By Luis Rondon Paz
HAVANA TIMES – With advances made in new technologies, Cuba has slowly begun to update its technology and computerize the country in its own way. It’s important to point out that Cuba is 50 years behind the rest of the world in some regards. However, that said, I must admit that it some ways it finds itself on the same level as any other developing country.
That doesn’t mean to say that the country’s leadership is willing to facilitate full access to the benefits that technological advances could offer to the Cuban people. I will explain this by looking at three projects which have been controversial for most Cubans: Cellphones, Internet and Digital TV.
Not long ago, mobile phones were a privilege that only tourists, foreign residents, public officials and other exceptions could enjoy. Luckily, we are living a different reality today and Cuba’s Telecommunications Monopoly is offering all of its customers cellphone services and 3G, which, in theory would allow customers to make cheap audio and video calls. However, the company’s commercial policies have prevented this until this very today. Nevertheless, I found out a while ago that ETECSA prioritizes full access to all of the advantages of this technology to the following people:
1 – Public officials who for ideological/strategic reasons need to be connected to the Internet on their mobile phones at all times. This service is pretty much free for them as it is subsidized by the government. It’s important to highlight the fact that they are the only ones who can use their Cuban phone number abroad (Roaming[i]), with the exception of diplomats and NGO representatives.
2 – Foreigners who sign up for Roaming in Cuba via their telephone company in their own country of origin. It’s important to note that the prices of this service are extremely over-priced on the whole.
And these privileges are categorically denied to Cubans who live on the island but don’t hold important positions in the government or live abroad. The average Cuban only has access to making local phone calls and checking their email, which are the only services enabled and connected to their phone credit. This means that the design of this service is to ensure basic communication. The price of this service is adjusted to the available credit on the mobile phone and data traffic consumption. This package is extremely profitable for ETECSA and this is a result of the following special situation:
Due to the population’s scarce knowledge about the various uses of a mobile phone, the lack of alternative communication channels with those abroad, combined with the Cuban people’s great need to communicate with those outside of Cuba, this has allowed Cuba’s Communications Monopoly to implement the perfect communications system, where information is manipulated and this manages to directly influence the minds of people in Cuba and abroad, thereby ensuring that the country’s coffers fill up with millions of dollars just in cellphone services.
Back in the day, Cuba was a pioneer in connecting to the Internet. I remember that there was an encouraging public policy in 1998 about connecting every Cuban university and high school.
Unfortunately, paranoia got the best of this project which could have left technological backwardness behind in record time. And the same thing happened that has happened to most of Cuba’s future projects that seek social wellbeing, the democratization of information and diversifying the economy for the benefit of citizens.
Internet became a prickly political problem and a matter of national security, which meant that the comprehensive vision of computerization programs stayed at such a limited level that the program didn’t launch in Cuban universities for several years and it was only a few years ago that the idea of connecting the Cuban people a little more took off. But, slowly, very slowly.
Approximately 15 years later, “mass” internet access came to Cuba due to:
- The country finally beginning to improve its technology infrastructure.
- International pressure which contributed to the Government finally signing authorization for ETECSA to commercialize Internet access via WIFI to most of the population.
- WIFI hotspots became more widespread and internet access cards became slightly cheaper.
- A pilot home internet program was implemented (Nauta Hogar).
The will to get the wheels rolling and give the Cuban population access to all of these advances for their own wellbeing is a good thing. However, when we end up looking at any average Cuban’s pocket, it’s not such a good thing anymore. For example:
- The price of WIFI cards continues to be out of most people’s reach (1 CUC per hour at commercial offices and 2 CUC on the black market) and internet access is hard at some times in the day, plus there aren’t enough cards to meet demand.
- Nauta Hogar isn’t a service the average Cuban can afford. As you need to buy: a modem (19 CUC), pay for installation and setting up the service (10 CUC), two filters (1.50 CUC each), which costs a total of 32 CUC (800 CUP). In the first month, the company offers you a bonus of only 30 hours of Internet for the entire month, and from the second month onwards, you need to pay at least 15 CUC depending on the bandwidth you’ve signed up for. It’s worth pointing out that this service is only available for those who have a landline installed in their home.
It’s a step forward if you compare it to previous years, but it isn’t fair to the majority of the Cuban population, because they continue to bleed out of their pockets in order to pay for this new system, which only benefits a minority who can pay for this, partly because their relatives abroad help them financially. This initiative can be positive if the prices policy was after a little more social justice and equity, which would prove the government’s real will to computerize the country.
The migration program of analogue TV to digital TV is a much-needed and very intelligent project for its time. However, I’m afraid that this migration process is taking too long. Firstly, because the population isn’t willing to pay so much money for a decoding box. Secondly, because using a box to capture a TV signal won’t make sense soon as less and less people watch TV. And thirdly, the Internet is being used more these days as a channel for transmitting and receiving TV signals nowadays.
If Internet was the medium for watching Digital TV in Cuba, it would use fiber optics or copper wire, thereby ensuring excellent transmission quality. Set-top boxes could be assembled in the country and used to provide Internet access at the same time for an affordable price that average Cubans could pay for because they would just need one device to watch TV and enjoy internet access. And as a plan B, digital signals could also be transmitted by air, mainly for areas far-removed from cities where fiber optics wouldn’t be able to reach for a long time.
In conclusion, the Cuban government’s projects to facilitate the Cuban population’s access to cell phone services, full internet access and a fast and secure migration to digital TV technologies, are all good. However, the way these are being implemented lack any kind of social justice, equity and reveal the government’s lack of will to get Cuba out of the technologically backward situation it’s currently in.