in May 2009 for a five-year period. It outlined the general policy direction and orientation for telecommunications, and defined telecommunications as a key component of the development of Costa Rica as a Knowledge and Information Society. It also defined the scope of Costa Rica’s Universal Service Fund, the National Fund for Telecommunications Development (FONATEL).

Building on the original PNDT, the 2015-2021 plan defines priorities, including to: close the digital divide; develop universal access, universal service, and solidarity projects; improve fixed and mobile broadband services; democratise the use of radio spectrum; modernise radio difusion services; deploy modern infrastructure; and boost e-government. It defined its three main pillars as (1) Digital Inclusion, (2) Transparent Electronic Government, and (3) Digital Economy. Each of these three pillars has seven action plans.

In order to build on the previous National Telecommunications Development Plan (2008-2014) and align with the National Development Plan, the MICITT created a methodology for periodically updating the PNDT based on three pillars: elaboration, consultation, and approval. Regarding elaboration, the MICITT evaluates telecommunications indicators from the previous iteration of the PNDT, as well as global trends in the telecommunications sector. The MICITT then performs a stakeholder analysis and drafts action plans in accordance with the three pillars of the 2015-2021 plan (digital inclusion, transparent electronic government, and digital economy). The draft then goes through a consultation process that involves local government, civil society, and industry before it is approved by the Ministry and President.

Each action plan — and its resultant activities — is assigned to an entity, such as the Ministry itself, the Superintendency of Telecommunications (SUTEL), or the National Fund for Telecommunications Development (FONATEL). The entities are given a set budget for each activity and the goals that they must try to achieve within a certain timeframe. The PNDT also establishes a Goal Matrix, which gives a snapshot of the progress made across each of the pillars and their respective action plans and programmes. This is published for the public in a biannual evaluation.

Part of the PNDT’s success is due to its extensive use of indicators and goals to document the plan’s progress. A biannual evaluation process looks at each of the three pillars and their respective action plans, programmes, and indicators. The Viceministry of Telecommunications oversees the evaluation process, and requires each institution involved with the PNDT to send reports in a standardised format to facilitate data collection.

The PNDT is specifically designed to bring connectivity to vulnerable populations and increase digital inclusion. Both the PNDT and the General Telecommunications Law discuss specific programmes for indigenous communities. In 2019, FONATEL spent $47.9 million to bring telephony and internet access to 751 towns and 119 schools and colleges across 14 indigenous territories, and has plans to reach the remaining nine territories.

This approach is also evident in some of the PNDT’s time-bound goals and indicators. For example, some commonly cited PNDT goals include “100% of elderly care centres will have a connected ‘smart’ centre by 2021,” and that “100% of child nutrition and comprehensive care centres will have ‘technology corners’ by 2021.”

According to a 2020 OECD evaluation of Costa Rica’s digital development strategies, the PNDT not only promotes digital development and universal connectivity, but it also supports “the constitutional right to freedom of expression and dissemination of thoughts and opinions,” as defined by the constitutions.

Over the course of the PNDT’s enactment, Costa Ricans have also seen the gradual reduction of data tariffs over time, with the cost of 1GB falling from 2.02% of monthly average income in 2015 — just over the international standard for affordability — to 0.7% of average monthly income in 2019, one of the lowest numbers in the Americas among low- and middle-income countries.