We took an educational tour of Cuba in December, 2015. We knew that Internet might not be available much in Cuba, but what we learned is a defining characteristic of Cuban life, the US embargo, and a communist government. Cuba has one of the lowest rates of Internet access in the world. See this Yahoo Tech article: Cuba Unplugged: An Island Still Stuck in Airplane Mode
To be fair, we had decent WiFi in our hotel in Havana, the Havana Libre. We paid our $5 to get a password that would allow us to be online with one device for one hour. We actually used that to connect our cute little Hoo Too travel router – then both Jim’s phone and my Chromebook could connect to the our own personal hotspot created by the Hoo Too. Pretty cool. If this is of interest to you in your travels, here’s a link:
The hotel’s WiFi hotspot was on the 2d floor, period – no access in your room. We were pleasantly surprised at the speeds. Nowhere near as fast as what we’re used to, but much better than we’ve experienced on cruise ships. There was one weird thing – we could not access our PayPal account. Access Denied! I thought maybe it was blocked by the government so as not to allow transfers of funds – and that may be the reason – but we were able to access our regular bank accounts with no problem. And, we seemed to have full access to any social media sites we wanted, like Facebook.
Our phones were working and Verizon greeted us with this message when we got off the plane
We did actually receive a couple calls and a couple texts during our stay in Cuba, but when we tried to answer the call, or reply to the text, it just didn’t work. We really don’t care about phone calls or texts, what we need is data – an Internet connection to manage our website and customer emails.
We saw people with smartphones everywhere, so we thought we’d investigate buying a local SIM card – like we did in Europe. Yes, indeed, we could purchase a SIM card with service from Cubacel. We were told the price was $40US – just for the card! Not for any service. We were still considering it – not that we NEED the Internet that much, we just consider it part of our job to do this research. But then we heard the final bad news – “Oh No Señor, there’s no Internet here!” only voice and text. The cell towers in Cuba are only 2G. You need 3G or 4G for data/Internet.
Wow! So, what were all these people doing with iPhone and Android devices? Just voice and text? We learned that just outside the hotel, on a street known as the Rampa because it runs like a down ramp to the sea, there is a public WiFi hotspot. You need to purchase an access code for $2-3/hour. So that’s what all these people were doing, sitting on the walls next to the sidewalk, they were accessing their emails, Facebook, and using Skype to make calls to the US. But as soon as they leave the immediate area of the hotspot … Internet gone. They really have no idea what these phones can do since they so rarely have an Internet connection.
|No signs were necessary to find where the local WiFi hotspot was!
Other than the hotel, the Rampa, and the town square in Cienfuegos, we saw no way to get Internet in Cuba. We learned that the people do not have Internet access in their homes at all. One reason is the US embargo. Here is the map that we were shown during our US-Cuban relations lecture that shows all communications lines that go under the ocean bypass Cuba by law (except one from Venezuela.)
|A submarine cable map drawn from Global Bandwidth Research Service. Click to go to the source map.
Although the US Embargo definitely limits the communication, the Cuban government also has something to do with it. According to this article from the Economist, in 2009 the Obama administration authorized American companies to provide internet services to the island but the Cuban government wasn’t interested.
If you followed the events that led up to the re-opening of the American Embassy in Cuba you know that there was an exchange of prisoners between US and Cuba. The Cuban prisoner was a man named Alan Gross – they say he was in a Cuban prison for being an American spy, but do you know what he was doing? Installing equipment for Internet access!!
|We have a passion for learning history! We just had to take a selfie in front of the recently re-opened US Embassy in Havana.
We learned that people who are desperate for Internet information have formed a type of ‘sneakernet’ called The Package. Someone with Internet access at a business collects a Terabyte of data from various websites and saves it to DVDs or maybe external hard drives? Then they charge $2/week to distribute this “package” to those who want it. $2 may not sound like much, but when a government worker (and most all Cubans are government workers) typically makes $20-30/month, that’s a lot of money. A neighborhood might pass the package around and share the cost. I think I also heard this referred to as an IntRAnet. Here’s an NPR story on the Cuban Internet Package. Here’s another story about how young people are forming Internet ventures in spite of the obstacles.
We were only totally without connectivity for 4 days – I kind of enjoyed it. My phone was still in my hand most of the time, because it was my camera, and my note taker. I also wrote a few emails, knowing they would get sent as soon as we were back in the States. But, generally not worrying about email or business was nice for a few days. I’m sure going to pay attention to increased Internet access in Cuba though. We would love to go back and spend much more time someday – but we need Internet for that.
Speaking of my phone as my camera – I think I’ll end with this little movie put together by Google Photos from pictures on my phone. And, remember, there’s lots more pictures where these came from: Google Photos Album on Cuba Trip
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