Will Cuba embrace the internet revolution?

HAVANA, March 2th (BBC) No matter how much you warn visitors to Cuba that they’ll be offline during their stay, they often won’t believe it until they actually arrive in Havana.

On arrival, they find their iPads and smartphones suddenlyonly serve for taking photos which, to their dismay, can’t be immediately posted to their Instagram or Facebook accounts.

Whether Snapchat-obsessed millennials or email-addicted workaholics, they stare at their phones in disbelief, waiting in vain for the familiar “4G” symbol to appear, as the realisation dawns that an enforced digital detox is upon them.

Conversely, plenty of travellers to Cuba relish the chance to disconnect from the office emails and the constant barrage of WhatsApp alerts and tweets.

Yet what for the tourist is either a temporary inconvenience or a welcome offline breather is a very different reality for ordinary Cubans.

For years, it felt to many on the island like the internet was something happening elsewhere, to other people.

Recently though, it is easier, and cheaper, to get online in Cuba than it used to be.

There are now more than 240 public access wi-fi spots dotted around the country and the price for an hour of internet access, while still expensive by international standards, has dropped by more than half, to $1.50  for an hour.

It is now a common sight to see people sitting with their laptops or phones in parks and public plazas connecting with their families abroad via video-chat technology.

Guesthouse owner Jose Antonio Ruiz says internet access has benefited his business

In the latest development, the state telecommunications company, Etecsa, has installed internet connections in around 2,000 homes in the capital’s colonial district, Old Havana, as part of a two-month pilot scheme.

Among the lucky few is Jose Antonio Ruiz.

His modest apartment in one of the neighbourhood’s newer buildings is part of the government’s domestic online experiment. As a private business owner who rents rooms to tourists, Mr Ruiz has found the new “luxury” helped him in two main ways.

First, he says, he can advertise his apartment more easily on popular accommodation websites like Airbnb, and answer his clients’ emails much more promptly than before.

Secondly, he can offer his guests a unique service giving him a competitive advantage over other guesthouses.

“The guests are really pleased when you tell them we have internet,” Jose Antonio explains. “They relax as they know they can check their flights from here, read their emails or contact their families.”

During the pilot, the connection is free but once it’s over the government is expected to publish prices, so users can choose whether to keep the service or live without it.

It hasn’t yet been confirmed but it is believed it will cost around $15 for 30 hours at the slowest speed of 128 kilobits per second, and up to $110 for the fastest – two megabits per second.

With the average wage in Cuba about $25 a month, those prices would be prohibitively expensive for many Cubans.

Jose Antonio’s connection is not fast enough to stream video, for example. Still, it is an improvement on the dial-up connections that some state employees have at home and he says he’d pay to keep it as it’s enough for what he needs.

One day, though, those needs could change, says Cuban youth blogger Ariel Montenegro.

Increased connectivity provides a boost to businesses like property rental companies

“The digital transformation of a country is not just giving people the internet, but giving them services on the internet, Cuban services,” he explains at a public access wi-fi point in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana.

“Like banking or paying your bills or buying tickets for the movie theatre or applying to college. When those kinds of national services start to happen online then people will naturally become more impatient.”

Such a move will take time, he thinks. However, much has already happened in a relatively short period.

“If you compare it with the rest of the world, of course we’re still behind,” admits Mr Montenegro. “But it’s progress. When I started college, although we had the internet, it was really, really, really slow. You could barely do anything.”

“In five years’ time, I believe that at least every university will have a really fast internet connection as well as in libraries, in schools and more public wi-fi spots.”

The Cuban government’s position on the internet is twofold.

Vice-President Miguel Angel Diaz Canel is believed to be open to greater online access

First it blames the US economic embargo for the lack of information technology in Cuba, saying that many of the major IT firms around the world fear running foul of Washington’s strict rules on trading with Cuba.

Since the bilateral thaw of December 2014, that has been harder to argue, of course. Last year Google reached an agreement with Etecsa on storing its online content, such as YouTube video and Gmail, on servers inside Cuba to improve local access. Google executives are also keen to provide further internet-based solutions to challenges on the island.

However, there is also a lingering official distrust of unfettered internet access.

Whether stemming from an ill-advised USAid-run programme intended to undermine the Castro government via a text message-based form of “Cuban Twitter” called ZunZuneo or a broader suspicion of social media as a tool of dissent, the authorities have traditionally been wary of the net.

Following his meeting with Raul Castro last year, the then British Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, told the BBC that the 85-year-old Cuban president “clearly understands the power of the digital economy to drive growth” but had also raised his concerns over “the negative aspects of the internet from online radicalisation to child sexual exploitation”.

Mr Castro has a little under a year to go before he steps down from the presidency. His expected successor, Vice-President Miguel Angel Diaz Canel, is thought to be receptive to greater online access after he once publicly defended a group of young bloggers who had posted relatively critical material online.

As the home internet pilot scheme draws to an close, the Cuban government must next decide whether to shut it down or roll it out across the island.

Depending on the price, many thousands of potential users are ready to connect.