Cubanet, Pablo Gonzalez, Havana, 31 October 2016 — “I work as a network administrator in a company in Havana, but everyone knows that in this country the salary is not enough to live on, you always have to have something under the table. So the bakers steal the flour and oil to sell it on the street, and I use the internet in the same way. The problem is that I am losing my clients thanks to the wifi zones,” says the young computer expert, who – like everyone interviewed for this story – doesn’t want to reveal his name.
With no viable way to access the internet in Cuba, for many years Cubans had to find alternate ways to surf the web with the help of the black market.
Computer experts working in state businesses with internet connections managed to share the connections with users “on the street” for a price that ranged from around 70 to 100 dollars a month.
It wasn’t until 2014 that ETECSA (the state phone company) opened navigation rooms for a price of $4.50 US an hour [more than a week’s pay for the average worker], and in mid-2015 wifi zones were opened for two dollars an hour – the current price of internet in Cuba, where the average monthly wage is now about $23 US.
These days, the business of selling dial-up internet connections (an obsolete technology with 56k modems and a phone line) continues, but it’s losing ground with the opening of the wifi zones.
Another computer expert talked about his experience in this business: “I worked for many years as a computer expert in a trading company that had internet access. There was one computer connected to the internet and it was inside an iron cage with a key. The authorized person had to leave their name on an incident sheet that was next to the PC keyboard. They also had to write down anything unusual that happened while they were surfing.”
He continued: “Over the years they were giving access to other computers within the company. So I had access to the internet and started to share it under the table. Although the connection was dial-up, my customers were willing to pay 100 dollars a month, or 20 if it was only for international email. I always had between 5 and 10 users. With the earnings I was at least able to clothe my family and eat well.”
Asked why he stopped working for the state, he responded, “I had to quit because I started to lose customers to the ETECSA wifi zones, and the 30 dollar a month salary they were paying me wasn’t even enough for transportation. Big surprise, people prefer expensive and fast internet to expensive and slow internet.”
“I want ETECSA to stop opening wifi zones. It’s killing my business,” he added.
Each state work center with Internet access is subject to “strict compliance” laws and must prepare on operating document where the working and monitoring is explained. Despite this, and their business being in decline, many network administrators still risk losing their jobs to sell the internet illegally.
Cuba has a connectivity rate of 5%, which is reduced to 1% for broadband. It is the country with the lowest rate of connectivity in Latin America. In addition, Internet access has always been a delicate issue with extreme supervision by the government. In the late ’90s when some companies had to have it to do their work, the control mechanisms began.
Meanwhile, the service currently sold by the state leaves much to be desired among the island’s netizens, due to its high price and poor performance; however it is 50 times faster than the archaic dial-up.
Infomed, the information network for health professionals, was the first institution to provide access to international email and domestic websurfing. It began more than 20 years ago, only for doctors, and in 2015 included internet access after the opening of the Wi-Fi zones.
But this is also sold, and currently Infomed accounts have a black market value of 25 to 30 dollars. Acquiring an account is relatively easy, as they can be found on the classified ads site Revolico.
“I paid $25 a month for an Infomed account, but since they started the Nauta email service, I dropped it. It is better to have the mail on mobile, it can be checked from anywhere, I save more money and I can speak on wifi through IMO, which cannot be done with a telephone modem connection,” said an elderly lady who no longer wants to use a dial-up connection, even from the comfort of her own home.