When U.S. Telecoms Come Calling, Will Cuba Pick Up The Phone?

This month, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration began opening the long-closed diplomatic door to Cuba. Among other things the President’s plan makes way for is the ability of U.S. companies to sell telecommunications equipment to the island. Legislation imposing a broad economic embargo still stands, but the administration has some leeway over activity that improves the flow of information under the banner of “spreading democracy.”

(Exceptions to the old embargo abound: the U.S. National Science Foundation actually provided Cuba’s first Internet connection in 1996 as part of a broader connectivity drive for developing countries.)

What remains unclear, says computer scientist and Cuba telecom blogger Larry Press of California State University in Dominguez Hills, is what use the Cuban government has for U.S. telecom equipment.

“In my mind, the question is: What is Cuba going to allow?” he says.

Cuba is an island of people with Internet-age skills but almost no Internet access. While around 80 percent of college-age Cubans are in school—the highest rate in Latin America—only some 5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet. All that education could help Cuba’s economy, if the country plugs in, Philip Brenner, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Ingenious Cubans have found ways to build local intranets and gain access to the real Internet ever since that first NSF-provided connection. One early commercial internet service provider offered access in exchange for pirated software, according to a 1998 Wired feature. Today, a so-called streetnet serves around 9,000 users via local, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections, reports the Associated Press. Still, both types of information flow are self-policed to ward off official intervention.

Access to the open Internet is available in around 155 Cuban cybercafés [link in Spanish] and through some institutions. But the cost of a commercial connection is prohibitive for most Cubans. That is not an accident: Cuba’s government is responsible for some of the strongest obstacles to Internet access in the world, according to a pair of reports published late last year (the Freedom House report and the United Nations International Telecommunication Union report). In place of mobile Internet, for example, the Cuban government offers Cubans an internal e-mail system called Nauta, plus access to a local intranet with government-approved material.

The diplomatic overture may be new for the United States, but Cuba already works with foreign telecom providers. A Cuban-government-owned company bought back shares of the national telecom monopoly from Telecom Italia in 2011, and in July 2014, French telecom giant Orange signed an agreement to offer telephone service. The agreement includes a knowledge-sharing component in which Orange will establish a technical training institute for future Cuban telecom workers, according to L’Express [link in French]. Such operations appear to have been hobbled so far by government indecision or informal restrictions: telecom providers in poorer countries than Cuba manage to offer much better service. Today, there are only about 2.4 million mobile phones in Cuba, a nation with a population of 11 million [link in Spanish].

There may be room for some optimism, though: according to USA Today, a Cuban diplomat told reporters that Cuba’s government is now willing to discuss U.S.-supplied telecom equipment.

First published on IEEE Spectrum’s Tech Talk blog: [html] [pdf].