Cuba Launches Mobile Internet Services

Cuba Launches Mobile Internet Services
Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo
Lazaro Rodriguez, 42, connects his cellphone at a public internet hot spot in Havana.

The Cuban state telecommunications agency, ETECSA, has opened Internet services for mobile phone users on the island. Access to the 3G network began at 8 a.m. this morning, and Cuban authorities said it would expand across the island nation in stages over the course of the next several days.

“The internet is a useful tool for the people,” Cuba’s minister of communications, Jorge Luis Perdomo, told reporters, “that has to be made available to everyone.”

Cubans only began acquiring cell phones a decade ago, after Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel, and legalized their sale and purchase as part of a series of reforms to modernize the economy and support the creation of a private sector.  In a country of 11 million people, according to ETECSA, there are now some 5.3 million mobile phone numbers.  The expansion of Internet availability, Perdomo stated, would "encourage economic, social, and cultural development” and help to generate employment and growth.

Until now, most Cubans accessed the Internet by going to one of 800 outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots across the country and logging on with a card purchased from ETECSA, allowing for one to five hours of web-time.  The expansion of Internet access this week will now allow mobile phone owners to buy a data plan, ranging from 600 megabytes for approximately $7 dollars to 4 gigabytes for $30 dollars. Without a plan, customers will pay ETECSA approximately $10 dollars for one gigabyte of data.

Either option is relatively expensive, given the wages most Cuban citizens make. According to the Brookings Institution, most Cubans take home around $20 per month, but close to 600,000 Cubans are self-employed and making higher wages in the private sector.

Cuba has lagged behind other countries in Internet connectivity, and its Communist government has been criticized for restricting public access to information. But the pace of Internet access has picked up considerably since former President Obama and then-Cuban president Raúl Castro announced a breakthrough in relations four years ago

“Increased access to the internet is boosting Cubans’ connectivity to the wider world and expanding the ability of the Cuban people, especially youth, to exchange information and ideas,” Obama stated in a major presidential policy directive on Cuba, before leaving office.

As part of his administration’s efforts to normalize commerce, Obama authorized Google and other U.S. companies to work directly with ETECSA to modernize Cuba’s Internet servers. Google executives accompanied President Obama on his historic visit to Havana in March 2016. When Cuba’s new president Miguel Diaz-Canel attended the UN General Assembly meetings in September, Google executives hosted meetings with him and other U.S. business leaders at their corporate headquarters in Manhattan.

Even before he ascended to the presidency, Diaz-Canel championed the expansion of Internet communications on the island, as part of the need for Cuba to modernize its economy. In October, he became the first Cuban president to open a Twitter account.  This week Diaz-Canel tweeted that Cuba would “continue advancing the computerization of its society.”