Cuba Expands Internet Access to Private Homes and Businesses


The airy three-story rental house on the outskirts of Havana would seem to have all the luxury attributes a cosmopolitan tourist might want: elegant appliances, high-end artwork, a rooftop plunge pool and ocean views.

Yet it is lacking one critical amenity, an absence that has become a deal breaker for some prospective clients: Wi-Fi.

“It’s ridiculous to have to turn away a potential client just because of a lack of internet,” lamented the house’s owner, Leandis Díaz, 47. “Everyone who comes to Cuba wants to use the internet — that’s normal.”

On Monday, though, Cuba, one of the least wired nations in the Western Hemisphere, took a step that may soon solve Ms. Díaz’s problem. It put into effect a new set of regulations that seek to expand internet access on the island.

The measures permit the creation of private wired and Wi-Fi internet networks in homes and businesses and allow the importation of routers and other networking equipment — though also maintain the government’s iron-fisted monopoly over commercial internet access.

Cuba went online in the 1990s, and has since lagged behind much of the world in the rush toward greater connectivity. For years, access has remained expensive and tightly controlled, inhibited in part by the government’s concerns about the potentially subversive effect of free-flowing information.

While the Cuban government has acknowledged that the modernization of its economy required greater connectivity, it has worried that broader access could fuel dissent, said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington and a specialist in Latin American politics.

“There has always been a tension between the political risk of expanding internet access and the economic necessity for expanding access,” Mr. LeoGrande said.

While the new regulations permit citizens to connect to the internet with their own routers and other equipment and share their signals with others, they do not allow those small-network operators to sell that service, thus maintaining the position of Etecsa, the state-run telecommunication firm, as the nation’s only internet provider.

The new rules also appear to open the door to the legalization of some existing private networks that have been secretly operated using smuggled or homemade equipment. They will likely provide a boost for the tourism sector by allowing businesses like restaurants, cafes and privately run bed and breakfasts to provide Wi-Fi for their clients — an almost obligatory service in much of the world, but still extremely rare in Cuba.

In 2013, Cuba hesitantly expanded public internet access. It also began a government-run email service for cellphone users.

In 2015, the authorities set up 35 wireless hot spots around the island and reduced access fees. Even though the new hourly rates were equivalent to about 10 percent of the median monthly salary, the hot spots were wildly popular. Thick clusters of people standing in public parks and plazas, staring at smartphones and laptops, became an increasingly familiar sight.

There were 800 such Wi-Fi spots throughout the country by the end of last year, according to Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog.

Internet connectivity on the island took a significant leap late last year when the government began offering 3G service, permitting full internet access for mobile phones.

But legal home internet connections still remain rare — only 67,000 homes had it by last December, Freedom House reported — and most legal access in offices has been restricted to certain government employees and professions.

Illegal connections, however, have proliferated using smuggled or homemade antennas and pirated Wi-Fi signals.

Under the new regulations, which were announced in May, operators of illegal networks have two months to bring their systems into line with the law.

“These regulations contribute to the informatization of society, to the well-being of citizens, to the sovereignty of the country, to the avoidance of interference in the radio spectrum and to the prevention of the harmful effects of non-ionizing radiation,” Cuba’s Ministry of Communication said in announcing the measures.

Ted A. Henken, a professor and Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York, predicted that the short-term effect of the regulations will be “minimal,” and that long-term consequences will depend on what he called “the devil in the details.”

“Cuba has the tradition of accompanying new regulations that seem to ‘open’ things up (the market, travel, the internet, etc.) with new punishments and controls,” he wrote in an email on Monday.

If the law does, in fact, “regularize” the many digital workarounds that have multiplied in recent years, he said, “this will be a significant step forward.”

Despite the invitation to connect, at least one Cuban entrepreneur is not terribly enthusiastic about the possibility of broader access.

Nelson Rodríguez, 39, the owner of El Café, a thriving brunch spot in the tourist epicenter of Old Havana, said he has no plans to set up a Wi-Fi network in his establishment.

In general, he explained, he bemoans the internet-driven demise of human interaction in public spaces, and he suspects a Wi-Fi router in his place would only encourage further isolation.

He also doesn’t want to see his cafe turned into a de facto co-working space, with customers camping out in front of laptops all day but purchasing nothing more than a couple of lattes.

“I might even put up a Wi-Fi blocker so that people will be forced to interact,” he said.

Source : Nytimes