Cuba stays in first gear on the Internet highway

By Ethan Freedman

Cuban's waiting on line at ETECSA, a government run phone company, to get time on their cell phones. (Frank Posillico / JWW)

HAVANA – Internet penetration has been egregiously slow in Cuba, unavailable to most Cuban citizens. According to the World Bank, in 2010, Cuba had 15.1 Internet users per 100 people, ranking above Fiji and below Pakistan.

The United States has 79.3 Internet users per 100 in the population.

Yet for those who want it, there is Internet available. There are several ways to get Internet, according to Graham Sowa, an American who is also a medical student at the Latin American School of Medicine in Mariel, Cuba.

“You can have an account, and be a Cuban that’s in a workplace with Internet,” said Sowa, who blogs regularly from medical school. “Second, you could go to a hotel and pay. Third, you can buy an account from a government-run phone service agency, which is what I used to do.”

Demand on ETECSA for various services is high. Outside the ETECSA office in Old Havana, people wait on long lines for long periods, just to purchase usage time for their cell phones. To use the Internet, citizens pay $5 per hour, roughly equivalent to a weekly salary, for access at business centers that sometimes house only two or three computers.

This is the reality of communicating today in Cuba.

The reason for the lack of access is pure economics.

“I’m a university student,” said Eyran, a student at the University of Havana, who only wanted to give his first name. “I can’t afford many things.”

When Cubans do get access to the Internet, many have a slow or limited access.

The government has taken steps to bring more connectivity to the island. In 2011, Cuban leader Raul Castro announced that he was installing a $70 million fiber optic cable from Venezuela, in an attempt to circumvent the U.S. embargo — or “blockade,” as many Cubans prefer to call it.

The cable was to bring to Cuba 3,000 times the previous amount of bandwidth. Such a connection could lead to significantly increased Internet access in Cuba, but there has been little said about the cable since the February 2011 announcement.

Until this cable is fully up and operational, Cuba will likely continue to lag behind most of the world in communications. Last year, the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, ranked Cuba’s Internet and cell-phone access 149th in the world, out of 152 participating countries.

Further complicating the issue is that dissemination of information is more or less regulated by the Cuban government.

Those who seek to spread anti-government opinions via the Internet or through other technologies have risked crackdowns by government agents in Cuba, dissidents say.

This, however, hasn’t stopped some from airing their dissent, like Yoanis Sanchez, who runs the blog Generación Y and tweets regularly.