Demystifying the Internet in Cuba

By Elaine Diaz and Ellery Roberts Biddle

When it comes to the Internet, Cuba is routinely compared to countries like China, Iran, and Vietnam, where broad-reaching Internet censorship regimes exist. The degree to which Internet use is controlled by the Cuban government is great. But unlike these and many other countries, there is no evidence that the Cuban government conducts systematic censorship of online content.


Similarly, there is no reliable data on how many people in Cuba actually use the Internet — regularly-cited statistics range from 2.9%-25%. And one could spend years reading western media coverage of Cuba’s Internet and its embattled blogging community (as both of these authors have) and never figure out precisely how the Internet works there, how many people use it, and what kinds of restrictions they face in doing so. Like many other aspects of public life and experience on the island, Cuba’s digital culture is poorly understood by outsiders.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 “Internet Enemies” map.

The global Internet is out of reach for most Cubans because of poor infrastructure, lacking political will, and combined major economic hurdles. These limitations have left the country trailing behind its regional counterparts on this front. But it didn’t always look this way.

In 1996, Cuba became one of the first countries in Latin America to connect to the global Internet. At the time, the island’s Internet environment did not look much different from its forward-thinking counterparts in the global south. Cubans working in medicine and various academic research fields had slow but operative Internet connections at their places of work, where they could access online research and communicate with colleagues in other parts of the world. Over the last decade, however, as the Internet has become a keystone component of global communications, trade, governance, and financial systems, Cuba has slipped to the back ranks and become one of the slowest-moving countries in the Western hemisphere when it comes to developing Internet infrastructure.

Early adopters at CENIAI in Havana, 1996. Photo by Larry Press.

Who provides the technology?

Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., aka ETECSA. The parent company of Cuba’s telecommunications service providers, ETECSA is the sole manager of Internet infrastructure on the island. Connections are administered by unique providers that correspond to different professional sectors. Distinct from privately-run ISPs like Comcast or DeutscheTelekom, these providers are owned and operated by state entities.

How do Cubans actually get online?

It depends on who they are, what they do, and how much money they have. It is extremely difficult to obtain an at-home connection to the global Internet in Cuba. Cubans who wish to have an Internet connection installed in their home or place of business must apply for a connection with the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications, a complex process in which applications are rarely accepted. In 2013, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported that only 3.4% of Cuban households were connected to the Internet or Intranet (we’ll get to that in a minute).

Government authorities carefully manage how different sectors of the population access the Internet. High-skilled professionals such as doctors, academics, and high-ranking government officials often have access to the global Internet at their places of work because it is deemed necessary to their professional development. Factory workers, plumbers, bus drivers — and the millions of other workers who do not belong to the category of elite professionals — are not so lucky. But this is beginning to change.

In June of 2013, ETECSA opened 118 Internet cafes around the country where Cuban nationals can get online at a lower (if still formidable) cost. Domestic Intranet use is priced at the equivalent of US$0.60 per hour, while connecting to the global Internet costs US$4.50 per hour. ETECSA officials have announced plans to increase the number of centers on the island and to reduce connection fees over time, but this has yet to come to fruition.

Hotel Habana Libre, formerly owned by Hilton. Photo by opciones.cu.

The tourism industry has created another venue for Internet access on the island. Since 2001, hotel business centers have offered access to the global Internet, and Cubans are permitted to use these services alongside tourists. But at prices ranging from the equivalent of US$7–12, hotel connections are prohibitively expensive for most Cubans, who earn the equivalent of US$20 per month. This is the paradoxical tilt of Internet policy in Cuba, and one that directly contradicts the egalitarian imperative of the Cuban socialist project — if you can’t scrape together the money, your opportunities to access the global Internet will be few and far between. But any person with a pocketful of cash can easily circumvent state restrictions by paying to use a hotel connection.

What’s the Intranet?

A national network that is accessible in at work places, universities, youth recreation centers, and post offices. The Intranet allows users to access the state email server and sites that are hosted in the .cu domain, which is administered by the government. With the Intranet, citizens can participate in a “national” online environment, and academic and medical researchers to build networks of scholarly exchange, without having to develop the infrastructure or face the political challenges that the global Internet could bring. There is some degree of ambiguity surrounding the Intranet — on the island, one notices that Cubans sometimes use the terms Internet and Intranet interchangeably. Similarly, government authorities tend to bundle these concepts together when describing Internet penetration and accessibility.

