In Depth

Cuba allows phone access to some email

The Cuban government’s telecommunications monopoly has approved smartphone access to the island’s system, showing its intention to both expand and continue to control the flow of information in the communist-ruled nation.

The Telecommunications Enterprise of Cuba, known as ETECSA, announced Thursday that the service will cost 1 CUC — about $1.20 in U.S. dollars — per megabyte, an exceptionally expensive rate in a country where the average worker officially earns $20 per month.

Smartphones in Cuba currently have no access to any type of data service. Some Cubans use some applications with information, such as the entire Wikipedia archives, loaded directly from computers with access to the Internet.

ETECSA also limits access to the Internet to its own stores, government institutions, doctors and other special persons, and does not offer home access. Cuba now has the lowest rate of access to the Web in the Western Hemisphere.

ETECSA officials in recent months have spoken repeatedly about plans to improve Internet services this year, from smartphone access to email and the Web to home access and reductions in rates and bureaucratic snags.

But the high price of access to the system, which works only in Cuba, shows that the Raúl Castro government remains wary of loosing controls on the flow of information, said José Remón, a former ETECSA official living in Miami.

“The first limitation is the price, which is extraordinarily expensive,” said Remón, adding that his own cellphone’s 220 megabytes of use last month would cost him about $250 in Cuba. “The second limitation is in what can be accessed.”

“Limiting this to is because they want to control everything, monitor everything,” said independent Havana lawyer and blogger Laritza Diversent.

Havana engineer Victor Ariel Gonzalez, writing recently in his blog Bastardos Sin Gloria — Inglorious Bastards — joked that ETECSA’s promises of improved Internet services are barely better than nothing.

“For the average person on the island, the Internet will stop being a miracle and become just a luxury,” he wrote, “a timid and insufficient step but one that points toward something positive.”

ETECSA’s announcement, also sent as text messages to clients , said those who want access to must go to its offices to “enable the service,” then must configure their smartphones to access the email accounts. is part of the island’s “intranet” — a Cuba-only network of Web pages and services. The government regularly blocks the foreign Web pages it views as hostile, such as the U.S. government’s Radio/TV Martí, and tightly monitors the country’s cybernauts.

ETECSA officials have said that the expansions and improvements of the state monopoly’s operations have been made possible by new business practices, including the permission for persons abroad to pay for Cuban cellphone bills.

The improvements are “due primarily to the entry of fresh hard currency into the country, greatly important to the expansion and modernization” of the ETECSA services, said a Jan. 26 report by Cuba’s official National Information Agency.

ETECSA’s promises of better Internet service have not pleased everyone, however.

In his blog post, Gonzalez noted unconfirmed reports that the telecommunications company will increase its Internet rates for public institutions, which will in turn require the institutions to cut back on the free access they allocate to employees.

Some Havana journalists, for instance, now get 20 hours of connection per month. State workers who receive such allocations can also sell their unspent hours on the black market for $1 to $5 per hour, according to island residents.

“Such a job, even if it has a very low salary, has some value thanks to the unusual connectivity that it offers,” Gonzalez wrote in his blog.