Less than a week ago I found myself waiting in several long lines in Cuba to buy a card for anywhere between £3 and £5 (Cuban’s can get it for more like £1) that would provide me with a username and a password that I could use to get online for an hour at a time.
Each time I purchased one of these internet cards — issued by Cuba’s state-run telecoms company, ETESCA — I had to then find a public square or a high-end hotel in order to access the internet.
For someone that is used to being connected 24/7, this was something of a shock. But for Cubans, a lack of connectivity is something they’ve always had to live with. The Caribbean island has the lowest level of internet connectivity in the western hemisphere. But this week we got a big sign that Cuba is slowly starting to embrace the internet.
As the internet becomes more widespread in Cuba, online start-ups are emerging. But the problems many of the companies hope to address are also a reminder of how far the island has to go.
Bernardo Romero Gonzalez, a 33-year-old software engineer from Cuba, launched his new business this month: a website where people can order island-made products such as soap, bouquets of flowers and cakes for home delivery.
“It’s like Amazon for Cuba, but with a difference,” he told an audience of New York techies at a conference this month.
The summary was a classic start-up pitch, but it also underscored the obstacles when it comes to starting an online business in the Caribbean country.
The last rule of the Street Network is that you don’t talk about the Street Network. But that wasn’t always the case.
For several years the clandestine Havana network of illegal Wi-Fi repeaters, lengths of high-speed network cable and squirreled away servers packed with pirated games, movies and music was sort of an open secret.
The government didn’t just turn a blind eye to it; in some cases it protected the valuable equipment located on windowsills and rooftops, keeping an eye out for potential thieves.
All of that changed in some people’s eyes in 2015 after several people in the Street Network (often just called the Snet) talked to the Associated Press and brought too much attention to their efforts.
The Cuban government claims to be committed to ubiquitous Internet service and has talked about DSL connectivity to homes since 2013. Subsequently, they ran a DSL pilot study and are now offering service in a small Havana neighborhood. They are also conducting a small mobile-access trial.
Both efforts are dead-ends. The mobile trial uses 3G technology at a time when 4G is pervasive and 5G will be deployed before most Cubans own 3G-capable phones. DSL is old and slow and would require an immense investment in telephone central office equipment and replaced telephone wires. I hope ETECSA is not serious about these technologies.
I also hope to see Cuba leapfrog generations of technology and eventually have a ubiquitous, modern Internet, but they need different solutions in the interim.
Like its music, like its art, Cuba is a complex, colorful mash-up of dichotomous ideas, cultures and emotions.
Nothing better describes the island nation than the image of a doctor dressed as a revolutionary, a crumbling wall amidst towering, colorful homes and, most recently, hundreds huddled in darkened WiFi parks, their faces alight in the glow of cell phones.
Now, despite trade embargoes, despite nearly non-existent internet and government controlled media and censorship, Cuba surprises once more in its ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable by embracing all aspects of video games.
Secret gaming networks entwine utility lines, broadcast from rooftops and piggy-back phone cables over highways.
As Cuba becomes more accessible, entrepreneurs there are finding new ways to reach users and build businesses. Today at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, we got the perspective of a trio of Cuban entrepreneurs to learn about the challenges they face in building businesses as the country gradually opens up to the outside world.
“I feel like Cuba has the key resource of the world. We have the human resource,” Kewelta founder Carlos Manuel García Vergara said on the panel. “In Cuba we have very talented people but we have no internet so we need to create offline.”
Kewalta is building a social ad network in a place that has limited connectivity. Instead of paying for ads, the idea is to get users to create profiles where they share the things they are interested in.
I’ve been covering Cuban streetnets (local area networks with independent users that are not connected to the Internet) for some time. Reader Doug Madory told me about Gaspar Social, a new streetnet in Gaspar, a small town in central Cuba. Gaspar Social opened to the public last October and has grown quickly — about 500 of Gaspar’s 7,500 residents are now users.
Streetnets are illegal in Cuba and the government has ignored some and cracked down on others, but they seem to be tolerating them now as long as they remain apolitical and avoid pornography and other controversial material.
Last month, Communist Party officials noticed Gaspar Social but did not shut it down. Yoandi Alvarez, one of the network creators, said “they made it clear our network was illegal but they wouldn’t be taking our antennas down” and they were given instructions for applying for a permit.