Internet access to expand in Cuba – at a price

Cuba said that as of today, users can get on the Internet – including e-mail and international websites – at 118 providers across the island. But the per-hour cost may be too high a hurdle for many.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
People reflected in the window line up at a post office as they wait to use the Internet service in Havana, Cuba, May 28. Cuba announced that it will offer more access to the Internet starting June 4, at navegation sites around the country for $4.50 an hour. The average salary in Cuba is $15 per month.

Frustrated with your Internet access? Try logging on in Cuba.

Since it started offering limited access in 1996, the communist country has tightly restricted access to everything but the bare Web essentials. Unless you were looking for government news or something directly related to your job, you were out of luck.

But now news comes that the government is inching toward wider access. In the Official Gazette, the government said it would provide access to the Internet – including e-mail and international websites – at 118 providers across the Caribbean island starting today.

Will a handful of Internet cafes in each major city across the island of 11 million make much of a difference in a country where connecting to the Internet is notoriously slow and difficult?

It won’t be cheap. Providers will ask users to fork over the equivalent of $4.50 per hour for access.

While those prices might compete with the service offered at 30,000 feet by US airlines, for most Cubans the fees make logging on out of reach.

Independent Cuban journalist Iván García Quintero makes this point in a column published by Infobae. Mr. García quotes a woman named Sandra who earns 375 pesos (roughly US$14) a month.

“I don’t see how I could surf the Internet or open an account on Facebook with a salary of 375 pesos. One hour on the Internet would cost me 112 pesos, nearly a third of my salary,” she says. “I guess that some people could. But the majority is not going to stop eating just to connect to the Internet.”

It’s not just the cost. Once you log on, the connection promises to be slow, too. Think dial-up.

A couple years back, The Economist said Cuba’s Internet speed was second-slowest behind the island of Mayotte, a French territory of around 200,000 people that sits northwest of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

And it’s not clear how heavily the Cuban government will restrict access to sites. The US-headquartered NGO Freedom House, which ranks countries based on levels of political freedom and civil liberties, gives Cuba one of the lowest rankings for Latin American countries in its Internet freedom category.

“Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the Internet and other information and communication technologies,” the organization wrote in its 2012 report entitled “Freedom on the Net.”

Blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has famously worked around the island’s Internet restrictions to publicize her work, highlighted the importance of increased connectivity on a trip to the US this year. “The Internet,” she said, “is helping us explain to the world what is happening inside our country.”

Even if it’s slow and expensive, a connection to the Web seems to represent another step toward wider access.

Earlier this year, Cuba connected to Jamaica via a submarine cable on the ocean floor. That was expected to help bring Internet connections to more Cubans.

Separately, Cuba and Venezuela have connected via a fiber optic cable, although it remains unclear if that connection is providing service to Cuban residents.

The 118 new hotspots might not mean much to most Cubans. But, as one Cuban housewife told a radio station after the announcement, “something is better than nothing.”

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