The Many Unsolved Problems of Cuba’s Wi-Fi Hot Zones

Irina Echarry

Wifi en Centro Habana. Map:
Wifi in Centro Habana. Map:

HAVANA TIMES — Even though fellow bloggers Irina Pino and Vicente Morin have already written about their experiences with Cuba’s public Wi-Fi zones, I would like to share my opinion on the subject. Though I acknowledge their benefits and the great leap forward we’ve taken through this official “permission” to connect to the Internet, I must also say that I do not agree with the conditions applied to this service.

It’s marvelous to see people gather, share and enjoy something that proves rewarding to them: a film, a concert or the different options opened up by the Wi-Fi hot zones. What I find abominable is the overcrowding, particularly in those places where there are barely any benches people can sit on and the streets, sidewalks and parks are filthy.

Video-calls, which have become the latest fad, have been characterized by a complete lack of privacy since the very beginning: everyone finds out about the problems or joys of the person next to them. Cuban exhibitionism, coupled with one’s forced proximity to others, makes everyone privy to the news a family receives or the reprimands a father addresses to a distant son who has lost his way.

Around the time Wi-Fi services became available in Cuba, a friend brought several newspapers from Ecuador. One of them had a piece on the free Wi-Fi services offered in school buses. Other friends who live in Venezuela tell me there are places (such as Bolivar Square, Diego Ibarra Square and the Sabana Grande Boulevard) where people can access such services without paying a cent. In nearly all countries, there are places with free Wi-Fi: parks, cafes, bus terminals, hospitals, airports, hotels, libraries, universities and others.

We, however, have to pay for it. Ok, we’ll pay for it, but, to set the rates, they should at least bear people’s salaries in mind. Let’s overlook the fact we’re all paid in Cuban pesos and the service is charged in hard currency (Cuban Convertible Pesos, CUC). If the average worker earns 18 CUC a month at the current exchange rate, it is more than a huge sacrifice to destine over 10 % of his/her salary to connect to the Internet for merely one hour.

This is to say nothing of the fact that neither Cuba’s phone company (ETECSA) nor any store sells any of the devices needed to connect to the Wi-Fi networks – modern cell phones, laptops, tablets and other devices – at affordable prices.

The other and far from insignificant issue is the safety of these public Wi-Fi places. We’re already hearing talk of numerous thefts and robberies in the early hours of the morning, in neighborhoods such as La Lisa and Centro Habana. I can’t confirm the veracity of these stories, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were true. Many people only go during the day, as many places aren’t even properly lighted (and are therefore dangerous at night).

Scams and thefts also take place during the day. A few days ago, I was at the Fe del Valle Park. It was two in the afternoon and something strange happened right in front of me. A young man sitting on a bench was using a laptop. Another man, sensing the person was uncertain about something, approached him to “give him advise” regarding the steps to follow to connect to the network and, immediately, grabbed the laptop, allegedly to take it to another bench where he could “help” the person more efficiently. Luckily, the owner reacted quickly and snatched his laptop in mid-air. It all happened in the blink of an eye. In addition to being an aggressive gesture, who can be certain that man wasn’t about to dart off? Wi-Fi hot zones are not watched over, people are not very savvy in terms of the technologies they’re using and no one from ETECSA is there to help. The scant security makes these areas a breeding ground for crime.

Something similar happens with the pre-paid cards. They disappear from ETECSA locales and, when they reappear, the lines of people are endless. Re-sellers (who somehow manage to have these in stock all the time) sell them at Wi-Fi areas, but you have to pay 50% more (3 CUC). Wouldn’t it be better to set up a sale point at these places? Couldn’t they sell the cards at cafeterias, kiosks and bookstores? People buy the cards from re-sellers because it saves them time, but, if ETECSA were to offer these consistently and at the established price (2 CUC), no one would buy them under the table.

I have to admit not everything is negative. There are also shows of solidarity to those who are not technologically literate, people willing to help and teach others. Most people are happy to have this new tool, which allows them to immediately be in touch with relatives abroad, look for information, download files, explore the web and reap the benefits of social and other networks. Cuba simply needs to improve access to these services, in all senses of the word.

Will we have to wait long before people who can’t afford to buy these access cards have a place where they can connect to the Internet free of charge?
Below are maps of the pay to use public Wifi hot spots in Havana from the website:

Click on the thumbnails below to view all the photos in this gallery. On your PC or laptop, you can use the directional arrows on the keyboard to move within the gallery. On cell phones use the keys on the screen.

8 thoughts on “The Many Unsolved Problems of Cuba’s Wi-Fi Hot Zones

  • The argument that Cuba’s current incredibly limited and very expensive WiFi access is preferable to Google tracking your data and sending you ads simply does not hold water.

    Especially when you consider that most people in other countries have substantial and usually no direct cost WiFi access and still choose to use Google search and G-mail.

    Also, consider if anyone would pay Google for for directing an ad to a Cuban with such limited income and no ability to purchase on-line. Furnishing WiFi to Cuba only has public relations value currently.

  • So? Do you know anything about what Cubans have endured for 50+ years? They’re put it jail for talking to someone “suspicious.”

  • Stay off the porn sites if you are worried about your keystrokes being tracked. Otherwise, what’s the big deal?

  • Kathie, it will take time. Google, contrary to what some might think, is extraordinary in how it’s changed everyday patterns. When i was a kid and you wanted to have a copy made of some document the mantra was, ” xerox it!” Now if you want info on just about anything one just Googles it. I believe the internet will be a great venue for the people in Cuba to make the changes, if they so wish, and move forward.

  • It works!!!

    Sure there are some problems but as they say in the computer world, this is a beta operation and needs time to straighten out the kinks. As far as security, there are no public wifi spots that are secure. If you use a public, restaurant, store or any free wifi service they are not secure even here in the U.S. As far as theft, Cuba is not the only country that has that problem. In fact in my country the USA, in some cases people were even killed for their laptop.

    It will take time to catch up with these problems — be patient. You must admit this is a big jump for the Cuban people —- Every thing worth anything takes time to develop to it’s full potential.

    Prices for using the internet and buying the equipment to use the internet will come down and wages will go up — just as they did in other countries like China. There are already cheap smartphones, tablets and computers coming out of China and other countries. I recently bought an inexpensive cell phone that is made in Korea for $9.00 USD.

  • Yeah, and why do you think Google wanted to do that? Haven’t you noticed lately how Google tracks you and you get pop-ups with ads. Google ain’t in this for love or being a good guy. I don’t blame them for turning down Google. You might as well have them hook up to spy satelite GOOGLE AIN’T FOR FREE. they might not charge money but they make their money buy selling your information.

  • Google offered to wire the entire island for free, and one of the dopey ministers in the government said “were not ready for that.”

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