Cubans get internet on cellphones, but how many can afford it?

Posted at 1:39 AM, Dec 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-06 17:42:21-05

For years, when Cubans talked about 3G mobile internet arriving on the communist-run island, it was with the same sarcasm that people in other countries reserve for discussions of flying pigs and hell freezing over.

However, on Thursday, officials with the government telecom provider for the first time offered internet access on cell phones, a key step toward easing Cubans’ technological isolation.

Approximately 5.3 million Cubans have cell phones, a little less than half the island’s population, according to figures released by the government.

Until now, Cubans could only receive and send email on their phones using cell phone networks through government accounts. Offering mobile service could finally help meet the pent-up demand for video chatting, social media and even e-commerce.

All day Thursday, groups of people could be seen mingling outside in Havana looking at their phones and trying to access the new service.

Many were disappointed that they were unable to obtain the code that ETECSA, the Cuban government telecom provider, needed to text them in order to connect for the first time.

ETECA officials had warned that, at least initially, service would be patchy at best.

Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban whose custody case riveted the United States and Cuba nearly 20 years ago, announced Thursday he had joined Twitter.

In his first tweet, Gonzalez said he wanted to “follow and support” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and “never let down” the Cuban people.

Only 60,000 Cubans have internet access through a limited program that allows people to connect through DSL lines in their homes, according to government statistics. Many more people pack the 1,200 plazas, parks and other public areas across the island that have been outfitted with wireless routers, beginning in July 2015.

Access at the public Wi-Fi hotspots costs the equivalent of $1 an hour and people complain of slow connection speeds and no privacy. The new mobile service was greeted with cautious optimism by many Cubans who have been told for years by their government that they would have 3G soon.

“I think it’s great, I would like to use it to stay in touch with my daughters who live abroad but I don’t know if I can afford it yet,” said Nestor Rodriguez, who said he makes the equivalent of a few dollars a day selling fried pork rinds in Havana’s winding colonial streets.

ETECSA said it would charge the equivalent of 10 cents a megabyte for the new service and released four plans Cubans can purchase. The cheapest plan costs about $7 for 600 megabytes of data, or more than one-tenth of what a highly paid doctor earns in a month.

The average state worker’s monthly salary is about $30, according to government statistics, making the new 3G unaffordable for those who don’t have relatives who send them remittances from abroad or work in the island’s small private sector.

Still, the Cuban government said the new service showed a desire to modernize and open ever so slightly a country with some of the most restricted internet in the world.

“We keep advancing in the informatization of the society,” President Diaz-Canel said in a tweet Tuesday, the same day of the announcement.

But other Cubans were more skeptical of the opening, saying tests this year of the new 3G service caused the network to grind to a halt and crash.

“They have been talking about this for a long time,” said Elmer, who runs a small cafeteria from a window from his home and asked that his last name not be used. “You need to wait and see if it actually works before giving them your money.”

For all its purported strides in health care and education, communist Cuba’s level of internet connectivity was among the lowest in the world.

Critics have long complained that Cuban officials want to keep technology — and the open flow of information — out of their citizens’ hands. The government blamed the US trade embargo for the internet drought.

Cuba made the internet more accessible as part of the December 2014 agreement to begin normalizing relations with the US after more than a half century of estrangement.