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What Washington’s Policy Shift Means for Cuba’s Awful Internet Service

What Washington’s Policy Shift Means for Cuba’s Awful Service
Alex Fitzpatrick @alexjamesfitz Updated: Dec. 19, 2014 10:17 AM

Part of the new deal involves efforts to literally bring Cuba up to speed

About a quarter of Cubans have Internet access, according to the
International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency that
oversees global communications. One in four may seem decent, especially
compared to other isolated nations like North Korea, where its netizens
are its most elite. But it turns out that 25% figure doesn’t tell the
whole picture.

Most connected Cubans only have access to a Balkanized,
government-approved version of the Internet, more akin to a heavily
restricted web portal than the open browser you and I use. House
describes the typical Cuban connectivity experience as “a tightly
controlled government-filtered intranet, which consists of a national
email system, a Cuban encyclopedia, a pool of educational materials and
open-access journals, Cuban websites, and foreign websites that are
supportive of the Cuban government.”

Maps of undersea communications cables tell the story of Cuba’s Internet
another way. Only one major submarine cable connects Cuba’s
telecommunications networks to the outside world: ALBA-1, owned by a
state-run Venezuelan telecom and connecting southeastern Cuba to
and Jamaica. That cable could be in pretty bad shape, says
Fulton Armstrong, a research fellow at American ’s Center for
Latin American and Latino Studies, but Armstrong added that he couldn’t
verify that first hand.

Tellingly, cables that connect the southeastern U.S. to Central, South
and Latin America completely bypass the island nation.

From an engineering perspective, it makes perfect sense to have routed
those cables through Cuba. But geopolitics got in the way: the U.S.
trade with Cuba meant American companies couldn’t lay pipe into
the island, leaving it off the grid as neighbors got online. Cuba has
for decades been a member of Soviet/Russian satellite service
Intersputnik, but the country didn’t get Internet access until the
American telecom provider Sprint set up shop in 1996. Sprint provided a
dedicated line connecting the Cuban state Internet provider to Sprint’s
U.S. network at 64kbps — just a bit faster than dial-up when running
full throttle.

Sprint was able to set up that line thanks to 1992’s Cuban Democracy
Act, which authorized American companies “to provide efficient and
adequate telecommunications services” between the U.S. and Cuba.” The
idea was to ensure that Cubans wouldn’t be entirely cut off from notions
of free speech and democracy. But Cuba’s web censorship, combined with
its slow speed and high cost, means the Internet hasn’t had a massive
impact on its society.

“Only foreign nationals and Castro can afford [Cuba’s Internet],” says
Larry Press, a researcher and who covers technology in Cuba. In
lieu of the Internet, he says, Cubans buy and sell USB drives loaded
with media like American movies and TV shows on the secondary market.
New drives with fresh content pop up weekly, Press says. He isn’t sure
where the drives come from, but one theory he relayed is that the Cuban
government could be allowing them as a means to profit from them. Some
Cubans also use illicit Wi-Fi networks to share information locally, but
those networks aren’t connected to the wider Internet.

Nevertheless, Cuba’s Internet could be about to get a whole lot better.
Barack Obama unexpectedly announced a new chapter in
U.S.-Cuban relations Wednesday, and part of that deal involves new
efforts to literally bring Cuba up to speed. Under the policy change,
American companies will be able to not only sell some hardware and
software to Cuban customers, but they could be encouraged to make
investments in infrastructure, too, whether that means building undersea
cables or rolling out mobile broadband across the country. Cuba’s
Internet, Press says, is a “greenfield,” meaning whatever networks are
built won’t be encumbered by pre-existing infrastructure, because so
little of it exists. That means Cuba could bypass older, slower
technologies and leapfrog right to ultra-fast fiber, for example,
provided the will and the funds are there.

“I hope they consider a wide range of infrastructure ownership and
control models, looking toward Europe, , Singapore, South Korea,
Google (free DSL or paid fiber), et cetera,” says Press. American
University’s Armstrong, meanwhile, says bringing faster Internet to Cuba
will “take some time,” with the speed depending on “how fast [the
telecoms] and the Cubans negotiate deals and get them off the ground.”

The White House said its new policy will help Cubans communicate more
freely, which could accelerate societal change in the Communist country.
But it remains to be seen just how much Cuban officials will be willing
to open up. China, in particular, has proven that it’s possible to have
a flourishing technology sector while still keeping a tight lid on what
citizens search for, say and do online. Still, if Congress approves
normalizing trade ties with Cuba, that could give Washington economic
leverage to make sure Cuba keeps its Internet open. And there’s a
chance, however small, that would mean changes offline, too.

“With greater opening and exposure of the Cubans to American culture,
music, movies and way of life, I think there might be more demand for
greater freedom, which might then encourage the government to loosen up
its practices,” says Sanja Kelly, project director at Freedom on the
Net, Freedom House’s Internet freedom project. However, she cautioned
that Cuba’s fate remains in its leaders’ hands: “[Cuba’s] future will
ultimately depend on the government’s willingness to change its
repressive practices.”

Source: What Washington’s Policy Shift Means for Cuba’s Awful Internet
Service | TIME –

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