Internet in Cuba: revolution or snail’s progress?

Author: Marc Schryer
Published: 2015-09-28


Cuba’s official stance toward Internet proliferation is to protect its citizens from “indecencies and immoral content.” Reading between the lines this means guarding against any outbreaks of democracy and blocking access to US-funded propaganda. Since the mid-1990s, Cuba has backed off from being an early adopter of computerization. Today, however, the penetration rates of computers and internet access are amongst the lowest in the world.

There are 9.5 computers and 27.1 internet users per 100 people in Cuba. Only about half of the 1.07 million computers in Cuba are connected to the Internet. Cuba’s sole mobile, Internet, and fixed-line provider, ETECSA, sets prices for all telecommunications services.

Internet access is available, but at a price. There is a Cuban Intranet which allows users to access government-controlled sites and email. Until recently full Internet access was only available to visitors and wealthy locals at Havana’s major hotels. But the government has now begun offering public access to the Internet at salas de navegación (internet access centers), where $0.60 will buy a session on the government-controlled Intranet while $4.50 provides access to the global Internet.

Mobile penetration in Cuba remains at a low 21.4%. As of December 2014, the island had just over 2.5 million mobile subscribers. All Cubans have access to a GPRS network for voice, texting and email services. Only users registered with a address are able to access email on their mobile phones, which is charged at the rate of a dollar per MB. There is a 3G network in Havana and other major cities, but it is only accessible to visitors roaming from international networks. Starting the week of 21 September 2015, Verizon became the first US operator to offer roaming in Cuba.

Only a single undersea broadband cable link, ALBA-1, connects Cuba to the global Internet backbone via Venezuela. The 640Gbps cable was completed by Alcatel-Lucent in July 2011. The cable has been used for international voice traffic since August 2012 and the first data traffic flowed in January 2013.

Poor local fiber infrastructure means most users do not benefit from the speed of the international backbone. As of April 2015, the maximum speeds available through ETECSA were 8Mbps downlink and 768kbps uplink for business subscribers, at a monthly cost of $3,075. The cheapest option is 256kbps download and 128kbps upload speeds for $180 per month. All business connections require a one-time activation fee of $50. There were 5,720 DSL broadband subscribers as of December 2014.

Coming with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US and easing of economic sanctions, especially in telecommunications, huge potential exists to develop telecoms infrastructure and services in Cuba. TechPolis predicts this will generate considerable interest from international operators and vendors wanting to invest. However, for Cuba to succeed economically, affordable internet access must be made available to its citizens. But, with the ETECSA telecoms monopoly currently scheduled to last at least until 2019 and the Cuban government still wary of an open Internet, it is unknown if market forces will be allowed to address pent-up demand. Internet access has been relaxed in other communist countries, notably China and also Vietnam, without threatening the power of the state or the rule of the party.

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