14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 6 June 2018 — An old truck passes through Havana’s Calzada del Cerro leaving a trail of smoke. From a balcony a neighbor films the vehicle and will upload the images to social networks. This is no longer science fiction.
The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) has insisted in the last weeks that, before the end of the year, Cubans will be able to enjoy connecting to the web from their cell phones. The service, for which neither the cost nor the conditions have been detailed, sparks the interest of many customers who want to have the internet in their pockets.
“It’s going to be like turning on the light,” says Lucio, 18, a young man who, along with his sister, runs a home-delivery service that operates by text messages and emails through Etecsa’s Nauta service, which was inaugurated four years ago by the state telecommunications monopoly.
“Right now, our customers can just send us a message with the menu item they want and the address where we need to deliver it, but when they have internet on their mobile it will be better, because it will shorten the time and they will be able to choose the dishes online, with photos and details of the ingredients,” says Lucio.
A good share of the applications for phones for Android or iOS phones that have been developed on the island in recent years are designed for users disconnected from the great world web, so the apps need all the features to work offline. With the arrival of internet service to mobiles that may change.
“We will go from zero to infinity,” jokes Rigoberto Valdés, a computer scientist who works in a small workshop that performs mobile repairs and installs apps. “Often we have to update a customer’s cell phone or download an app he has ordered and then one of us has to go to a WiFi hotspot to do it,” he explains.
According to Etecsa statistics, almost 700 wireless internet access points operate in the country. Although the installation of these WiFi areas has made a big difference in Cuba compared to the beginning of the century, when it was a privilege reserved for foreigners and officials, many Internet users are still dissatisfied.
“The price of 1 CUC for one hour of navigation is still very high and trying to carry out a professional assignment in one of those outdoor places is complicated,” says Valdés. “I participate in several programmers’ forums and it is not the same to have to wait several days to get connected as it is to have the thread of all the discussions on your mobile.”
Etecsa begun to expand the 3G mobile coverage a couple of years ago, through which the Nauta mail now works, and which will also be the path for the internet. “The signal is still bad in many places, the data cuts out as if the lines are congested and the company has to fix that before expanding the connectivity because to navigate you need good bandwidth and stability.”
The presence of Cubans on social networks will also increase. “Now there are many people who have opened accounts on Facebook or Twitter but use them very little, when notifications arrive or messages from a friend go directly to a cell phone they will spend more time on the network,” adds Valdés.
Last week the blog Tu Android reported that pages from the domain ‘cu.’ are accessible from several phones. “They seem to be tests for the deployment of the long-awaited Internet by mobile data,” said the administrator of the blog, who qualified the news by saying that it could also be “a simple error” from Etecsa.
However, a few days later, the midday edition of the state television news program confirmed that a “pilot test” for mobile web browsing among selected clients in the province of Villa Clara was underway. The announcement has triggered speculation and increased expectations about projects linked to the world wide web.
The recent meeting between Eric Schmidt, former president of the Google company and current technical advisor to the technology giant, and President Miguel Díaz-Canel has also fueled hopes that, finally, massive access to the web will be a part of daily life on the island.
“A few months ago I downloaded an application that claims to work as a Cuban Uber, but in reality all contact with the driver is through Nauta mail, which is sometimes very slow and unstable,” explains Niurka Fuentes, a tourist guide who specializes in French speaking clients. “Since I have to move around the city and also the province a lot, it is vital for me to have quick contact with the driver.”
“If the internet comes to mobile phones, then we will have something more efficient so everyone wins. I win because I can transport my clients and the taxi driver wins because he can check who I am and my record as a client,” she says. Cuba expects to have 5 million active mobile lines by the end of this year and “almost half of the population may be connected,” Fuentes said.
For activists on the island, the delay in installing the service is not a coincidence. Iliana Hernández, director of the Lente Cubano (Cuban Lens) program, believes that “the more people have access to the internet, the more diverse information they will have within their grasp, including everything the government insists on hiding and censuring.”
Hernandez thinks that being able to surf the web from cell phones “will be very beneficial for activism which, despite the current restrictions, has managed to bring to light a lot of information that otherwise would never have been known,” she says.
Despite the expectations and the customers who, in recent weeks, have pressured Etecsa through virtual forums and calls to find out when the mobile phone internet service will start, the company persists in its traditional secrecy. “One day we wake up and ’boom’ and we are Internauts,” a teenager connected in a Wi-Fi zone predicted this Thursday.
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