Home Internet, Distant Dream in Cuba

Patricia Grogg

Youth Computer Club in Cuba. Photo by Ricardo C. Fernandez de C., flickr.com

HAVANA, Nov 16 (IPS) — A submarine fiber optic cable which is expected to greatly increase internet connection speed in Cuba will soon be operational, and is creating moderate expectations among civil society on the island, where private access to the net is not a government priority.

“Any measure to improve connectivity and expand Cuba’s capacity to access the internet is positive, because it will allow more voices on the island, both institutional and individual, to be heard worldwide,” Cuban journalist Francisco Rodriguez, the author of “Paquito el de Cuba,” a popular blog, told IPS.

In his view, “greater (internet) access for civil society, including institutions and individuals, would contribute to demonstrating that the (Cuban) revolution isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be, nor as perfect as others would like to think. To do this, we need technology, but also training in diversity of thought and viewpoints.”

In contrast, blogger Yasmín Portales said she did not believe that the cable would increase residential connections, “because that’s not where the state’s interest lies.”

Nor does she expect rates to come down, because “if a portion of the cable’s capacity is marketed, charges will be in hard currency to amortize costs, and most of the population won’t be able to afford it.”

Stats on Internet in Cuba

The latest report on progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals indicates that in 2008 there were 13 internet users per 100 population in Cuba, although separate figures were not quoted for the global network as opposed to the “Intranet”, which many professionals use [principally Cuban websites].

A survey of 38,000 households by the National Statistics Office (ONE), carried out between February and April 2010, found that only 2.9 percent of respondents had had direct access to the internet in the previous year. Most of them used connections at their place of work or study.

According to the report, 5.9 percent used private connections, 59.9 percent went on-line at their places of study, and 7.4 percent at their workplaces and 15.9 percent used someone else’s internet account.

The same survey found that 5.8 percent of respondents had used email services.

Internet access at home is available to some academics, scientists, culture workers and journalists in Cuba. Diplomats and foreign residents also have access, and must pay for their home internet accounts in convertible Cuban pesos (CUC), the hard currency that has replaced the U.S. dollar on the island.

Cybercafés have expensive tourist prices

Cubans can use the internet at hotel cybercafes, for the equivalent of between 7.50 and 12.50 dollars an hour, depending on the hotel category. A June 2009 ministerial resolution authorized the state postal company to provide these services, but so far it only offers email and intranet connections.

The 1,600 kilometers of fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela could be completed by mid-2011, according to the timetable announced to Cuba’s state media early this month by Waldo Reboredo, vice president of Telecommunications Gran Caribe, the joint venture company in charge of the project.

Reboredo said work would begin in Venezuela Jan. 25, 2011, and the cable would reach Cuba Feb. 15, to be extended later on to Jamaica. After “the start-up phase, the submarine cable will be operational at the beginning of the second half of next year,” he said.

Greater capacity but access may not expand

According to the government, the new cable will make transmission of data, images and voice 3,000 times faster than internet traffic in Cuba today. However, the authorities have made it clear that the improvement in quality will not imply an expansion of information technology access.

Reboredo said the fiber-optic cable would not mean the satellite-based internet service would be discontinued. Cuba has had to rely on satellite links because the nearly five-decade U.S. embargo has prevented the island’s access to nearby fiber optic networks.

In January, official reports said this year opened with a 10 percent growth in international connectivity, thanks to greater satellite capacity. At present transmission speeds are 209 megabits per second for outgoing data and 379 megabits per second for incoming.

This capacity will be hugely increased by the Cuba-Venezuela fiber optic cable, which will initially transmit 640 gigabytes per second. (Each byte is equivalent to eight bits.)

However, the authorities have reiterated that the government will continue to priorities social use of the new technology; in other words, access will be provided mainly at educational centers, professional associations or recreational centers.

Cuban media quoted First Deputy Minister of Informatics and Communications Ramón Linares as saying that the policy is due to problems in telecommunications infrastructure that require investment the country cannot afford at the moment.

Gustavo Andújar, deputy head of Signis-World Catholic Association for Communication, said he found “social use” of internet a rather flimsy argument, although he understood “that universities, health and educational centers, cultural groups, companies and other economic organizations, need priority access.

“I hope decision-makers in this field are aiming at mass internet access for all Cubans. If not, we are definitely going to miss the boat,” Andújar told IPS, worried that his country is lagging behind in the use of this technology in homes on a mass scale.

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