In the first significant expansion of Internet service in Cuba since the United States and Cuba announced they planned to resume diplomatic ties, Cuba says it will add 35 Wi-Fi connections at public places around the island in coming weeks.
Luis Manuel Díaz Naranjo, communication director at Etecsa, said in an interview with Juventud Rebelde, the youth newspaper, that the state-run telecom company hoped to roll out the expanded service at the beginning of July. He said technical adjustments are already being made in Cuba’s wireless network to assure quality service.
The network points, he said, would be known as WIFI_ETECSA and would be available to anyone with a permanent or temporary Nauta account. Nauta.cu is the server that allows customers to get email on their mobile phones, tablets or personal computers in Cuba.
The government also is planning to make costly Internet service more affordable, dropping the price from $4.50 an hour to $2 starting July 1. Even after more than halving the price, the cost of Internet access will still be quite costly for many Cubans. Díaz Naranjo acknowledged as much, saying that it’s “still not the desired price” but should help increase access.
In an article titled “Wi-Fi in the Air,” Díaz Naranjo explained the details. Rather than a new service, he said, WIFI_ETECSA is “a new path” for services that are currently available at Etecsa access points and Youth Clubs around the country.
Díaz Naranjo said connection speeds could reach 1 megabit per user and that between 50 and 100 people could navigate at the same time depending on the size of the wireless network.
“That means they have really fast connections to the Internet and I’d really like to know how they will do it,” said Larry Press, a computer information systems professor at California State University Dominguez Hills.
When President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced a rapprochement between the two countries on Dec. 17 after more than a half century of acrimonious relations, Castro independently pledged that Cuba would increase Internet connections for its citizens. Cuba’s Internet access rate is among the lowest in the Western hemisphere.
“There’s been a groundswell of demand that Cubans enter the modern world — and that only increased after Dec. 17. You could no longer as easily blame the embargo [for Cuba’s isolation],” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has studied Cuban entrepreneurs and the Cuban blogosphere. “There’s this urgency among Cubans that every day they are just one more step behind.”
At the same time, Obama said the United States would not only allow more Americans to travel to the island and make it easier to trade with Cuba’s fledgling private sector but also would allow the commercial export of computers, related software and other telecommunications equipment. More significantly, U.S. telecommunications providers can partner with Cuban entities to improve the Cuban Internet and communications between the island and the United States — if the Cuban government takes them up on their proposals.
Since then, U.S. providers have announced a few small telecom openings, and Google executives visited the island this month, apparently with a proposal in hand. The search engine’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, and a delegation also visited Cuba last summer and several Google officials made a trip in March.
Politico reported this week that Twitter executives also had talked with Cuban officials about expanding their service to the island and have suggested that Cubans be allowed to Tweet by text message rather than using the Twitter.com website or Internet-based apps because Internet access in Cuba is so low.
“We’d love to get a deal sooner rather than later,” Colin Crowell, Twitter’s director of global public policy, told Politico. He said Twitter discussed its ideas with officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Henken likened Cuba’s Wi-Fi expansion to the “walled garden approach” seen in the 1990s when service providers had control over applications, content and media. Although it’s still around in some forms, he said, “it kind of went the way of the dinosaur.”
By limiting WIFI_ETECSA to nauta users, Henken said, Cuba is taking a similar approach. Nauta became very popular in Cuba last year because nauta accounts gives customers email addresses that can be accessed from their cellphones.
He also pointed out that just like everyone who signs up with an Internet company here, Etecsa has access to people’s information. While U.S. companies might use that information to try to sell customers more products, state-run Etecsa just has the information.
But Henken predicted that Internet access prices will drop even more in Cuba and access will increase further.