Cubans wait their turn outside an internet center in Havana.
Credit: STR

HAVANA, Cuba — With the long-anticipated activation of their ALBA-1 undersea internet cable this month, Cuban web users now have the technological equivalent of a horse-drawn Toyota Prius.

Completed in 2011 and spanning the Caribbean from eastern Cuba to Venezuela — roughly the distance from Miami to Washington, DC — the cable finally gives the island a modern data transmission link. It has the capacity to vastly improve internet access in a country that consistently ranks as the least-connected in the Western Hemisphere.

But the small minority of Cubans who currently enjoy internet access must go online via dial-up networks on their phone lines, relying on a technology that has been obsolete for more than a decade. Tourist hotels and a few government workplaces have Wi-Fi or DSL hookups, but everyone else is stuck with transmission rates that hover around 5 kilobytes per second.

Surfing the web in Cuba requires stoic reserves of patience. Online photos often don’t open. Streaming web video is completely out of the question.

Firing up the undersea cable won’t change that anytime soon.

ETECSA, the Castro government’s state telecom monopoly, confirmed this week that it had finally flipped on the $70 million Venezuela-financed cable, rerouting data traffic away from the slow satellite systems it has relied upon until now.

That should translate to faster Facebook access at the beach resorts of Varadero and in the lobbies of Havana’s priciest hotels. But analysts say without massive investments in the rest of the island’s communication infrastructure, Cuba will have little more than a strong link in a weak chain.

Dial-up technology, they say, is simply not compatible with the modern internet.

The question now is whether Cuba will make good on its pledge to broaden web access — prioritizing “social” uses, the government insists — or keep the island’s population in the pre-internet Dark Ages.

Fewer than 10 percent of Cubans currently have access to the world wide web, according to most estimates, a rate lower than Haiti’s. Young Cubans often cite their inability to get online and communicate with friends abroad as a deep frustration, and an added incentive to emigrate.

Cuban authorities say their priority will be to boost internet availability at schools, hospitals and other government institutions, in contrast to the at-home on-demand individual web access available in the capitalist world. As Castro critics point out, such “social” access can also conveniently facilitate censorship and web monitoring by the state.

Still, having waited this long to upgrade its communication networks, Cuba does have one advantage: It can simply leap over previous generations of technology and go straight into the world of mobile web technology.

“I think the answer would be to deploy wireless and specifically 4G wireless,” said Doug Madory, the analyst with the web monitoring firm Renesys who first reported the change in Cuba’s data transmission speeds, indicating its undersea cable had been activated.

“Deploying wireless service would allow ETECSA to sidestep the lack of modern wired infrastructure,” Madory explained. “This has been the case in numerous parts of the developing world, especially in parts of Africa where most people connect to the internet despite a lack of wired infrastructure.”

In 2008, President Raul Castro allowed Cubans to own personal cellphones for the first time, and more than 1.5 million new cellular lines have been opened since then on the island of 11 million people.

But the state telecom monopoly does not offer data service. Even as BlackBerrys and iPhones have become flashy fashion accessories among those with access to hard currency, the devices remain virtually useless for anything beyond voice calls and text messages.

Cuba would have to lay out huge sums to upgrade its state-owned wireless network to handle 4G-speed data flows, experts say. But the technology is widely available on the international market, and could be acquired from top trading partners like China.

“Tremendous investment would be needed to deliver anything like modern internet connectivity to a broad segment of the population,” said Larry Press, a professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, whose blog “The Internet in Cuba” has been tracking web developments on the island.

“They have very limited resources and will not be able to attract significant investment without new government policies, institutions and culture,” he said. “The goal cannot be ‘21st century’ in a developed nation like Korea, but catching up with nations in the developing or middle-development world.”

ETECSA released a brief statement Thursday seemingly aimed at tampering expectations. “The activation of the undersea cable doesn’t mean that web access will be automatically multiplied,” it warned.

“Infrastructure investments in hard currency will still be necessary to pay for increased internet traffic, with the goal of gradually expanding the service we provide on a mostly free basis, with a priority on social goals.”

The statement did not elaborate on what ETECSA meant by “mostly free.”

The state monopoly charges cellphone users the equivalent of about 40 US cents per minute, one of the highest rates in Latin America, even after announcing a price cut of more than 20 percent this year.

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