Mobile internet is now available in Cuba for the first time ever, with the government aiming to expand connectivity nationwide by the end of the year.
The devices of specific users – predominantly employees at embassies and state-run news outlets – can now access 3G mobile internet services offered by ETECSA, Cuba’s incumbent state-run operator which holds a monopoly on telecoms. It has nearly 5 million mobile customers – around half of Cuba’s population.
The move is part of the government’s new initiative which seeks to boost connectivity in what is currently one of the least-connected markets in the Western Hemisphere. While a lack of government funding and USA’s longstanding trade embargo on the island may be factors in this, Cuba’s government has a long history of restricting the availability of mobile phones and internet access throughout the country in order to exact greater control over communications and online content.
Cuba’s Communist government effectively has a state monopoly on the media, and frequently quashes dissent by blocking access to websites and services. Opening up internet connectivity will make information more freely available to Cubans, inevitably reducing state control over what is viewed by the public.
Yuris Norido, a reporter for several state-run news outlets, told Reuters that the impact of mobile internet had been immediate. “It’s been a radical change,” he said. “I can now update on the news from wherever I am, including where the news is taking place.”
President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took over from Raul Castro in April, has advocated improving Cuba’s internet connectivity for some time. Last July, while still vice president, Diaz-Canel told Cuba’s parliament: “We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online”, arguing that that increased internet access will help to improve the economy as well as allow Cubans to preserve the revolution.
Although the majority mobile phone users in Cuba have smartphones, the government is only now rolling out 3G technology, despite the fact that the majority of Latin America is on 4G, with 5G trials in their final phases. Only 3G services will be available when the service is rolled out to the public, which is currently slated for completion by the end of 2018. ETECSA president Mayra Arevich Marin noted that the operator was also trialling a mobile banking service that would also allow citizens to pay their utility bills via their mobile.
ETECSA has not yet revealed its tariff proposals for consumers, but the embassies and agencies that currently have access to the service are paying $45 per month for 4GB of data. The average monthly wage of state employees in Cuba is around $30, meaning that many Cubans could be priced out of the service. Currently most citizens can only access the internet via Wi-Fi hotspots, which charge $1 per hour.