How does this all add up?

It’s hard to say. Cuba is often said to have the lowest Internet penetration rate in the Western hemisphere — a curious assertion, mostly because there is no precise way to calculate this figure. Unfortunately, the Cuban government has not released data for these individual groups (Internet, intranet, and email users) since 2006. A lot has changed since then, but this still helps to color the largely enigmatic picture of Internet penetration in Cuba:

Source: Office of National Statistics, Cuba

A 2012 report stated that there were fewer than four fixed Internet connections per 10,000 inhabitants of the country. But most Cubans who access the global Internet do so at work or at school, on a shared computer — a single fixed Internet connection can serve tens or even hundreds of users. And the robust underground market for Internet access likely contributes to this unknown total.

Cuban government statistics submitted to the ITU indicate that Cuba’s Internet penetration rate was 14% in 2010 and 25.7% in 2013. But these numbers reflect national data on the use of “Internet services”, which include access to the global Internet, the national intranet, and the national email system.

In 2014, The Washington Post, The Guardian and even the White House reported that Cuba’s Internet penetration rate is 5%. Among these outlets, those that actually cite a source for this figure refer to “Freedom on the Net”, an annual report conducted by the largely-government funded NGO Freedom House. For the last three years, Freedom House has reported this figure of 5% citing an article on a website called Emerging Frontiers, which now results in a 404 error. The original source for this figure appears to have come from a syndicated 2012 Associated Press article in which Havana-based reporter Andrea Rodríguez estimated that between five and ten percent of Cubans used the global Internet.

Andrea’s estimate was probably accurate in 2012, but recent government reforms along with an ever-expanding informal economy of Internet use have probably pushed this number up by at least one or two percentage points.

Why don’t they just use mobile?

Because there’s no 3G. Most Internet users in Cuba connect through a dial-up connection. Though some use DSL, wireless connections are very uncommon outside of high-end hotels. Latency times for connecting to websites outside the country are generally very slow.

Mobile phone penetration has increased rapidly since regulations on cell phone purchase and ownership were liberalized in 2008. In 2013, 18% of Cubans owned cell phones, while fixed-line telephony has hovered at 10% since 2010.

While many mobile phones are Internet capable, there is no 3G service available at present, and almost no WiFi on the island. But this does not mean that Cubans don’t use smart phone features to store and exchange information.

The Internet Offline

Cubans who have Internet access typically share the wealth of information and media this brings them with friends and family. Apart from directly sharing connections with others, they may download or copy content pen drives that they trade among friends. The “packet of the week” — a varied ensemble of information and entertainment programs — is distributed via smart phones and hard drives with up to 500 GB of space. There are also “Street Net” mesh networks developed among friends and neighbors that span multiple neighborhoods — in what could be considered a sui generis ecosystem of consumption and exchange of information.

This relatively new, web-derived information-sharing economy is having some impact on how Cubans get their news — rather than relying on state media outlets and word-of-mouth, Cubans can now more easily learn of the latest social and political happenings from a range of sources, including independent and foreign ones.

“Dude, is it true that power no longer lies in weapons, but rather in information?” “Yes, that’s what they say.” Comic by TKTK.

Will newly fuzzy Cuba-US relations fix these problems?

It is too soon to say. Cuban authorities may continue to view the Internet as a highly contested political space, but greater cooperation with Washington could perhaps persuade it to exercise authority over this space in a different way. If the economic benefit of increased connectivity is great enough, Internet access may increase. Recent murmurings from the Ministry of Information and Communications suggest that while access may become more affordable, it will come with hefty cyber security regulations that could lead to more censorship, and almost certainly more surveillance.

But one thing all but guaranteed by the new relationship between the two countries is a greater flow of capital into Cuba — and almost certainly greater flows of goods, including tech products and materials. So whether or not new infrastructure is built, those who participate in Cuba’s “Internet offline” will have greater access to tech tools and mobile telephony, a shift that will surely increase the spread of knowledge and information in Cuban society.

Penetration may be low and electricity scarce, but Cubans still have plenty of power when it comes to information and knowledge.

And how will they use it?

That is up to them.

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