Obama, FCC Seek to Bring Cuba Online
Concerns about Internet freedom make Cuba leery of collaborating with
U.S. telecom companies, however.
By Tom Risen Jan. 27, 2016, at 6:36 p.m.
The Obama administration on Wednesday removed limits that will ease
telecom business with Cuba, but outreach from U.S. companies interested
in expanding communications on the island have so far generated little
interest from a communist government that severely restricts Internet
Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler announced on Wednesday that
his agency has removed Cuba from the exclusion list so companies will no
longer need to gain government approval to do business there. This
announcement comes a day after the Obama administration lifted broader
limits on trade with Cuba, although the U.S. embargo with the island can
only be completely removed by Congress. During the meeting in Havana
last week Cuban diplomats complained about the embargo's damaging effect
on the island's communications, according to the Associated Press.
Wheeler described in a blog post his trip to Havana last week as part of
a meeting between Cuban and American officials about the economic and
social development potential of the Internet.
"We pledged our support and the support of U.S. companies," he said. "It
is unclear, however, just how anxious the Cuban government is to open up
expanded network capabilities."
Cuba has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the world, as Internet
is only available to between 5 percent and 30 percent of the country,
while an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent have access to a basic cell
phone, according to advocacy group Freedom House. The cost of
connectivity is also prohibitively high in a country where the average
salary is $20 per month. An average computer in Cuba could cost around
$700 and online access at a hotel or cafe may cost $12 per hour,
according to the report.
Venezuela ran an undersea fiberoptic cable to the island in 2011 with
the promise of dramatically boosting its Internet speeds, but
connectivity in Cuba remains sluggish since it officially activated in
2013 – two years behind schedule. Jose Luis Martinez, spokesman for the
Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, says he suspects that the
government has purposely limited access to Internet resources, which
include only 200 Internet cafes and 35 public Wi-Fi hotspots for an
island of 11 million people.
"There is already the capacity to offer stronger Internet in Cuba,"
Martinez says. "There are reports that the fiberoptic cable is up and
running but is giving access to higher ups in the government, the
military and a few other favored people."
There is also a heavy reluctance to accept help from foreign companies,
he says, noting that the country rejected an offer by Google to boost
Internet access in Cuba.
Companies including Verizon and Sprint have begun offering roaming
access services in Cuba for people travelling to the island, but Cubans
are forced to use communications provided by Etecsa, the Cuban
government's telecom monopoly. Cubans must use an Etecsa email address,
and only recently became able to send basic text emails via smart phones.
The Cuban government legalized the use of cellphones, laptops and
tablets in 2008. Since then a flourishing black market has sprung up to
distribute flash drives filled with downloaded content from the
unrestricted Internet, including telenovelas, movies and news
broadcasts, says Martinez.
"Flash drives with information from the open Internet is probably Cuba's
most popular black market," he says.
The entry of U.S. telecoms into the Cuban market may boost Internet
infrastructure in that nation but it is unlikely to improve human rights
conditions, says Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom
"The Cuban government has shown no interest in loosening its control
over the internet," he says. "Cuba wants to use U.S. investment to ease
economic pressures and thereby extend its hold on power."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also told U.S. News last year he is skeptical
that opening trade with the island would promote democratic values there.
"I don't know of a single contemporary, reluctant tyranny that has
become a democracy because of more trade and tourists," Rubio said at
Source: Obama, FCC Seek to Bring Cuba Online - US News -