Meeting with Costa Rica's Minister of Science and Technology

by Phil Hughes

I just had the pleasure of meeting with Guy F. de Téramond, who is the Minister of Science and Technology of Costa Rica. Don Guy, as he is referred to by his staff and others, is a serious Linux and free-software advocate. As ministers are appointed by the president to their cabinet-level positions, this puts a pro-Linux person very high up in the government.

Meeting with Costa Rica's Minister of Science and Technology

Guy F. de Téramond

I originally met him in June 2001, at the Costa Rica Linux User's Group (GULCR). At that time he really impressed me with his interest in Linux and with what I saw as a serious interest in bringing good internet connectivity to the general public. This meeting was a chance to fill in the blanks of my knowledge of his interests and commitments.

The meeting was in his office at the Ministry. When I arrived he was experiencing a computer problem: he had built a new kernel for his Mandrake-based Toshiba laptop and deleted the old kernel, before he had made sure the new one was in place and worked. He chalked this up to a learning experience and, after our interview, went back to doing an update from the Mandrake 8.1 CDs.

Guy is actually a research physicist who received his degrees in Paris between 1968 and 1977. He spent a year at Harvard and a year at Stanford. He is also a Guggenheim Fellow (1986), received a Fulbright Research Award (1983), National Prize Clodomiro Picado Twight (1979) and the Medal of the Association of Space Explorers (1997).

He has served as a full professor of Physics at the University of Costa Rica from 1982 until 2000, when he was appointed to his current position. He is also a member of the American Physical Society and a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences in Costa Rica. I could go on, but I think you have the general idea.

He was responsible for connecting Costa Rica to BITNET in 1990 and to the Internet in 1993. When asked “Why BITNET?”, he explained that at the time the Internet was primarily a US phenomenon for computer scientists, while BITNET was used for collaboration in other fields.

When he returned to Costa Rica he was convinced of the potential that this connectivity could bring to the country and was responsible for the creation of CRNet, a fiber router-based backbone linking all major academic and research institutions in Costa Rica. Going beyond the borders, he was involved in the interconnection of Nicaragua, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras and Guatemala to the Internet.

I asked him about his passions, and he said theoretical physics is first and computers and the Internet are second. He smiled and declined to comment on his third.

He saw CRNet as something he would create to get the needed connectivity and then go back to his work in theoretical physics. His knowledge and experience with computing got him tied up in this area more than he had planned. What he has done and continues to do, however, is a huge benefit to Costa Rica.

Guy's Introduction to UNIX

The first UNIX system in Costa Rica was an IBM RISC system. Back in 1991, Guy was in the first group of people that attended training on that system. Another attendee was Mario Guerra, who has become a UNIX expert and is also currently working at MICIT.

Guy soon became involved in getting other Caribbean nations connected to the Internet. This usually meant traveling to other countries, from Nicaragua to Jamaica, and helping them set up. In each case, the goal was to make them self-sufficient by teaching them what they needed to know. “We were working together with the people because if you go and make the connections, and nobody learns anything, they will become dependent on you, and that's not the idea”, he said. “That's the idea for a private company.”

“[With CRNet] we connected 24 universities and ten government offices”, he said. “We always had the strategy to work with the computer people because they will learn faster. Thus, even though there were very few people at CRNet, we [did] a lot.”

This work continued and included more efforts to increase the bandwidth available to Costa Rica, including a PanAmSat link and a downlink-only link. Mario worked on proxying to decrease the need for incoming bandwidth.

His Current Project

When he came to the Ministry in 2000, Guy wanted to continue this connectivity project but at the national level—that is, bring broadband connectivity to anyone who wanted it.

Costa Rica received a $1.2 million grant to start a DSL pilot project. This project offers DSL connectivity in five of Costa Rica's 240 phone districts. “We are just using the infrastructure that is there; just putting the logical elements on top of the fiber and then using the copper line”, he said. “DSL is fantastic technology because you are using what is there.”

“Now we are going into the second phase”, he added. “The second phase has two crucial parts. We are going to deploy 100,000 DSL lines in all 240 of the nation's phone districts.”

The first country in the world in per capita broadband connectivity (cable and DSL) is South Korea, number two is Canada and three is the US. With 100,000 lines, which is 10% of the copper lines in the country (and 2.5% of the total population), this effort will move Costa Rica up to number three.

