How Cuba is trying to catch up with the global internet

In a bid to catch up with the rest of the online world, Cuba’s state telco Etecsa has approved the nation’s first public Wi-Fi hub in the cultural centre of Cuban artist Kcho.

The Cuban sculptor, who has maintained a positive relationship with the government, was recently granted approval for the project for which he will pay about $900 a month to operate and will be free to use for visitors. It opened in January.

Cuba is largely an unconnected country. Less than 25% of the population is online and ISP services from Etecsa are notoriously expensive, which prices most people out of the market. Freedom House meanwhile puts the figure at 5% for people that can access the open internet.

Since dialogue with the US reopened recently, Cuba’s dismal internet infrastructure has come under the spotlight, which has spurred some major tech and internet companies to try and get into the small island nation early ahead of anticipated growth.

In February Netflix launched its services in Cuba, as part of its global expansion goals, costing $7.99 a month. The launch brought newfound attention to internet services in the country along with lack of access, as the average monthly salary in Cuba is $20 as of July 2014. This price rules out paying for an internet connection, which are costly as it is, never mind a Netflix subscription.

The key difference with Kcho’s new Wi-Fi hub is that it will be free. According to the BBC, internet cafes in Cuba can cost around $4.50 per hour, which is again uneconomical for ordinary people.

“There needs to be greater investment to extend internet access to more people,” says Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Dyn, who has chronicled the state of Cuba’s communications infrastructure. “One of the issues is that Etecsa don’t have the resources to do it.”

“Their infrastructure is very much out of date,” he says and adds that Cuba can learn a thing or two from the ongoing internet access expansion programs going on in Myanmar, a country that has been greatly underdeveloped in communications. “There’s an enormous internet revolution going on there.”

“It’s kind of in the government of Cuba’s hands - what they’re willing to do - but if they were willing to open up a bidding process to have outside companies come in and do the infrastructure than they could benefit from collecting likely hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing like what happened in Myanmar,” he says.

This raises issues in itself though. “That would require adopting a capitalist mentality where you have outside companies competing,” Madory says, claiming that dozens of companies would line up to operate in Cuba.

Censorship concerns

The growth of internet access and online services in Cuba is generally seen as a positive move for a country that has been so far behind in the digital race but costs aside, there are several questions surrounding what will be accessible and what won’t be.

It may come as a surprise but up to this point there has actually been little internet censorship in Cuba, largely because it was unnecessary with so few people actually online. If more people gain access to the internet, the conversation will have to happen sooner or later as while Facebook and Twitter are accessible in the country, YouTube has already been blocked in the past.

The greater barrier has been prohibitive costs, says Evan Greenberg, a digital marketer at Tapp TV, who spent some time in Cuba on an education program. Many people did indeed have email accounts and Facebook profiles, he says, but again lacked the access to check them regularly. “I felt that if the people had social media, the younger generation was prime for their own version of Arab Spring,” says Greenberg. “It will be interesting to see if access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are affected.”

“Even if YouTube wasn’t blocked, bandwidth speeds are so slow that videos wouldn’t load very well anyway. It’s the same way for foreign news sites like CNN as well,” says Andrew Staples, PR director at Golden Frog, the company that operates virtual private network service, VyprVPN.

It appears that lacklustre infrastructure has done more to curtail the spread of information and news than any censorship measures would.

Kcho, the sculptor behind the new Wi-Fi hub, has maintained solid ties with the Cuban government for many years too. Fidel Castro has even attended Kcho’s exhibitions so will this relationship have an effect on the sites that Kcho’s visitors can use?  Neither Kcho nor the state-owned ISP Etecsa responded to requests for comment.

“[Cubans] should be very concerned,” says Staples on Kcho’s governmental ties. “While Kcho offering free Wi-Fi is a great gesture, and a tremendously positive step for internet access in Cuba, this is a project that was approved for by the Cuban government so citizens should have no illusions of a free and private internet experience.

“So, while this news is great for opening up communications with the outside world, and giving Cubans conveniences like shopping online that most of us take for granted, if I’m a political activist in Cuba, I’d be very careful about using this Wi-Fi hotspot to speak out online,” add Staples, who says VyprVPN has some customers in Cuba.

Planning for the future

Kcho’s Wi-Fi hub will likely serve as a test run for the Cuban government before rolling out more broadband services. If the hub is a success, Cubans should expect more services in the future.

In 2013 the island finally activated its submarine cable to the internet after it had been lying dormant for years. Secondly, Cuba’s surprise reopening of dialogue with the US a few months ago came with a commitment to expanding its internet functions.

Currently, Cuba has just one submarine cable, which connects to Venezuela. The lone cable, built by Alcatel and financed by Venezuela, would be sufficient for the time being in handling increased internet usage, says Madory. “In time they may grow out of it,” he explains.

Even though Cuba is working towards greater online accessibility, it has been keen to point out that while none of this will happen overnight there are benefits to be had. Cuba, and several other countries in somewhat similar positions, may end up creating a new precedent for internet users to catch up in the digital race by skipping the era of desktop computers and moving straight to mobile devices.

The number of Cubans with mobile phones grew from 600,000 in 2009 to two million in 2013, says Eran Kinsbruner, technical evangelist from mobile app tester Perfecto Mobile, while fewer have actual computers.

“Once Wi-Fi becomes available to the country, they’ll experience the same phenomenon as Africa – not only will they be much more likely to use apps over websites, but it will set a cultural precedent that will affect internet usage patterns for a significant amount of time, especially as hardware is slowly distributed and Wi-Fi strength and signal [increase] throughout the country,” says Kinsbruner.

“What this boils down to is that companies with great mobile websites that have been tested to meet the network environments will essentially be first-to-market.”


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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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