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Why Cuba could be the next Silicon Valley (eventually)

Mike Elgan | March 22, 2016
Cuba is an Internet backwater, but I think its next revolution could be digital.

Logging on to the Cuban Internet

Only about 5% of Cubans are able to connect to the Internet from their homes, and these connections are through slow dial-up services.

Around 20 government-owned public Wi-Fi hotspots went online last year in Havana, with 30 more promised for later this year. The government also set up another 65 or so across the island.

While walking around Havana, you know where the Wi-Fi hotspots are because you suddenly come upon a gathering of people standing on the sidewalk using smartphones, tablets and even laptops. Beyond the reach of hotspots, you almost never see Cubans using phones or any other consumer electronics gadget.

Here's the process for using the Internet in Cuba: You find a kiosk or store where the state-owned telco, Etecsa, sells Internet cards, then you buy one. The cost for Cubans is about $2.29 per hour -- that's more than two days' pay for an hour of access.

The username is an 11-digit number, and the password (revealed by scratching the card) is a 12-digit number. You look at the Wi-Fi settings on your phone and find the WIFI_ETECSA hotspot, then use the card's numbers to log in.

To use that Wi-Fi, you stand on a busy, noisy sidewalk or sit on a cement bench, often in direct sunlight, squinting at a smartphone screen.

Hotel Wi-Fi is even more expensive and slower. For example, at Havana's spectacular old Hotel Nacional de Cuba, we paid more than $8 for a very slow hour of Internet use. More than 50 Cuban hotels offer that kind of lousy Wi-Fi service.

All Cuban Internet connections are slow. Web pages with photos are problematic. Gmail can barely load. Audio Skype calls are out of the question.

Still, it's a vast improvement from 2008. Back then, there was no public Wi-Fi. For an astronomical fee, you could use the only Internet cybercafe, government-owned of course. That cafe had two rows of ancient PCs facing opposite directions. A uniformed police officer slowly paced between the rows, scrutinizing every screen.

In January, the government promised that it would "soon" allow residents in two Havana neighborhoods to have home broadband Internet connections. The government also said it would allow cafes, bars and restaurants to offer Wi-Fi service.

Entrepreneurs and developers outside the Cuban government are also working on the problem of expensive-and-slow access.

One startup, called Apretaste, created a platform that enables a kind of Internet surfing via email. You email your query in the subject line to apretaste@apretaste.com, and the results get emailed back. Only about 400,000 Cubans can access the Web, but more than 2.5 million have government-issued email accounts.

 

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