If you try to connect to the public wifi in any of Cuba's 35 new hotspots, you will see the standard, government-owned network, but you'll also see a flurry of quasi-legal personal hotspots created by the tech savvy. The American startup making these hotspots possible has just changed its policy to make the software free for Cubans, which could make it easier for people in the country to sidestep the official, expensive government login process.
The software is called "Connectify," and it essentially turns any PC (and PC only) into a personal hotspot so long as it has a working internet connection. After hearing that Cubans use the software to connect those who can't afford it, the Philadelphia-based startup announced Tuesday that it's making the software completely free in Cuba for the next three months.
"I wasn't aware of this, but when we saw Cubans were using this, we thought, 'This is really cool,'" Bhana Grover, one of the founders of Connectify told me. "We obviously want to make money, but we also want people to be able to share the internet with their devices, that's one of the goals."
In Cuba, it's expensive and difficult to connect to the internet with your own device, even with new hotspots installed around Havana and some of the island's larger cities. To get online, you've got to buy a $2, one-hour scratch off card from a store called ETECSA (which also operates the networks). Often, the lines to buy these cards are extremely long, and they're generally in short supply, which has led to them being commonly sold on the black market. Even at $2 a piece, these cards are extremely expensive for most Cubans, who make an average of about $20 a month at their official government jobs. To connect, you have to enter a username and password contained on the scratch cards.
And so Connectify is very popular: It allows one person to buy a card, then share their connection using a "virtual router" with a friend or two. Enterprising Cubans have started Connectify networks and sold three connections for $1 a piece, pocketing a buck in the process. But Connectify's free version only works for a half hour at a time, which makes using it a hassle (it also slows down the internet connection as it's being shared, but Grover says that's unavoidable).
A screenshot from a hotspot in Havana. Image: Jason Koebler
It's also impossible for Cubans to buy the pro version, which normally costs $35, because few Cubans have the means to buy online services and payments coming from Cuba are still blocked by the US embargo.
Though I have no way of confirming this at the moment, I suspect some Cubans have been pirating Connectify using the Paquete, a hard drive full of pirated international movies, television shows, news media, and computer programs that spreads using USB drives and external hard drives each week. A cursory look at Revolico—an online Cuban black market similar to Craigslist—shows that there are people offering to install Connectify for a small fee.
In any case, making Connectify easy and free to download can only be good news for the Cuban people, assuming the Castro regime does not block or censor the download page: First, savvy Cubans will be able to drastically cut the price of connecting to the internet if they use Connectify and share it with a friend or three. Additionally, the government closely monitors and censors internet use—by splitting connections across many people, it becomes slightly more difficult (though obviously not impossible) for the government to know who is looking at what pages and who is downloading what programs. Finally, seeing as how people are regularly arrested for owning traditional wireless routers, any sort of alternative is welcome.
"I'm not sure if we're being counter-culture, I don't know enough about the politics to say," Grover said. "But this gives people a cost-effective way to get on the internet. To have to carry around an additional piece of hardware is crap, and it's cost prohibitive. I know this is being used worldwide, and we're happy to help people share the internet using their devices."