Internet access in Cuba

I have just returned from a fascinating holiday to Cuba, spending time in bustling Havana and the beautiful, scenic Viñales valley to the west. I’ve been wanting to visit the island for some years. “Go now because Cuba is changing,” or so we hear. There is the pervasive idea that one should get to the island before “everything changes” – as relations with the US thaw, symbolised by Obama’s recent 3 day trip to the island, and perhaps before the US embargo is lifted. Admittedly, this was part of my motivation for going sooner rather than later. Politics aside, however, what is happening on the ground and in particular in relation to technology? In this blog, I want to recount my experience of accessing the Internet in Cuba.

Before arriving I had not done much research on Internet availability. But based on stories from friends who had visited in the last few years, I expected there to be poor mobile phone connectivity. I had also heard that Internet was not widely available.

In planning for the trip, however, it became clear that the Internet was accessible to some Cubans at least, because we booked to stay in an apartment using AirBnB (!). We later discovered AirBnB has been in use on the island for around a year. In fact, we stayed with an AirBnB superhost – a status of which requires meeting and maintaining a set of AirBnB benchmarks including having 80% of reviews at 5 stars, a quick response rate, and more. Not that easy to do. The stay worked out well (but no Internet connectivity at the apartment – although not expected), and it turns out our host is running a business managing a number of apartments owned by different people.

View from the apartment in Vedado.

View from the apartment in Vedado, Havana.

On arrival in Havana it was clear that smartphones are common. However, while there is good, domestic mobile phone connectivity – several of my texts did not reach their international destinations, and I missed several texts sent to me – there is no data connection. We also heard that people have iPads and even saw a few computers in people’s homes – everyone has a “friend” in Miami apparently who can bring in hardware. However, ordinary Cubans are not allowed Internet connections at private homes. I have since understood that government officials, doctors, a few others, and foreigners living in Cuba can have home Internet connections. So how do ordinary Cubans access the Internet?

As we explored Old Havana, we discovered that Internet was available on the streets. It’s possible to access the Internet using cards bought from dedicated government shops with an hour’s credit using public WiFi hotspots. Sixty minutes of surfing time sets you back 2CUCs (about $2) – which is extremely expensive when you consider that the average monthly salary in Cuba is between $20 to $40 (depending on your source). Controls on selling cards are strict, IDs must be shown on purchase – linking browsing history to an individual. To use their cards, people then congregate on the streets (see photo) to collectively surf the web – presumably communicating with people at other “wifi corners” dotted throughout the country, or with friends in Miami to arrange their next shipment of electronics.


Surf’s up on the streets of Havana

On the streets, however, there are other options: dubious urban entrepreneurs will sell you access for around 1CUC from (slow) access points setup using laptops, thus bypassing the need to buy cards and to queue (can be quite long) at government shops. In some places, also, loitering middlemen will sell you unused cards for a whole additional CUC (substantial for a Cuban!).

What about censorship beyond the linking of browsing history to an individual? Perhaps certain websites are blocked, we wondered. We found that the services we wanted to use were all accessible, including Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp (messaging, not calling due to low bandwidth), Instagram, BBC News, Skype (without success – bandwidth too low) and Twitter.

Internet connectivity in Cuba is limited and very expensive, and by the sound of it I wouldn’t expect super-fast broadband at casa particulares soon. Good thing then that there is plenty to keep you interested and entertained, and not worrying about your next Snapchat.

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