In Cuba, connecting to the Internet remains a waiting game
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Cuban officials are putting enormous effort into scaling up Internet connectivity in the economically crippled island, but the ground it must cover to catch up with the rest of the world remains enormous.
special correspondent in Cuba
On a quiet Saturday morning in the Havana neighbourhood of Vedado, a saleswoman sits inside one of the makeshift stores that belong to Cuba’s state telecom company ETECSA. It’s nothing more than a large metal box with a tiny glass window that stands on a street corner. It seems her only job that morning is to turn clients away.
“We don’t have any cards of any kind. We’re all out,” she calmly explains in reference to small plastic cards that Cubans need to make telephone calls from public phones, to add talk time to mobile devices or to connect to the Internet.
A disappointed customer is soon approached by a man with a prominent belly and bushy moustache, who says he has the sought-after cards. A price is negotiated and the men begin the exchange, but before the transaction can be completed two policemen rush onto the scene. They confiscate the black-market telephone cards and order the dealer to hand over his identification.
The episode hints at the economic hardship and limited employment opportunities that many Cubans face today. It also reveals the country’s struggle to provide basic Internet services that citizens ache for – and that are key to future economic growth.
“Cuba has the second highest human development index in Latin America, second only to Chile, but it has the lowest internet connectivity, well below Haiti,” explains Larry Press, a professor of Computer Science in California and who blogs about the internet in Cuba. “It’s almost an Internet-free zone.”
Cuba has ramped up Internet connectivity in recent years, building up infrastructure and opening up dozens of Wi-Fi hotspots in cities across the country, but it’s a drop in the bucket. “The problem is that it is 20 years too late,” Press says.
Better than before
For a Western tourist used to quickly checking game scores or flight times, the Internet dearth can seem almost incomprehensible. But for Cubans who have been used to zero Internet, the progress is meaningful and they gladly welcome it.
Vilma, 35, uses a telephone app to speak to her husband in Miami once a week. She can't afford to call him any more than that. pic.twitter.com/k35CC2DuKC— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) December 5, 2016
Aramis, a 40-something taxi driver, recalls calling family members in the United States as a frustrating and expensive affair only a few years ago. Speaking for seven to eight minutes could cost him as much as half a month’s salary, and the connection was terrible. “It was like using a walkie-talkie. You would say something and then have to wait a few second to get a response,” he says.
Today, the conversations with relatives who live abroad are clear and the cost – although still high in relation to his income – has gone down. When he wants to speak to his cousin in Miami, he now goes to the central park in Santiago de La Vega, a suburb of Havana, and logs onto Skype.
Hotspots like the one Aramis uses can be a surprising sight for foreign visitors. Crowds of people gather in relatively small outdoor areas, leaning on walls and trees or flopping down on pavements as they cradle phones or tablets. The connection can be good when there are not too many people sapping it, but the hotspots are usually flooded and sending an email or downloading a video can be painfully slow.
In front of the hotel "Ambos Mundos" in Old Havana, Cubans and tourists alike use one of a handful of the city's WiFi hotspots pic.twitter.com/dQJNJm0jDt— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) December 5, 2016
Another challenge is obtaining the one- and five-hour ETECSA cards that allow users to access Wi-Fi. Cubans can spend hours queuing for a card, only to find out a shop has sold out of these items for the day. There are no competing Internet providers, and thus no alternative but the black market – people who have bought the card at an official shop and who then resell it for a slightly higher price.
An ETECSA sales manager, who said she was not allowed to speak to the press directly and asked to remain anonymous, told FRANCE 24 that new, smaller Wi-Fi hot spots would soon be sprouting up around Havana and other cities.
There is also a major hotspot coming, one that will provide Wi-Fi across the entire Malecon – Havana’s long seafront that stretches west from the historic centre. The idea is to spread out Internet users who now must congregate in front of prominent hotels where the service was initially rolled out. “It’s ugly to see people lying about like that in the streets,” the sales manager says.
People brave long lines outside one of Cuba's ETECSA telecom offices in the hope of buying Internet cards. pic.twitter.com/NiOozmHOGg— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) December 5, 2016
She also admits that expectations for better Internet connectivity has been raised among ordinary Cubans, and ETECSA is rushing to meet the growing demand.
Improving Cuba’s Internet with the help of private US partners was one of the pledges President Barack Obama made during his historic visit to the island in March of this year, but so far no major announcements have been made on the subject.
The last mile
The ETECSA sales manager appeared most excited about another big project in the pipeline: providing Internet services directly in people’s homes. It would complete the last mile in the Internet infrastructure network, and represent a milestone for Cuba.
The project includes a two-month trial period, in which the state company will install in-home Internet at no charge to a list of people who have already been selected, according to telecom worker. After reviewing the installation process and observing use, ETECSA wants to sell service plans directly to consumers. “Everyone is going to want it,” she says with a mix of enthusiasm and dread.
The US academic Larry Press is nevertheless unsure it is the brightest idea.
“What they are doing mirrors the course of action in Latin America and Africa 15 years ago. [Cubans] need to walk a balance, not spend tons of money connecting everyone’s homes,” Press says. The same logic would apply to mobile networks. “The idea of rolling out 3G now is brain-dead,” he added.
According to Press, Cuba needs to look at the future and try to “leap frog” forward if it plans to ever catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to Internet. He fears the biggest obstacle will not be technical, but political.
Retail competition would help Internet expand in Cuba, Press believes, but officials on the island are unlikely to loosen their grip on telecommunication services. While Cuba debates how fast and how far it is willing to open up, Internet users will have to keep waiting.