Will Cuba embrace the internet revolution?
By Will Grant
Cuba correspondent, BBC News
2 March 2017
From the section Latin America & Caribbean
No matter how much you warn visitors to Cuba that they’ll be offline
during their stay, they often won’t believe it until they actually
arrive in Havana.
On arrival, they find their iPads and smartphones suddenly only serve
for taking photos which, to their dismay, can’t be immediately posted to
their Instagram or Facebook accounts.
Whether Snapchat-obsessed millennials or email-addicted workaholics,
they stare at their phones in disbelief, waiting in vain for the
familiar “4G” symbol to appear, as the realisation dawns that an
enforced digital detox is upon them.
Conversely, plenty of travellers to Cuba relish the chance to disconnect
from the office emails and the constant barrage of WhatsApp alerts and
Yet what for the tourist is either a temporary inconvenience or a
welcome offline breather is a very different reality for ordinary Cubans.
For years, it felt to many on the island like the internet was something
happening elsewhere, to other people.
There are now more than 240 public access wi-fi spots dotted around the
country and the price for an hour of internet access, while still
expensive by international standards, has dropped by more than half, to
$1.50 (£1.20) for an hour.
It is now a common sight to see people sitting with their laptops or
phones in parks and public plazas connecting with their families abroad
via video-chat technology.
In the latest development, the state telecommunications company, Etecsa,
has installed internet connections in around 2,000 homes in the
capital’s colonial district, Old Havana, as part of a two-month pilot
Among the lucky few is Jose Antonio Ruiz.
His modest apartment in one of the neighbourhood’s newer buildings is
part of the government’s domestic online experiment. As a private
business owner who rents rooms to tourists, Mr Ruiz has found the new
“luxury” helped him in two main ways.
First, he says, he can advertise his apartment more easily on popular
accommodation websites like Airbnb, and answer his clients’ emails much
more promptly than before.
Secondly, he can offer his guests a unique service giving him a
competitive advantage over other guesthouses.
“The guests are really pleased when you tell them we have internet,”
Jose Antonio explains. “They relax as they know they can check their
flights from here, read their emails or contact their families.”
During the pilot, the connection is free but once it’s over the
government is expected to publish prices, so users can choose whether to
keep the service or live without it.
It hasn’t yet been confirmed but it is believed it will cost around $15
(£12) for 30 hours at the slowest speed of 128 kilobits per second, and
up to $110 (£90) for the fastest – two megabits per second.
With the average wage in Cuba about $25 (£20) a month, those prices
would be prohibitively expensive for many Cubans.
Jose Antonio’s connection is not fast enough to stream video, for
example. Still, it is an improvement on the dial-up connections that
some state employees have at home and he says he’d pay to keep it as
it’s enough for what he needs.
One day, though, those needs could change, says Cuban youth blogger
“The digital transformation of a country is not just giving people the
internet, but giving them services on the internet, Cuban services,” he
explains at a public access wi-fi point in the Vedado neighbourhood of
“Like banking or paying your bills or buying tickets for the movie
theatre or applying to college. When those kinds of national services
start to happen online then people will naturally become more impatient.”
Such a move will take time, he thinks. However, much has already
happened in a relatively short period.
“If you compare it with the rest of the world, of course we’re still
behind,” admits Mr Montenegro. “But it’s progress. When I started
college, although we had the internet, it was really, really, really
slow. You could barely do anything.”
“In five years’ time, I believe that at least every university will have
a really fast internet connection as well as in libraries, in schools
and more public wi-fi spots.”
The Cuban government’s position on the internet is twofold.
First it blames the US economic embargo for the lack of information
technology in Cuba, saying that many of the major IT firms around the
world fear running foul of Washington’s strict rules on trading with Cuba.
Since the bilateral thaw of December 2014, that has been harder to
argue, of course. Last year Google reached an agreement with Etecsa on
storing its online content, such as YouTube video and Gmail, on servers
inside Cuba to improve local access. Google executives are also keen to
provide further internet-based solutions to challenges on the island.
However, there is also a lingering official distrust of unfettered
Whether stemming from an ill-advised USAid-run programme intended to
undermine the Castro government via a text message-based form of “Cuban
Twitter” called ZunZuneo or a broader suspicion of social media as a
tool of dissent, the authorities have traditionally been wary of the net.
Following his meeting with Raul Castro last year, the then British
Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, told the BBC that the 85-year-old
Cuban president “clearly understands the power of the digital economy to
drive growth” but had also raised his concerns over “the negative
aspects of the internet from online radicalisation to child sexual
Mr Castro has a little under a year to go before he steps down from the
presidency. His expected successor, Vice-President Miguel Angel Diaz
Canel, is thought to be receptive to greater online access after he once
publicly defended a group of young bloggers who had posted relatively
critical material online.
As the home internet pilot scheme draws to an close, the Cuban
government must next decide whether to shut it down or roll it out
across the island.
Depending on the price, many thousands of potential users are ready to
Source: Will Cuba embrace the internet revolution? – BBC News –