Cuba's Internet Dilemma: How to Emerge From the Web's Stone Age
August 27, 2015 — 11:00 AM CEST
Julio Hernandez is a telecommunications engineer, but like almost anyone
else in Cuba who wants to get on the Internet, to do so he must crouch
on a dusty street corner with his laptop, inhaling car exhaust and
enduring sweltering heat.
That privilege costs him $2 an hour, expensive in a nation where the
average state-paid salary is $20 a month.
The Internet is essential for today's business, finance, communications
and information, but today hasn't dawned in Cuba, which still has some
of the worst Internet access in the world. It's restricted to a few
workplaces and fewer than 4 percent of homes, including those of senior
officials, foreign executives and media, doctors and artists. It's
unavailable on the country's 1991-vintage 2G mobile-phone network.
President Raul Castro's government recognizes the problem, but faces a
dilemma: how to expand Internet access to boost its economy and satisfy
its population while maintaining control of information. Cuban officials
say at least 50 percent of the population will have residential Internet
service and 60 percent will have mobile phones by 2020, without saying
how they'll achieve that.
'Delayed the Inevitable'
"It's stupid how much they've delayed the inevitable," said Carlos
Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador to the European Union and professor
at the University of Havana. "Meanwhile, we're losing ground -- we're in
the Stone Age."
The Internet was used by 30 percent of Cuba's population in 2014,
according to the International Telecommunication Union, compared with 57
percent in its ally Venezuela and 87 percent in the U.S.
Key government ministries, joint ventures, universities and hospitals
have Internet access, but using it is a slow trip back in time with a
dial-up modem. Forget about streaming video or downloading or uploading
For the lucky few with access at work or home, e-mail and an intranet of
approved sites downloaded to local servers is as good as it gets. A file
that would take 4 minutes and 10 seconds to download in Cuba would be
instantaneous in most American homes and workplaces.
Broadband service is restricted to top tourist hotels, select business
centers and approved media outlets.
That's slowly starting to change. State-run cybercafes opened two years
ago, charging 4.50 an hour. Last month, the state telecom monopoly
Etecsa created 35 broadband Wi-Fi hotspots across the island, where the
public can surf the Web, as Hernandez does.
It's not as fast as broadband in the U.S., but it's a huge improvement.
"Before this, we had nothing," said Ramon Mazon, a pizzeria worker who
traveled 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) to an outdoor hotspot in central
Havana for a video chat with relatives in the U.S. "In this day and age,
we should have access to Internet a few hours a day, just like we have
food ration cards."
Thanks to new regulations issued by President Barack Obama as part of
his push to normalize relations, U.S. companies -- from information
technology giants such as Google Inc. to mobile phone providers AT&T
Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.-- could help lift Cuba out of the
Internet Stone Age. But it's not clear that the Castro government wants
a lift from them at the risk of ceding some control and influence to
In the rare broadband Wi-Fi oases -- the lobbies of top tourist hotels
-- tech-savvy young Cubans discreetly surf on their phones,
circumventing log-on fees as high as $17 an hour at one Spanish chain
hotel. They share Wi-Fi connections or use apps to tap into servers
overseas. They're doing what's needed to "resolver" -- overcome the
barriers to online access in Cuba.
Etecsa is testing 3G and 4G mobile phone service that could provide
Internet access, although there's been no indication of who could get it.
The Castro government has long blamed the U.S. trade embargo for
"blockading" Cuba, condemning it to being a technology backwater. That
barrier disappeared in January, when Obama made it legal for U.S.
telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba -- from erecting
mobile phone towers and positioning satellites to laying fiber-optic
cable and selling iPhones.
Over the past several months, U.S. companies have made quiet visits,
assessing the market and weighing opportunities, though none has yet
made a deal with the government.
A team from Google visited in June and suggested it could provide
antennas to bring high-speed connections to 70 percent of homes within
three years at little to no cost to Cuba, according to journalist
Fernando Ravsberg, who writes the blog "Cartas Desde Cuba" (Letters from
The idea has been met by questions from the Cuban government, suspicious
that Google may have ties to the State Department and fearful that the
U.S. could use the technology to spy on Cuba or scheme for regime
change, according to Cuban officials who asked not to be identified.
Google spokeswoman Niki Christoff declined to comment.
Harold Cardenas, co-founder of the blog "La Joven Cuba" (Young Cuba),
said he wants an open Internet as soon as possible, but he understands
why his government may be hesitant to make deals with U.S. companies.
"If you were in a dispute with your neighbor for 50 years and now you're
friends, it's a little risky to give your neighbor access to your whole
garden, because you might be fighting again tomorrow," he said. "A
country's telecommunications is a matter of national security."
At the same time, Cardenas added: "The government has to give Internet
to the people or it's going to lose the hearts and minds of Cuban youth.
And that's already happening."
Turning to China
Cuba may turn to China for an answer.
A document was leaked last month that purports to be Etecsa's plan to
build residential broadband using Chinese telecommunications companies
ZTE Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. rather than American companies.
Critics say the Castro government is slow-rolling broadband to restrict
access to information. Cuba blocks pornography and anti-Castro websites,
but there are fewer firewalls than there are in China.
Websites including those of Yahoo! Inc., the State Department and blogs
such as Cartas Desde Cuba and La Joven Cuba, which sometimes are
critical of the government, were easily accessible this month to those
who could reach the Internet. Cubans can travel freely now, and have
access to foreign television via memory sticks sold widely on the black
"To open or not open the Internet is a silly argument, because Cuban
censors have already lost control of the information people have,"
Source: Cuba's Internet Dilemma: How to Emerge From the Web's Stone Age
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