Cuba’s Internet: Censorship And High Costs Mean Web Access Will Remain
Elusive For Most Cubans
By Eric Markowitz @EricMarkowitz firstname.lastname@example.org on September 23
2015 8:02 AM EDT
Earlier this year, Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico,
introduced a bill on the congressional floor titled the Cuba DATA
Act. The bill encouraged U.S. telecommunication companies to set up shop
in Cuba and was widely cheered by human rights activists and business
But not so fast.
Just because American companies have been given the green light by the
U.S. government to do business in the country, experts say it’s unlikely
Google or Verizon will be dropping any high-speed fiber-optic Internet
cables on the island any time soon.
“This isn’t just one side, you also have to have a Cuban government
that’s interested,” says Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the
Alexandria, Virginia-based Cuba Study Group. “What challenges will the
Cuban government pose regarding censorship? It’s a complicated scenario.”
Bilbao says there are a number of complicating factors to delivering
widespread Internet access to Cubans. First and foremost, though, he
says the Cuban government may just simply not allow it. The government
has historically held a tight grasp over the Internet, and that policy
is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the second-largest challenge is that it will be enormously
expensive to build the infrastructure. And with Cubans living on about
$20 per month, it’s hard to envision a business model that would be
profitable for a major U.S. company.
“Let’s say you wanted to offer residential Internet,” Bilbao says.
“What’s the purchasing power of the average Cuban household? Can they
afford to pay for a residential Internet connection?”
He adds, “If you want to set up an Internet infrastructure, you’d have
to drop a fiber-optic cable 90 miles through the Caribbean or through
the Bahamas and you’d have to create switching servers and stations
Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, agrees the costs would
be incredibly high, but it’s the Cuban government that will present the
largest hurdle for U.S. telecom companies.
“There are some in the [Cuban] government who resist these things,”
says Herrero. Some members of the government, he says, “are not too keen
on the idea of having American telecoms providing broad access to the
Internet and widespread connectivity throughout the island.”
Last week, Verizon did make an announcement about entering the Cuban
market. The company said it had contracted with Etecsa, the (one and
only) Cuban-owned telecom company that operates as a monopoly, to offer
roaming services to its customers.
Verizon did not, however, announce plans to build cell towers or build
out an actual Internet infrastructure.
There’s also the question of policy. Herrero believes that, though
President Barack Obama has been supportive of trade agreements with
Cuba, a future president may be less likely to support Cuban initiatives.
“The number one obstacle for a lot of these telecom companies looking to
get in is changes to the policy itself,” says Herrero. “It is
theoretically possible that should you get someone into the White House
in 2017 that is not too keen on our relationship with Cuba, and wanted
to roll back our relations with Cuba, they could do that.”
This summer, the Cuban government opened 35 Wi-Fi access points nationwide.
The government maintains that 25 percent of the country’s 11 million
residents have access to the country’s Internet, though critics say
that’s an exaggeration. Either way, the Cuban government version of the
Internet is much different from most other places in the world. It’s a
lot more like a corporate intranet, and users can’t access sites like
Facebook or Twitter. “In speaking with hundreds of Cubans, it’s obvious
the 25 percent number isn’t remotely close to being accurate,”
writes Jason Koebler at Vice. “I didn’t meet one single Cuban who had
Internet access in their homes during the three weeks I was there.”
Still, there are even some solo entrepreneurs who are traveling to Cuba
in hopes of building an Internet infrastructure. Peter Zimble, a Los
Angeles-based tech entrepreneur who has built Internet infrastructure in
Iraq, actually moved to Havana to try to build an Internet business.
“There’s really no one you can talk to in Cuba who doesn’t believe the
Internet is going to change their lives, change the situation here,”
Zimble told WLRN-TV in Miami recently.
The article added, however, “Only one person can give the Internet the
green light in Cuba: President Raúl Castro. And that could take a while.”
Source: Cuba’s Internet: Censorship And High Costs Mean Web Access Will
Remain Elusive For Most Cubans –
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