Cuba has long experienced poor levels of internet connectivity and high rates of media censorship. Cuba ranks 125th out of 166 countries with regard to telecommunications infrastructure. Prior to 2012, the country relied on Russian satellites for its internet. The nation sponsors a single main telecommunications corporation, ETECSA, which gives the state full control over internet services and its pricing.
However, within the past decade, Cuba has worked to expand internet connectivity across the island. Both the government and private multinational corporations are working to expand access, increase internet speed, heighten connectivity and lower internet prices for all Cubans.
The following are major innovations to telecommunications and internet connectivity in Cuba:
- Increasing household access to high-speed internet services and routers
- Expanding cellular coverage and connectivity of mobile phones
- Lowering the cost of internet connectivity
Reports show that more than 5 million Cubans, which equates to about 80,000 households, currently have access to the internet out of a population of over 11 million. This marks a dramatic level of development across the country since the arrival of Wi-Fi in 2013. This change comes primarily as a result of many private and public enterprises aimed at providing faster and more comprehensive internet services to Cubans.
One private multinational company working to improve telecommunications infrastructure is Google. As of 2019, Google began negotiations with ETECSA to establish a cost-free direct connection between their two networks. This involves establishing Google sponsored servers on the island that would dramatically speed up internet services for Cubans. This would be a remarkable partnership considering Cuba’s historic antagonism towards the internet and American companies.
The government has also developed new strategies to increase internet connectivity in Cuba for its citizens. As of July 2019, the government has allowed Cubans to import routers and create private Wi-Fi networks that can connect to ETECSA from any household. This is a departure from the previous situation where Cubans could only connect to the internet from clearly defined public hotspots.
Since December 2018, mobile phones have also gained 3G connectivity. Reports determine that 2.5 million Cubans currently have 3G connectivity, allowing them to connect to ETECSA from household hotspots as a result of newly acquired private routers. This has further improved levels of communication and interconnectedness across the island since 2018.
With the aim to expand the breadth of internet connectivity in Cuba, ETECSA plans to open 1,400 new hotspots across the country, in addition to lowering the price of connecting to the internet to $1 per hour from $4 per hour in 2015. This expansion of hotspots, paired with the individual possession of routers and 3G phones, will widen the reach of broadband internet exponentially. The lower cost of connecting, however, is still exorbitant when the average income per month in Cuba stands at only $50.
With the rise of internet connectivity comes increased communication, organization and debate among citizens. One central debate raging since the introduction of the internet is the unaffordable price of connectivity. The cost of connecting to the internet is extremely high for the widely low-income population. This results in internet services being more readily available to the upper classes and systemically prevents poorer Cubans from reaping the benefits of connectivity, despite the cost of connection per hour standing at $1 down from $4 in 2015.
Regarding internet connectivity, only a small percent of the population actually has access to the entire global internet, with the vast majority only being able to access the national internet, which the state monitors, censors and regulates heavily. Cuban officials had previously disregarded the internet as an American tool used for “ideological penetration by the enemy,” but many top officials have reversed course within the last decade and have begun hesitantly sponsoring initiatives to expand internet access. Despite this infrastructure expansion, the central government continues to be the sole provider of internet services and censors dissenting websites or users. This censorship has caused tension as increased access to the internet has given rise to multiple independent online news publications presented as alternatives to and watchdogs over the state-sponsored media.
Now independent voices have a platform on which to present and defend their dissenting opinions of the central government. These citizens and journalists share the views and opinions of the economically disenfranchised and critique the governing authorities.
Within the last decade, Cuba witnessed extreme developments in internet and telecommunications infrastructure relating to increased access, greater connectivity and lower costs of connecting. The country has developed initiatives of its own to foster growth and connectivity, partnering with private corporations to aid with this endeavor. Internet connectivity in Cuba is critical to helping the poor, increasing economic and social development and keeping the country competitive on the world stage. This surge in connectivity comes at the hesitant approval of the central government, which continues to censor and filter national media outlets. Dissenting opinions and alternative media have developed within this new technological arena, laying the foundation for future political and social changes.
– Ian Hawthorne