The reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba means the people of the small Caribbean island are likely to finally get internet access that's on par with the rest of the world.
Today, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that the two countries, which have had no formal relations since the early 1960s, will begin normalizing relations. Though the repeal of the United States' longstanding trade embargo will require Congressional action, Obama said he will use executive orders to ease restrictions on travel and banking. The United States will also open an embassy in Havana.
What's this all have to do with the internet there? Well, the submarine cable system that connects much of the world with fiber optics has basically bypassed Cuba. Instead, the country has been relying on extremely old and slow satellite technology to give its people (limited and censored) internet access. Obama specifically said he will allow American telecom companies to work with Cuba.
Cuba is horribly underserved by fiber optics. Image: SubmarineCableMap.com
“I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe, so I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said. “Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.”
That’s huge. Internet access in the country is abysmal. Only 5 percent of Cubans have internet access, and barely anyone had internet in their homes until this year, when the state-owned Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba began offering very limited, very slow internet connections to some residents. Before that, the internet was only available at 118 kiosks, where residents had to pay $4.50 an hour (an astronomical sum in Cuba) to use computers.
There is an economic imperative for Cuba to become wired
Outside of those kiosks, others deal with dial up.
In any case, the internet problem in Cuba is both technologically and politically fueled. The technology is old, and until recently, it wasn’t clear that the government really wanted its people on it, anyway.
“There is an economic imperative for Cuba to become wired,” Julia Sweig, the Council on Foreign Relations’ director of Latin American Studies, told me. “I think that it’s a matter of policy already, and if they have investment capital to do it from American providers, then the door is open down there, and the door is open here. It’s been discussed at the highest level between the two presidents.”
Sweig is right—internet access was slowly improving in Cuba even without American intervention. Last year, Cuba's one-and-only fiber link—which was with Venezuela—began carrying data. And the country has publicly said it wants to put the internet in more residents’ homes. But more is needed.
Inscription at an old classroom in Cuba. Image: Paul Keller/Flickr
“In the past two years, there have been some small steps towards greater access to the Internet in Cuba, but access to the Internet is still limited for a variety of reasons including price of service and out-dated technology,” Doug Madory, an internet analyst who specializes in Cuba at Dyn Research told me in an email. “Overall, [Obama’s announcement] is a very positive development.”
The technological problem could, and should be solved soon, however. The United States military announced last year that in 2015, it would build a cable link between Florida and Guantanamo Bay, with plans of expanding it to the rest of Cuba if political tensions eased.
It appears as though relations are well on their way to being mended (talks between the United States and Cuba have reportedly been happening in secret for 18 months), so there's every reason to expect that the cable will eventually carry some of Cuba's internet traffic.
"This cable would have the capacity to one day carry a significant share of traffic for all of Cuba once the embargo is resolved," Madory said.
The remaining question, then, is what internet Cubans will get access to. Right now, there is some limited censorship. The Castro regime has notoriously tried to limit its residents’ access to the outside world. With shoddy technology, it hasn’t really had to worry about information flowing into the country via the internet. But soon, that could all change, and it’ll be a good test to see whether the country is really committed to changes.
“I think the problem has been more one of access rather than censorship,” Sweig said. “We might see more blocked sites down the road, but that really remains to be seen.”