Monday, November 30, 2015

Time to Bring Cuba Online

Time to Bring Cuba Online

Millions of Cuban citizens could have affordable access to the Internet
in a matter of months. The only thing keeping the island in the digital
Dark Ages is a lack of political will. Cuban officials have long blamed
the American embargo for their nation's obsolete telecommunications
systems. They no longer have that excuse.

Regulatory changes the Obama administration put in place this year
provide Havana with a number of options to expand Internet coverage
quickly and sharply. If the government took advantage of that, the
island's anemic economy could get a much-needed jolt, and young Cubans
who are determined to emigrate, a powerful reason to reconsider.

Cuba was among the last in the region to go online in the 1990s. Over
the years, the authoritarian government has moved haltingly in expanding
access to the Internet, which remains tightly controlled and censored.
The American government sought to establish clandestine connections, but
relatively few people benefited from those initiatives, and those who
did risked being branded as traitors. Since 2013, Cuba has been plugged
into the global cable network that enables high-speed connections, but
the Internet is still largely out of reach and prohibitively expensive
for those who don't have government-sanctioned access through workplaces
and universities.

Young Cubans, eager to connect with the world,have built ingenious ways
around the government's controls. In the past two years, a black market
data sharing system known as el paquete, or the packet, has enabled
Cubans to gain access to a menu of news sites, television shows, movies
and snapshots of websites that are bundled weekly and disseminated door
to door through hard drives and memory sticks. They also have used
wireless routers to create neighborhood networks that are not connected
to the Internet but that enable users to chat and share media.

Earlier this year, the government, responding to popular pressure,
established 35 wireless centers where Cubans can use smartphones and
laptops to go online for about $2 an hour. Although that amounts to
roughly 10 percent of the median monthly salary on the island, the
centers have been mobbed. Norges Rodríguez, an engineer and prominent
blogger in Havana, said that Cuban officials were wrestling with a
quandary. "They are aware that for the economy to advance, the economy
must be online," he said in a phone interview. "But our society, by
design, is like the one the Soviets had: a closed society."

Within Cuba's opaque power structure there is a split between
hard-liners who are worried that broader Internet access could fuel
dissent and more progressive leaders who see the embrace of technology
as a matter of economic survival. Google, which has recently made it a
priority to expand online access in some of the world's least plugged-in
societies, has invigorated that debate in recent months by offering to
rapidly upgrade the island's Internet infrastructure.

Google could help Cuba plug into at least one additional submarine
cable, which would vastly improve speeds, and develop a hybrid
distribution network that would include fiber-optic cables, cellular
data towers and Wi-Fi access points. The company's Project Link
initiative last year greatly improved connectivity in Uganda in a matter
of months, and it is now expanding to Ghana. It's unclear how the
financing of a Cuba project would work. Google could easily make an
upfront investment that could be paid off over time, and as more users
go online it would benefit from demand for Google products, which
generates advertising revenue.

Partnering with Google, which has enormous lobbying clout in Washington,
could advance Havana's goal of building enough political support in
Congress to repeal the embargo and would make it harder for a future
president to dial back the restoration of diplomatic ties that Mr. Obama
set in motion last year. Leading Republican candidates, including Marco
Rubio, have been critical of broader engagement with the Cuban government.

Cuba could also decide to do business with non-American technology
companies, as Myanmar did after it began opening its political system in
2013. Industry experts say there would be no shortage of bidders eager
to establish a foothold in a populous Caribbean nation with one of the
world's highest literacy rates — despite Havana's cumbersome foreign
investment laws and its inability to obtain credit to purchase American
equipment because of sanctions that remain in place.

Cuban officials pledged last December to expand Internet access "without
haste, but without pause." But that hasn't happened, and Cubans are
rightly demanding more. "The government had claimed the problem was the
inability to do business with American companies," Mr. Rodríguez, the
blogger, said. "That argument has disappeared."

Source: Time to Bring Cuba Online - The New York Times -

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