Cubans Get a Taste of Mobile Internet

Nine-Hour Test of Free and Open Access Could Be a Breakthrough

Residents in the US and Europe can take Internet access for granted. It’s available at home and on the go. But in Cuba, last week marked the first time that a mobile Internet service was turned on. For a nine-hour period, Cubans could enjoy the convenience of open mobile data connectivity, going online from anywhere in the country.

A long and complicated geopolitical history has meant that Cuba lags most of the world in economic development, and is certainly behind most Western countries in Web access. In 2015, the government resumed official ties with the US, which led to the creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force, intended “to promote the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba”.

On 14 August, the Cuban government provided free mobile Internet access throughout the country to phones supporting mobile data. This was only a network test that lasted about nine hours, and it wasn’t officially announced in advance, but word spread quickly across the island. By the time the test was over, about 5 million mobile users — almost half the population of the country — were able to go online, sending tweets and reading content from around the globe.

Cuba’s mobile network is owned by state-run telecom operator ETECSA, which holds a monopoly in the nation. The company has offered basic services, years behind that of other countries. Even now, while many countries are racing forward with 5G connectivity, ETECSA is only just testing the implementation of 3G data services.

But even slow access should lead to a big change to everyday life for Cubans. Internet availability had been mostly restricted to hotels, although the government has expanded Web access by introducing cybercafes and Wi-Fi hot spots. But the operator’s rate of about $1 for an hour for Internet connectivity is an uncomfortable sum for most residents to spend on what’s still considered a luxury.

ETECSA hasn’t announced the commercial launch date of its 3G service, nor where exactly it will be available. But when it does arrive, we expect that high prices will deter many people from using the service, particularly as the average monthly wage in Cuba is just $30, and that the government’s expected efforts to create a walled garden will cause a limited type of openness. Nonetheless, the roll-out will offer a new level of convenience and a great first taste of things to come.