Updating the Internet in Cuba

internet-cubaThe status of the internet is slowly improving in Cuba, in line to meet government targets of internet connectivity for all by 2020.

Cuba has been rated with only 5% internet connectivity in the world in terms of telecommunication, making it one of the least connected countries. But that figure is rapidly changing and we’d love to see the new stats.  Before 2013, Cuba relied on old Russian satellites to connect to the Internet. These satellites were limited in terms of the amount of data they could handle, therefore, dramatically affecting connection speed.

Access to the internet had been restricted for Cuba because of the continuing problem of the US embargo.  The US embargo hindered the development of a network structure because of the high cost, hard currency, access to credit and shipping issues.  The country was isolated from connecting to undersea fiber optic cables that surrounded the island. Cuba and Venezuela signed a deal in 2012 connecting the two countries by an undersea fiber optic cable. Since that time Cuba has slowly enhanced web access throughout the island.

It resulted in an increase of connectivity to the internet for Cuba. The Internet connection speeds and the amount of data that could be sent and received increased but speeds were poor. It was not a “solve all” solution.

Access to the internet, however, was limited to government agencies, state-owned hotels and ETECSA, the state-owned telecommunication offices.  Today, there are 118 ETECSA offices in Cuba.

Eventually more and more wi-fi hotspots became available in some places such as parks and town squares, but in the early days, this was not very common. Not until 2008 did Cubans begin to own personal computers.  Internet access at homes is prohibitively expensive especially if there is not a home phone line already in existence.  So connecting to the internet was still problematic.

This has been an issue for most businesses because they are unable to process credit card transaction leaving tourist customers having to pay for items in cash.  However, bit by bit, this is slowly changing.  Most of the largest hotels can process credit card transaction.

Even though a person can access the internet through the ETECSA offices, the cost of doing so for most Cubans is too high. For instance, to access the internet with an internet card from ETECSA, a person will have to part ways with two to five CUCs an hour for a connection.  With an average salary of 20 to 25 CUCs a month, which is equivalent to about $20 to $25 US, for a majority of Cuban citizens, it’s nearly impossible.

Foreign companies in joint ventures with Cuba are busy building the internet infrastructure for Cuba.  First there was the Chinese information and communications technology solutions provider Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd who signed an agreement with ETECSA to supply smart phone products, technical training, and Wi-Fi infrastructure supplied through fiber optic links.

Recently the press reported this past December on a new development in the state of the internet in Cuba.  A pilot project connecting two neighborhoods in Havana is enabling 2,000 people to surf the web at home.  Until March, these people will have the internet for free.  In March, these lucky ones will have to start paying for internet connectivity.

As with everything in life, nothing stays static.  With new investments by ETECSA, the state of Cuba’s telecommunication industry is changing for the better. One technology update on the state of the internet in Cuba is the announcement by Google in December 2016 that ETECSA has agreed to host Google Global Cache (GGC) servers in Cuba. GGC helps in caching YouTube videos that are usually traffic-intense. The benefits of this server in Cuba could be tremendous to both the Cuban government and its citizens. The server will eliminate the need of carrying a video over the ALBA-1 submarine cable over and over again every time someone needs to watch it. Instead, the video will be cached on the server once it is has been downloaded the first time.  It can then be retrieved directly anytime someone else wants to view it, therefore, easing traffic loads on the ALBA-1 cable.

Another technological update on the state of the Internet in Cuba is the recent deal that came to light on January 10, the agreement between ETECSA and C&W Networks. This deal gives Cuba a new transit provider who is capable of providing much faster internet speeds. The C&W Networks transit service is capable of delivering a piece of data in 35ms to Cuba and back to the servers in located in Boca Raton, Florida.

Dyn.com reported that,

” … we observed ETECSA gain a new transit provider, C&W Networks, formerly Columbus Networks.  The addition of C&W Networks marks the first time a U.S. telecommunications firm (C&W Networks is owned by Liberty Global) has provided direct transit to Cuba’s state telecom ETECSA.  It is also perhaps the first time a U.S. telecommunications firm has directly provided internet service into Cuba since my friend Jesus Martinez established the first Cuban internet connection to the outside world in 1996 using a satellite link from Sprint.”

With increasing speeds and capabilities to transmit more data, the future of Cuba’s telecommunication industry is only getting brighter by the day.  The Cuban government had promised that all Cubans will have internet access by the year 2020. Communication Ministry IT Director Ernesto Rodriguez was reported as saying a few years ago in the Cuban press, “The Cuban government is working to ensure that the IT resources and Internet are available and accessible to all Cubans.”

That’s a full three years away.  With a total of 237 Wi-Fi spots across the Island to date and the expansion into neighborhoods, hotels, internet cafés, and businesses it is very likely this target will be met. There’s only one way to go when you’re down, and that is, up.

Author: Zoe Veraz

Zoe is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the Cuba Business Report.

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