Cuba’s Internet Options Include US
The United States has a golden opportunity to help Cuban citizens obtain greater and faster Internet connectivity and the key, a fiber optic cable, is sitting in international waters off the coast of the island.
US presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain will both be heading for Florida this week to woo votes in the important swing state. Among their prime goals is to clarify their political stance regarding Cuba policy.
The candidates will have a chance to break with the current policy of excluding Cuba from new technology, which under the US blockade also extends to vital equipment in fields such as medicine, energy and the steel industry.
Allowing Cuba to hook up to the fiber optic cable would end the bantering over whose fault it is that more Cubans don’t have Internet.
If the Cuban government decided not to provide greater access, once it had the capacity, then US politicians and Cuban “dissidents” could argue that it was control of information, not a lack of access that blocked islanders from having Internet.
To date, the Bush administration has considered it more politically expedient to blame the Cuban government for the low percentage of citizens with Internet than help them gain access.
Internet in Today’s Cuba
While it cannot hook up to the oceanic fiber optic cable or contract the service of US Internet providers, Cuba has advanced in the development of a domestic fiber optic system. There has also been considerable progress in recent years with digitalizing around 90 percent of its telephone communications.
Nonetheless, telephone service is still limited to 10 phones for every 100 inhabitants, below the average of 18 percent teledensity in Latin America and the Caribbean and nearly 60 percent in the US.
A home grown system, called the Intra-net, allows Cubans to receive e-mail and scroll domestic Web sites. A national network of computer clubs, post offices, and some workplaces and education facilities are the common places where people access. Some professionals with computers provided from their jobs also use the service from their homes. Demand still far exceeds supply.
Cuba’s Telecommunications Ministry maintains that comprehensive Internet —connecting people to Web sites from around the world—, is severely limited due to the slow and expensive satellite service currently available to the island. Thus, Internet is only available at home to researchers, journalists and some academics and executives, the prioritized groups. Hotels and cyber cafes offer the service to tourists.
For those that have Internet at home the low-bandwidth dial-up connection (between 16 and 50 kb/sec transmit speed) works OK for most sites but is inadequate for many audio and video links.
Computers are First
Over the last six years I have witnessed a great expansion of computers on the island, an indispensable step towards both Intra-net and Internet access. The on-going nationwide strategy has targeted workplaces, businesses and schools as the top priority. Cuba assembles its own computers with components purchased abroad, largely from China.
The next step includes expanding access to individual PCs. “It’s a great aspiration for all of us to have a computer,” Deputy Communications Minister Roman Linares was quoted last week as saying. “But we have to be realistic, going step by step and attending the needs of the economy, the society and also the individuals,” he added.
While the US could speed up the process for greater Internet access by allowing Cuba to hook up to the fiber optic cable, Linares noted that it is not the only option. He said a much more costly 1,500 kilometer cable project to connect Cuba and Venezuela and its broad-band capabilities could resolve the matter by 2010.
With the end of the Bush presidency in January 2009, McCain, Obama or Clinton will soon have to make their decision of whether to continue trying to block Cuba’s telecommunications development or change to a good neighbor approach.