Cubans are using simple hacks to get around limited and expensive internet
Cuba remains one of the world’s least connected countries, but that’s
slowly changing. In July last year, Etecsa, the state-owned telecoms
company, launched the country’s first wifi hotspots. A year on, and over
100 hotspots have been rolled out across the island.
Cubans are now accessing Gmail, Facebook and Twitter to connect with
friends and family for the first time. While data on the number of
smartphone owners is limited, according to Etecsa, around 150,000 of the
island’s 11 million people now connect to the web daily.
But internet access remains expensive, with plenty of barriers. The
average monthly salary in Cuba is $25, yet a one-hour wifi card costs $2
and an internet-enabled phone costs over $200 in state stores. And while
Cubans can see social media pages and major news websites, government
censors block dissident blogs.
It’s not only Cuba’s policies that thwart accessibility. Despite the
thaw in relations, the US embargo on Cuba remains in place, prohibiting
US-based firms from doing business there. Apple’s and Google’s app
stores don’t allow downloads, blocking access to common apps like Skype
and WhatsApp. (Facebook and others can be used via their websites.) The
US, Cuba’s staunchest critic of the state’s grip on information, is
effectively putting brakes on the liberatory power of the web.
But Cubans are used to finding solutions to seemingly impossible
problems, and many are applying the same ingenuity that life in Cuba
demands to life online.
Sacrifice, then connect
On a recent Saturday, Estrella Rodríguez, a retired Havana doctor, stood
in the shade near a wifi hotspot. She was using IMO, a Skype-like
video-calling app, to reach her daughter, who emigrated to New Zealand
five years ago. Even if Cubans can find a way of installing Skype
without going through the app store, it won’t let them connect from
Cuba. IMO, however, does.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen my daughter since she left. I’m over the
moon!” Rodríguez said, tearful and jumping with excitement in front of
the pixelated stream of her daughter. “Until now we kept in touch by
email, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen her.” Rodríguez
said the family decided to forgo milk for a few weeks to save up the
money for the wifi.
Nearby, teenager Miladis Llanes was also online. “The Internet is mostly
for middle-class people. Poor people can’t connect,” Llanes said, in
between checking Facebook. “Most people who connect here have family who
top up their accounts abroad.”
But necessity breeds ingenuity. Close by, two kids lean against a
building and whisper “Psssst – Connectify” to passersby. Connectify
allows them to divide up and share the limited bandwidth that Etecsa
wifi provides by creating personal wifi hotspots from their laptops.
Users buy one-hour cards at $2, create three new password-protected wifi
connections, and sell these connections on for a dollar each, pocketing
a dollar profit in the process. The kids had no shortage of clients
willing to connect at a lower speed for half the price.
Another innovation is the classified ads site Revolico. In a country
where state supermarkets sometimes go weeks without toilet paper, and
the state sells electronic goods at a beefy 240% markup, Revolico has
become a household name. To keep up with demand, droves of Cubans are
taking cheap flights to Panama to stock up on smartphones, laptops and
clothes, before bringing them back to Cuba to post online. Though
working as a mule is illegal and Revolico is blocked, people easily
access the site through mirror websites. The state, unable to satiate
the yearning for consumer goods, has so far turned a blind eye.
Limited connectivity has also led Cubans to develop apps that are fully
functional offline. Alamesa, the island’s leading source of gastronomic
information, is a case in point. The app, which is updated every
fortnight, downloads descriptions, reviews, and photos of over 800
restaurants on to your phone. You can search them offline, and there are
even maps to help you reach your eatery of choice. You can’t reserve via
the app, but Alamesa’s creators have found a revenue stream: 30% of the
restaurants pay, in cash, to get promoted.
Also popular is Zapya, an offline file-transfer app, which allows Cubans
to skirt around the embargo to share popular apps such as Facebook and
the offline version of Wikipedia. Any two people with Zapya installed on
their phones can exchange files, apps, photos or videos at 2Mb per
second, so long as they are within around 20 meters (66 feet) of each other.
Zapya also allows for group chat, making it Cuba’s answer to Tinder.
Anyone in the vicinity can enter, and teenagers hanging out in parks,
petrol stations, and even nightclubs browse the chats to see who’s around.
“You find all sorts on there. From weirdos to people you might have
something in common with,” says Mayelin, who met her boyfriend through
Zapya while at a concert.
Other low-tech apps have helped Cubans navigate the restrictions of
daily life. Flashlight, which turns not just the phone’s camera
flashlight but also its screen brightness up to the max, is handy in a
country where power cuts are never far away. The app has become even
more popular this summer as the government has introduced fuel rationing
to manage power shortages on a scale not seen in decades.
Chinese telecom firm Huawei is currently laying the fiber-optic cable
for Cuba’s first broadband home internet services, which Etecsa plans to
launch in Old Havana later this year. Prices are yet to be announced,
but nobody expects them to be within reach of regular Cubans. The
project is likely aimed more at the internet-hungry holidaymakers now
flooding the historic quarter’s hostels and private homes.
Expensive as it is, though, the internet is making a difference to the
lives of less well-off Cubans too. A record 43,000 people emigrated to
the US (pdf) from the island last year. Traditionally, when a loved one
left, the goodbye at the airport was often the last farewell. Now,
Cubans abroad can pay for their family at home to have an internet
connection and stay in touch—and that already has Cubans feeling much
Source: Connectify, zapya, Revolico: Cubans are using simple hacks and
apps to get around limited and expensive internet — Quartz –