How is Cuba's target for getting online coming along?

Despite numerous recent developments the road to getting ordinary Cubans online is still a rocky one

Since Cuba ended its diplomatic standoff with the US last year, much has been made of the country’s attempts to catch up with the global internet and get its people online despite the severe lack of services and infrastructure.

Now the Cuban government has made perhaps its biggest move in bringing the internet to the people. It is piloting a broadband internet service in two neighbourhoods in the capital Havana. ETECSA, the government-run telecommunications agency that oversees all matters relating to the internet, confirmed that Chinese telecom and mobile giant Huawei will be running the pilot.

Initially, the scheme will be targeted at homes but businesses will eventually be able to sign-up for the service. However at this early stage, the pilot program has not revealed any details on costs or what kind of speeds will be available.

At the same time there’s no timeline for when the pilot will be completed or what the next stages will be. This is indicative of Cuba’s internet efforts in general.


High costs and slow speeds

Getting online in Cuba is notoriously difficult and once you have your connection you’re likely to be stymied by slow speeds, often as low as 1Mbps, and censorship.

Up until this point, only government staff and diplomats could gain access to broadband internet or certain approved businesses like doctors’ practices or hotels to meet tourism demands. Everyone else has had to settle for slow yet expensive services from ETECSA while a year ago the government approved its first public Wi-Fi location at the residence of a local artist affiliated with the government. Then in the summer of 2015, officials approved 35 new paid public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country.

Cubans will be hopeful that the Havana broadband trials will lead to a wider roll out of services. The country is still far behind its neighbouring countries and the developed world in this regard.

Accessing the internet through cafes and Wi-Fi zones, as is the case for most people, is still prohibitively expensive. Costs have dropped from $4.50 an hour to $2.00 an hour but that’s still around 10% of the average income .


Government snooping

Freedom House, in its latest 2015 report, lists Cuba as “not free”. The government still has a grip over its citizens’ internet use, as sparse as it may be.

While doctors have access to a slightly better service, they still face the wrath of the government if they overstep their bounds. Last March a number of doctors and dentists had their internet and email services shut down as they had used these connections to post ads on the classifieds site Revolico, a Craigslist-like site that has also been used as black market of sorts and has been blocked by the government from time to time.

There have also been numerous reports over the years of government snooping on emails read through mobile. The local Nauta pre-paid internet access system was extended a couple of years ago to allow the use of email on mobile phones, provided they were .cu email accounts, but these emails aren’t exactly safe from prying eyes.

ETECSA’s authority has a rather open book when it comes to blocking or filtering websites. One government resolution states that the agency can “take the necessary steps to prevent access to sites whose contents are contrary to social interests, ethics and morals, as well as the use of applications that affect the integrity or security of the state.”

International websites like BBC are available but restrictions have been placed on sites that are critical of the government. Facebook and Twitter have been periodically blocked as well.

These methods haven’t been applied on a large scale by the government yet, as the lack of technology in the first place has proven to be a tool for censorship in itself. Now that this is changing and people are gaining access to more and more information, albeit slowly, this raises concerns over how ETECSA and the government will conducts itself moving forward, particularly when it comes to online dissent.

Since dialogues were opened with the US, Cuba has pledged to bring the internet to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. Internet penetration is currently as low as 5% to 10% so achieving this goal is no easy task. The Havana broadband pilots are a step in the right direction but infrastructure remains the biggest hurdle to cross right now.

“There just isn’t infrastructure to support mass access to the internet. Much more residential access is needed to increase internet penetration,” says Doug Madory of Dyn Research, which monitors internet connectivity around the world. He hasn’t noted any hugely significant changes to Cuba’s internet activity since its last report.

The other major infrastructural challenge for Cuba is latency, which will continue to hamper internet speeds.

“To begin to provide an internet experience anywhere close to what is experienced in most countries, content providers including CDNs like Akamai and Google need to able place their caching servers inside Cuba. This would greatly alleviate the load on the submarine cable as traffic begins to increase as more Cubans come online,” says Madory.


Opportunity remains

Cuba, like any emerging nation, has caught the attention of multi-nationals all the same. Google and Facebook are clamouring for that ‘next billion’, that next generation of people that will get online. It’s been rocky – just look at Facebook’s Free Basics controversy in India – but they won’t be giving up any time soon. Cuba provides its own opportunities.

Google has been eyeing up the country for some time, making the Play Store available at the end of 2014.

Netflix may now be available globally but a year ago, it was still only in select regions, which made its Cuba launch all the more puzzling, especially for a service that costs $7.99 a month where the average monthly wage is only a fraction of that. Netflix declined to comment on its user numbers in Cuba.

Airbnb on the other hand have been very busy, according to the company. Not long after the US relationship reopened, Airbnb swiftly moved in and allowed Cuban users to rent out their rooms or homes. A recent report claims that Airbnb’s listings have more than tripled in the country, feeding its tourism business. A spokesperson for Airbnb tells IDG Connect that it only took two months to reach 1,000 listings in Cuba on the site and listings have seen a “300% increase since launching just over seven months ago”.

The Havana broadband pilot this year will likely be welcomed by most people who have been longing for fast and easy access like their neighbours. However, questions still remain over the quality of the infrastructure and whether the government will feel compelled to meddle in its citizens’ newfound communications.