Sources: Google offered Cuba expansion of web access

Internet users go online with their smartphones using the first public Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba on Thursday, July 2, 2015.
Internet users go online with their smartphones using the first public Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba on Thursday, July 2, 2015. AP

Google executives have proposed to the Cuban government a way to expand Internet access on the island quickly and massively, but Cuban authorities are skeptical of the plan, several sources familiar with the proposal have told El Nuevo Herald.

The sources said the proposal would make the Internet available through WiFi connections and cellular phones, much like Google Ideas executive Brett Perlmutter suggested during a recent visit to Havana. The sources asked for anonymity and declined to provide further details.

“Cuba has a big opportunity to jump its infrastructure directly into mobile phones and skip cable as African countries are doing,” Perlmutter told the digital magazine On Cuba during the visit.

Companies such as Google and Facebook are competing to close the world's so-called “digital gap” and expand connectivity in less developed countries — which in the long run would expand the markets for their own products and applications — through new systems like those that use drones or balloons.

One official Cuban source said the Google executives met with “commercial authorities, and they have been talking. This is seen as a process.” Another source in Cuba said Google offered to pay for almost the entire cost of the proposal.

A Google spokesperson told El Nuevo Herald that the company “is working to help the Cuban government think through their publicly stated goal of improving Internet access. We have not given money to Cuba to develop Internet connectivity.”

A big-scale project of this type could significantly benefit Cubans, who have one of the lowest Internet access rates in the world. Only 3.4 percent of homes have Web access, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba working group at the Americas Society-Council of the Americas and head of the group whose trip to Havana included Perlmutter, said that big companies are “interested in exploring options and submitting investment proposals in sectors such as telecommunications, but patience and trust building are key”.

“There is still skepticism from Cuban officials on the motives of U.S. companies entering their market,” Tummino added. “There is enormous opportunity, but it will take time to turn this opportunity into real projects being implemented on the ground.”

Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has studied Cuba’s Internet issues, said the Cubans’ skepticism may be dropping. “It is less likely that Web connection and services coming from the United States, such as Google's, will be seen as a Trojan horse now that the Obama administration has explicitly rejected a regime change policy and moved toward engagement,” he said.

According to Henken, the Cuban government's concerns reflect “a long tradition of a siege mentality and phobia to autonomy, the wish to control all independent organizations or label them as traitors or mercenary.”

The official Cuban source noted, however, that the island's government did not like much the U.S. House approval of $30 million for the promotion of democracy in Cuba. The funding, part of the State Department budget, has not received final Congressional approval.

Several of the sources said the Cuban government’s reluctance also stems from the relationship between Google and Roots of Hope, a nonprofit founded by Cuban-American youths to help youths in Cuba with technology issues. The group sends donated cellphones, computers, thumb drives and other digital equipment to Cuba, and has organized events to develop applications that can be used in Cuba. Google supported one of those events, a “Hackathon” held in April at the California headquarters of Facebook.

Roots of Hope was mentioned in an Associated Press report last year on the so-called Zunzuneo project, a controversial U.S. government effort to provide Cubans with a platform similar to Twitter, which is not available on the island. The AP report said the group was not involved in the project, although two of its members worked on it as consultants. Official Cuban media nevertheless attacked the group and mentioned its support for Yoani Sanchez, a blogger and journalist in Cuba accused by the island’s government of being a “mercenary” paid by the United States.

Henken argued the Cuban government should understand that the members of Roots of Hope “are young (not fathers or grandfathers who favored the overthrow of the government) Cubans (not controlled by the U.S. government) and open (their website openly declares their goal of creating bridges and empowering Cuban youths).”

Raul Moas, executive director of Roots of Hope, told El Nuevo Herald that the organization “has always been dedicated to building bridges between Silicon Valley and Havana. Our priority is not political, but to help improve the quality of life of Cubans on the island.” Moas said he had recently met with the head of the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, who declared that he was willing to “sit down and talk with Cuban American youths and any other person who wants to help to build a better and more inclusive Cuba.”

Some of the people involved in the negotiations between Google and Havana said they believed that an agreement on the proposal could be reached if the Cuban government decides to negotiate directly with the U.S. company and openly discuss its doubts with Google’s executives.

The Google spokesperson told El Nuevo Herald that Roots of Hope is one of the many organizations that have approached Google on the issue of Cuba. “We do not have a partnership nor do we have plans for a future partnership.”

Even if an agreement with Google is not reached, Cuban authorities are facing growing pressures to speed up the pace of reforms and the mass expansion of Internet access.

Henken noted that although the government is facing growing demands to expand access and lower prices, especially after President Barack Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement about warming relations with Cuba, “I have always suspected that the Cuban government will change its policies if it can maintain relative control of the ‘wild colt’ of the Web. Nauta [Cuba's intranet] allows them to do that.”

Several Cuban officials, among them Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel, have argued that the Internet will benefit the country's development. ETECSA, the state telecommunications monopoly, recently cut its access price in half — to about $2.30 per hour, still expensive for the majority of Cubans — and announced the opening of 35 WiFi access points in public areas around the island. It's small progress, but young people are increasingly impatient.

“I believe there is a political will to expand Internet service in Cuba. It is moving too slowly, but it is something that cannot wait any more,” said Carlos Alberto Pérez, author of the blog La Chiringa de Cuba, which has recently published leaked documents on government plans for the Internet.

A few days after Perlmutter's trip to Havana, Pérez published ETECSA's “five-year plan” to deliver broadband access around the country. Last week, the blogger published another leaked document indicating that the state company plans to offer home access to the Internet — now limited to a tiny group of Cubans — using first-generation ADSL technology. The service would use telephone landlines, which only reach one quarter of the population, and would have speeds ranging from 1 to 8 megabits per second.

The plan was immediately criticized on Cuba’s social networks for its high price and restriction to those who have telephone lines. Hugo Cancio, who heads On Cuba and met with Perlmutter in Havana, said that this option also would be extremely expensive.

An ETECSA statement issued last week lamented “the unscrupulous manner in which internal information of the enterprise is manipulated to misinform the population.” While it did not deny that the latest leaked document had been written at ETECSA, it said it had been obtained “from an unauthorized source” and described it as a document “used in training courses for enterprise experts … with possible scenarios.”

Expecting such a reaction from ETECSA, in a country where the government tries to strictly control information, Pérez wrote in his blog that the document was provided to him by an anonymous source “who does not work in the same place where I work, so this time don't waste your time seizing my computer.”

The blogger, who manages the social networks for the government's Young Computing Clubs, assured El Nuevo Herald that “the document is 100 percent legitimate, so much so that ETECSA’s own statement says that it is a document used in the training of its technical and specialized personnel. But they contradict themselves when they say they lament that manipulation of information to misinform the people. Misinform? How could that be, when four paragraphs earlier they admit the document is legitimate? That's crazy.”

Perez is not convinced that Cuba will reach an agreement with Google. The blogger said that although the Cuban government should “ally itself with a big, wealthy company,” that's unlikely to be Google. “Every time that Google officials set foot in Cuba, although they meet with authorities, there is a parallel campaign by the authorities discrediting them. And that's no coincidence.”