14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 8 September 2018 — Before midnight Friday, Samuel, Yoyi, Cristian and Laura made a vow to use up, in just one night, the full 100 megabytes that the Telecommunications Company of Cuba has allocated to each user of a prepaid mobile phone during the 72-hour test that runs until Monday.
“We’re going to binge on the internet from our cell phones,” joked Samuel, 16. The young man waited on Havana’s centrally located G Street for “the zero hour,” as he called at the moment when the service would be activated, among friends, guitars and screens that lit up faces.
The four friends picked up their cell phones, as in a virtual toast, and “clinked” the devices a few minutes before the time came. Then came the silence of concentration, interrupted only by some questions from those who had not yet been able to connect. “Don’t ask me for a mega, I’m stingy, stingy,” one of them was heard to say.
As frequent users of the public wifi zones, the four teenagers have been waiting for years for the state telecommunications monopoly to take the final step towards individual connectivity. They want to be able, at any moment, to get on line using the device they now carry in their pockets everywhere they go.
However, the authorities have prioritized public access zones and connections in workplaces and schools. Another element the authorities take into account in allocating precious kilobytes is the “political reliability” of the users, so for months now government officials and official journalists have already been able to access the great world web from their phones.
“That street corner that you see there is like my room,” says Yoyi, just turned 15, who has molded her anatomy to a bit of space in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood where she often accesses the network to chat with friends and check her Facebook account. “Sometimes I get cramps, from sitting on the sidewalk for so many hours,” she explains.
Thus, the four friends decided to dive into social networks the very second the clock struck the zero hour this Saturday and consume, in a few hours, the two packages — 50 Megabytes each and free of charge — that Etecsa has allocated to each customer. “It’s so little that you have to drink it in one gulp, like a shot of rum,” explains Cristian.
The third connectivity test differs from the previous ones. In the first one, carried out on August 14, users were able to navigate without a data limit for about nine hours. That first massive incursion in the service was a resounding failure, due to constant crashes and low speeds.
By August 22, Etecsa seemed to have understood that their infrastructure “couldn’t keep up,” Cristian, 17, said ironically. “Then they did what they do in the bodegas (the rationed market) and only allowed each customer to consume about 70 Megabytes between 8 in the morning and midnight.” The result left much to be desired, but at least the connection was more stable.
This weekend the state company has returned to the arena. On this occasion the “rationing” of bytes is stricter; if a person spread out their use over 72 hours it would come to about 33 MB per day. “You can do very little with that, barely chat, check social networks and watch a short video on Youtube,” Yoyi calculates.
What she most regrets is that Etecsa still has not announced its schedule for the opening of the service and that it is also jealously guarding what the final cost of each package will be. A gesture of secrecy that points to high prices and a deepening social differences between those who can navigate more comfortably and those who can barely “put a toe in” from the edge of the network.
One of the young people on G Street managed to join a videoconference after midnight through the popular IMO application, designed to be used at low speeds. The face he saw on the screen was totally pixelated and froze for a few seconds. “See, this is my kitchen,” said the voice and showed something that could only be distinguished as a lighted area without contours.
Near the group, a couple inquired about the details of the settings “to be able to go online.” Only one of the teenagers responded, quickly so as not to lose a minute in front of his screen. “There are people who are going to find the data gets used up as if there’s a leak,” says Yoyi, “because they have many applications that eat it up in the background.”
A policeman watching the group from nearby didn’t have a clue. “Keep it down, there are people sleeping in this area,” he scolded. At three in the morning some could already count on the fingers of one hand the megabytes left to them. “I’m going to save some for tomorrow to say hello to my cousin who lives in Miami,” promised one of the teenagers.
In the entire time that quiet “data feast” lasted, not one of them entered an official news site, no one retweeted a message from a government institution and none of them was interested in what the front page of the official newspaper Granma had to say. Nor did they visit sites with opposition programs or show any interest in looking up any dissident campaigns. “These data, I spend only on me,” Samuel repeated.
The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.