The total cost of this effort will be about $60,000,000. This investment, while a huge amount for Costa Rica, is relatively small because DSL takes advantage of the fiber and copper infrastructure already in place. Also, deploying DSL helps local telephone districts because it substantially decreases the load on the switched lines by getting all the long-time internet connections moved off the switched network. “We are paying a lot of attention to scalable technology—not frame relay, ATM and the like”, he said.

Guy pointed out that this universal connectivity is happening because of the government monopoly on telecommunications service. ICE, the telephone company, is a government agency and adding this internet connectivity through DSL makes perfect sense. If, on the other hand, a private company were to offer internet connectivity, it wouldn't be universal because connectivity to areas of low population would not be profitable.

This is similar to what happened in the United States with the REA, which brought electricity to virtually everyone. Today, 97% of the households in Costa Rica have electricity (100% from natural sources), and the modern equivalent of the electricity effort is internet connectivity.

As Guy said, “You can do so much work from your office in your house and spend more time with your family if you have good communications.” In addition, the increasing numbers of Costa Ricans moving to population centers has stressed the transportation infrastructure and created pollution in, for example, San José. Thus, the ability to telecommute is important to the nation as a whole.

In addition to this fiber/copper infrastructure, they are experimenting with communications over the power line. The electrical distribution also is done by ICE so, for example, the existing fiber run along the power grid for monitoring will be made available as a backup for the telecommunications fiber links.

To support all this connectivity, there needs to be increased bandwidth to the Internet outside of Costa Rica as well. That brought the discussion to Arcos. Arcos is a ring-based system in the Caribbean that covers Mexico, the other countries of Central America, the Caribbean islands and Miami. It has a bandwidth of about a terabyte/second, and its structure is such that all the repeaters will be located on land, making an upgrade much less expensive than typical sea-based repeaters.

Arcos should be in operation by the time you read this article. Guy explains they decided to go with Arcos because it offers much less expensive bandwidth than did satellite links.

He also stressed that the project is to connect everyone: individuals, schools health centers and such, as well as banks, commerce and high-tech businesses.

There already has been a hearing on rates, and all the comments have been in the direction of reducing them further. (The proposal was $30/month for 64k DSL, $40/month for 128k and so forth, including the line and the ISP.) As ICE is a public agency, the rates will reflect cost of service rather than the need to show a profit.

The engineering part of the project has just been completed. The design is scalable and offers, for example, easy ways to implement security. They have been careful to follow ITU standards, so there will be no dispute over what they have specified.

The request for bids are about to go out for the additional equipment, and initial funding has already been approved by the government. The goal is to start deployment in January 2002.

What about Free Software?

Knowing that Guy is into Linux, we discussed the future of free software in Costa Rica.

Phil How does Linux play into this? Your connectivity project makes it possible for someone who lives in Quepos [a coastal city far from the capital] to decide they want to become a computer consultant. Is there something else that you have planned to get Linux into the community?

Guy At the University [of Costa Rica], there was a very integrated system of different technologies. At the end-user level, every user or department was free to put whatever OS or application they wanted on their systems, but most picked Windows or Mac—mostly Windows at the user level. A few crazy fellows in the Math and Engineering departments picked Linux.

In the center we have about 100 servers. They were all running Linux, except the databases, which were, at that time, running under Solaris on SPARC.

I think that Linux, in the last two or three years, has really made some progress for the end user. What we see again, if you use layers, is at the bottom you have common infrastructure and at the top you have the user. The more you go toward common infrastructure, the more it is open source, and the more you go toward the end user it is proprietary software.

In the coming years, we will see this line going up or going down. That is going to depend a lot on what the Linux and Open Source community does in developing applications for the end user.

Phil I agree.

Guy So this is a moving frontier. Of course, now almost everything is open source. You have the people who developed the TCP/IP protocols and Tim Berners-Lee with the HTML protocol. They made a fantastic contribution to humankind, then put it out as open source.

And, by the way, who is the biggest user of open source in the world? It is Microsoft, for example, with TCP/IP. They can put Microsoft Network on the Web, but it is TCP/IP.

Phil And, if it isn't, it doesn't talk.

Guy Exactly. In 1995, Microsoft protocol was NetBUI and NetBIOS, and it wasn't routable. Those are LAN protocols. At some point they made the very important decision to embrace TCP/IP. One has to agree that it is easy to satanize open source, but they are using it [themselves]. So we have this moving frontier. To go a little bit above, you have the web servers. You have Apache vs. IIS. Not only does Apache have 60% of the market, but it is free and reliable. And you have the report from The Gartner Group, for example, about the security issues, which are not a joke.

