Cuba has notoriously bad internet — here's what it's like to use
Harrison Jacobs, Business Insider
§ Cuba has notoriously bad Internet. It's slow, expensive for the local population to use, and primarily provided through crowded government-approved Wi-Fi hotspots.
§ I traveled to Cuba last year and found that, in order to get internet, you need to buy scratch-off cards that give you a pre-determined amount of time on the approved Wi-Fi hotspots.
§ The government is trying to increase access to the internet for citizens and signed a deal in 2016 with Google to add local servers, but increased access may result in more censorship.
It's not exactly a secret that Cuba has notoriously bad internet.
For those travelers heading to Cuba for vacation, the lack of internet is something to keep in mind — don't expect to be hailing Ubers or using Google Maps to navigate when you get lost.
All internet service in the long-stagnating island nation is controlled by the state-owned telecom company ETSECA and primarily provided through crowded, government-approved Wi-Fi hotspots around the country.
Here's what it's like to use:
Paid Wi-Fi hotspots are scattered through major cities. They are instantly recognizable by the crowds of young Cubans gathered with their eyes glued to an assortment of smartphones, laptops, and tablets.
Since 2014, the government has opened approximately 237 paid public Wi-Fi hotspots, according to Reuters, which cost $2 per hour to use.
That's not a lot of internet access for a country of 11 million people.
The Cuban government blames the country's poor internet access on the US trade embargo, which they say has obstructed the introduction of new network technology and prevented them from accumulating funds to buy equipment from other nations,according to The Associated Press. Cuba estimates that the embargo has cost it $753.69 billion since the US implemented it in 1960.
Critics say Cuba has poor internet by design, to prevent most Cubans from accessing outside culture or information.
For tourists, getting online isn’t too difficult.
Head to the nearest ETSECA office — there's usually one right next to the Wi-Fi hotspot — and purchase one of the Nauta scratch-off internet cards for $2.
Like everything else in Cuba, be prepared to wait. I would recommend buying a few at a time. Whether the queue is long or short, the process is excruciatingly slow (minimum: 30 minutes to an hour).
Once you have the card, scratch off the login and password on the back and join the nearest Wi-Fi network.
Enter the login information. Your phone (or tablet, or laptop) will alert you that you are joining an unsecured network. The government monitors all users — it’s the price of admission.
When you are done, make sure to turn off your Wi-Fi. And if you want to be extra safe, type in http://126.96.36.199/ to reach a log-out screen. Otherwise, get ready to buy another card.
Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
If you don’t want to wait on the painfully slow line, there are a few other options.
1. Head to a hotel lobby, which will let you buy an official internet card without the wait. If you are not a hotel guest, they may require you to buy food or a drink in the hotel bar or restaurant.
2. Head directly to the Wi-Fi access point. There will inevitably locals whispering "tarjeta de internet" (Spanish for "internet card") and willing to sell you as many as you want for $3 each. A slight mark-up, but probably worth avoiding the ETSECA line.
3. The final option is to find a local at the Wi-Fi access point who has set up a personal Wi-Fi network. These internet purveyors buy internet cards, use the internet to set up a personal network, and then sell to as many people as possible for $1 each. The benefit: no wait and cheaper, but you pay in connection speed.
Welcome to Cuban internet!
For anyone coming from the US, the connection speed is brutally slow. Websites, email, and messaging load fine, but videos and multimedia take forever. Forget about live-blogging your Cuban adventure.
That said, despite the country's repressive reputation, very few websites are actually blocked. I had no trouble accessing Facebook, Instagram, Google, Gmail, The New York Times, or Business Insider.
In fact, I didn't come across any websites that we're blocked, though I didn't try to access dissident Cuba websites like Cubanet, Diario de Cuba, Cubaencuentro, Hablemos Press, and 14ymedio, which Freedom House reports are restricted in the country.
The Cuban internet is relatively open because access is so limited that censorship is unnecessary, sociologist Ted Henken told The Verge in 2015. At even $2 per hour, the price of internet access is too high for most Cubans. About 75% of Cubans work for the government, earning a salary of $20 to $40 per month.
The International Telecommunications Union estimates that, as of 2013, only around 26% of Cubans have access.
Approximately 4.1% of Cubans —primarily professors, doctors, and intellectuals — receive home internet access, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.
The only other way to get on the internet in Cuba is at hotels, university campuses, state-run cybercafes, or the offices of ETSECA.
A government-controlled intranet is available in those locations as well, at a considerably lower price of $0.60 per hour, according to Freedom House.
The intranet is limited to "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," the report said.
That situation is beginning to change, however.
More and more Cubans are starting to earn higher salaries by working at private enterprises, which became permissible thanks to economic reforms implemented since 2011.
In particular, Cubans who work in the tourism industry — tour guides, drivers, bed-and-breakfast hosts, and restaurant and bar workers — are benefitting from the uptick in visitors since the 2014 Cuba-America thaw.
Statistics from Cuba's National Statistics Office showed a 17.6% increase in tourism from 2014 to 2015, and preliminary data has shown a 15% increase in 2016.
First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, rumored by many to be in line for the presidency if Raul Castro steps down next year, said during a 2015 speech that the government is working to make internet "available, accessible, and affordable for everyone," according to The Verge.
In addition, he said that it hoped to bring broadband internet to half of Cuban households by 2020. Home internet access is currently forbidden for Cuban residents.
Whether the government’s goal is met is anyone’s guess.
Last year, the government began a pilot program to bring internet access into the homes of 2,000 Havana residents. But that's a drop in a bucket compared with Cuba's population of 11 million people.
In mid-December 2016, Google and Cuba signed a deal to allow the company to speed internet access on the island by installing local servers that will store much of Google's content. The move could make accessing Google services like Gmail and YouTube 10 times faster, but will do little to expand internet access to more Cubans.
Increased access could come at a cost.
Henken said that it is likely Cuba will follow the China model and enact its own version of "The Great Firewall" if it dramatically increases internet access.
"Cuba wants to go from a model that basically doesn't need censorship on the internet because there practically is no internet" to using internet to control the population, Henken told The Verge.
It's not a difficult thing to imagine. A fiber-optic cable from Venezuela to Cuba was built by French-Chinese telecom provider Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell several years ago to improve internet access. And Chinese telecom giant Huawei has been charged with building out broadband infrastructure in Havana, according to BBC.
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