A First Hand Third World Tech Experience: “Same, Only Different”


Over the last several weeks, I’ve had some interesting tech experiences. I got to experience travel to Central America, partly for fun, mostly for fact finding. And my initial takeaway is that we in the US are spoiled. Maybe especially me. My trip was to Costa Rica, where much of what’s in the stores is imported. That means pricing is topsy turvy on a variety of things.

Those inexpensive cold cut and cheese sandwiches suddenly aren’t so cheap. Hardly anyone has a clothes dryer as those are double the price of the same models in the US. And warm, sunny air works very nicely, just not so quickly.

Transportation is a thing to behold in San Jose. Most of it is buses. They go almost everywhere, except the center of the city. No matter what quadrant you enter the heart of San Jose from, there’s a walk of 5-7 blocks to catch a bus going from there to any other quadrant. There are official taxis, painted red. Those are all over the city. They may be company taxis or driver owned, but they’re official. And, believe it or not, there’s Uber. And the times I used it, Uber was about 1/3 what it would cost for the same ride in the US. That’s the low tech stuff.

Cable TV is relatively inexpensive for the basic package. But you’re likely to want a SAP equipped TV for English subtitles. Then there’s Internet, also relatively inexpensive unless you want speeds like those in the US — and experiences may vary.

My first week in San Jose, I was adventurous and stayed at a hostel near the place I was visiting. Their cable TV was solid as a rock, their Internet not so much. Depending on whether the guests were watching something on Netflix or a bunch of other unknown factors, it could have decent speed, totally dead,  or fluctuating somewhere in between. My impression was that they were using old and overused equipment.

The rest of my stay, a guest room opened up where I was visiting. They also had Internet and TV. It was mostly pretty steady and speedy, although windy days seemed to create problems. It turned out to be a faulty cable modem. Once that was replaced, everything was rock solid. That repair and some discussion showed me several interesting things.

  1. The call was made to the cable company on Monday. The repairmen came Wednesday because they were waiting for cable modems. You get used to a slower way of living.
  2. The speed was 4Mbps. My cable speed in the US is 25Mbps. The Costa Rican connection almost felt faster. Unless you’re a gamer or do a lot of movie streaming, you don’t need faster.
  3. Expect Internet outages. Not like those at the hostel or with the cable modem needing replacement. But there are random outages that last 10-15 minutes. Investing in a UPS isn’t a bad idea, just to protect from the drops and spikes from those outages.
  4. Use a VPN. We’ll talk about that more, separately.

Many visitors to Costa Rica come from first world countries. They’re used to things just working and used to them working safely. This is not necessarily so in Costa Rica or other places that aren’t considered first world countries. TuneIn Radio works fine, but Pandora doesn’t cover the region so a VPN is a good way to deal with that.  Identity theft seems to be more prevalent outside the first world areas so the encryption provided by a VPN is more than just a side benefit.  Viruses and malware seem to circulate more readily too so it’s also good to have protective software for those too.

Remember I said pricing could be topsy turvy?  That’s true of cell service, too.  In the US, we’ve gotten used to unlimited talk and text, with the carriers gouging us on data.  In Costa Rica, $25 will get unlimited texting, unlimited data and 120 minutes of talk time.  The big communications app there is Whatsapp, and as a result data gets far more mobile use than actual calls.

You might remember from my past articles that I have Project Fi as my MVNO carrier.  That proved to be perfect for my almost 3 weeks in Costa Rica — I got an extra 4 days courtesy of the US East Coast blizzard.  Costa Rica is one of the countries where Google has an agreement which meant local calls were $0.20.  But wifi calling would get me $0.06 calls to Costa Rican cell numbers, $0.08 for landlines, and US calling via Wi-Fi was free.  The people I needed to talk to were all on Skype and I left data on  so I could be reached when I wasn’t near wifi.  My total cost for phone services for my three week trip was $2.51, which included one $0.20 local call.

Project Fi, for me, ended up being cheaper and easier than periodically taking the case off the phone to swap sim cards.  At the same time, if I were going to be staying there long term, I think I’d grab an inexpensive smartphone for local use — calls, data, and Whatsapp, and I’d keep the Nexus on Project Fi for the required calls to and from the US, via Wi-Fi.

My best description of Latino life and tech is “the same only different.”  For most of us, some minor adjustments make it work as well or better than what we’re used to.


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