All of this to answer your question. To give you an example, here at the Ministry all of our servers run Linux. We are now extending that to many areas of the government. For myself and our engineers, we run Linux for everyday life. And because of the viruses, I can't go back.

However, I must say that I use a modified kernel because I really need to run [MS]Office. To be fair, Word and Excel are the standards. In open source we have not reached that level, yet.

Phil Even Linus uses Microsoft applications such as PowerPoint. They may not know how to write an operating system, but they write good applications.

Guy Exactly. I use this modified kernel that works beautifully, and I have my PowerPoint presentation and use Word and Excel because I don't have time to translate these files to another format. But it [Windows] is a program running under my OS, and I don't care if it has a virus or not.

I have the best of both worlds. The worlds will complement each other and that is healthy.

A country like ours has become very good in software development. It is one of our most important industries. So we must, of course, push this industry.

Let's move to the second question, what are we going to do about that? Here at the Ministry—engineers, myself, Linux fans—we will not go back. I do my scientific papers in LaTeX; everything is there.

At this point we can't make a decree to put the whole government on open source—yet. We have tasks with secretaries where they will lose their productivity. They cannot work as fast.

This will change in the future. However, this is a process. Right now, mail servers, web servers and databases are on Linux. One of our engineers can monitor every server from here. It's powerful, it's secure and it's the best environment you can find in the world right now. Today you cannot say that all the Ministries will run on Linux. We are not there yet. The day will come when the office productivity suite will be integrated into the desktop and will be considered common infrastructure, but not yet.

Phil So, I guess that answers the next question, which is that we, the Linux community, have to keep building better tools for the user, and the transition will happen.

Guy Absolutely. There is a second aspect to this. It's about education and schools. Here the pedagogical and instructional value of open source is incomparable.

You need to teach all primary and secondary school students the basic skills with Word and Excel, of course, but in the higher grades the values of open source are incomparable because the first to the last line of code is there. You know the program. It's amazing.

So imagine following the program line by line. You can change it, adapt it and make a simple version to monitor an experiment. Our industry will benefit from that because we will have very good programmers. The educational value, at a higher level, is very significant.

This is, of course, very close to the scientific model, where the results are open and free for discussion; only the best results remain. Only the best code survives.

I would like it if open source comes more into the high schools. That is something I would like to push more, but it depends on the Ministry of Education. I would like to see the bright kids changing the code and compiling and making a lot of mistakes, like I did.

Phil When offered the opportunity to work with the code, I have seen people get much more interested in getting involved. Where do you go from here?

Guy The problem is not what to do, it is the time to do it. As I said, my dream was to do frontier science from wherever you are. Of course, I am now extremely excited to follow the development of networking. This complements my career in Physics well. I think it was easy for me to go into this project because it is easy for me to have order of magnitude estimates.

Just to give you an example about why it is important to have an education in basic sciences, there was discussion of whether the backbone was to be wireless or with fiber. Someone who is trained in physics knows that in fiber the frequency is 1015. So that means information you can convey on a fiber, for all practical purposes, is infinite. With microwave, the frequency is between 106 and 108. So this discussion was irrelevant because you cannot pack more than an order of magnitude or two of bits at the frequency.

Phil I'm very impressed with your philosophy and, generally, with what I have seen as Costa Rica's philosophy. In the US there is so much argument about what the government should supply. Health care is a perfect example. Healthy people can be more productive. If the government can supply this infrastructure, the kind of connectivity you are talking about, for example, you're going to get more done. You are going to create people that are out there to accomplish things.

Guy I think health care is a very good example. Here it is universal. You are not going to die in the street.

Phil I had one other question about percentages of free software usage and such, but it seems you are saying the real answer is that the Linux and Open Source communities need to continue to develop user applications, and the transition will happen naturally.

Guy Absolutely. The progress in these last couple of years has been impressive, but of course, we need to continue to work much more.


I enjoyed interviewing Don Guy, and I am very impressed with him. His interest in education and universal access is a real credit to his dedication. The fact that this is happening is a real credit to the Costa Rican government in general.

I mentioned to him that we were giving trips to Costa Rica to the winners of the first contest we had in Embedded Linux Journal, and he said that he hoped he could do something “official” for them. So my bottom line is that Linux and open source are alive and well in Costa Rica, and it feels like it could expand easily in the whole region. Hopefully, Costa Rica can set the example for domination by Linux in Central America.


Phil Hughes is the publisher of Linux Journal and Embedded Linux Journal.

Load Disqus comments