Cuba’s State Telecommunications Company Silent Before the Pandemic

Etecsa has not proposed any price reductions to date, should people need to be confined at home as in other countries. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 17 March 2020 — While the world implements social distancing measures and encourages teleworking to fight the spread of the coronavirus, none of this occurs in Cuba, where lack of connectivity prevents recourse to these measures that are proving effective against the spread of the epidemic elsewhere.

The support of telecommunications companies has been key in countries that have opted for people to work at home. On the other hand, on the Island this formula is practically non-existent and the high prices charged for the internet contribute to this situation.

“We do not have any [price] reduction scheduled at the moment,” an employee of the Etecsa office located on the ground floor of Havana’s Focsa building tells 14ymedio, a statement reiterated by several employees of the state telecommunications monopoly who answer the customer service numbers. Covid-19 is only alluded to on the company’s website to advertise a mobile application with information about the coronavirus.

Although the current situation on the Island is far from that experienced in Italy and Spain, the cases of infection in Cuba come from these countries. With them the Island shares a risk factor that affects the lethality of the disease, the high number of elderly people in the population.

In addition, also as in the two European States, a high percentage of the population makes a living in the service sector associated with tourism, which hinders the expansion of telework and threatens to leave many people without income, especially in the case of Cuba, where the Government lacks the financial wherewithal to borrow and offer aid.

Amazon Prime Video is another of the companies that has boosted its leisure time offerings and has made its content platform free in the areas most affected by the coronavirus in Italy. Lombardy, Piedmont, Venice and Emilia-Romagna have had access to series and movies on the streaming platform for days without having to register in advance for the company’s services. Nor is it necessary to pay the usual fee to sign up.

For its part, the Google Art Project, a partnership between the internet giant and more than 60 cultural institutions, has made available to users virtual tours of the most important museums in the world. From a mobile phone or a computer, those interested can visit these places as if they were physically on site.

“That requires a lot of megabytes and it is also audiovisual content that needs a stable and broadband connection, something that Etecsa does not manage to provide in many areas of the country,” says Mateo, a young computer engineer who is dedicated to installing applications for phones with the Android operating system. “Buying navigation packages for cell phones that could so something like this would be crazy and with the Nauta Hogar [Home internet] service it is complicated because it is not stable,” he points out.

In October of last year, official figures indicated that the Nauta Hogar service reached only 110,000 households within the Island. The price of 30 hours of navigation ranges between 15 and 70 CUC depending on speed, and beyond that users can continue browsing at a price of 0.50 CUC for each hour. A virtual visit to a museum, a movie on Netflix or watching a series on Amazon could easily cost a full day’s salary of a professional.

But through the mobile phone service, with more than 6 million subscribers across the country, it would be even more expensive. Packages of 6.5 gigabytes cost 35 CUC and 10 GB packages cost 45, figures equivalent to the monthly salary of an engineer. Both offerings are available only for the 4G network that is not yet deployed across the whole country.

At least once a month Etecsa posts a mobile balance recharge offer with an extra bonus, an option that is designed to be paid for by family or friends from abroad and bring fresh currency to the country. However, the extra bonuses that accompany the main balance cannot be used for navigation packages, only to talk on the phone and send text messages.

“Don’t even think that they are going to make an offer, if we have been crying out for internet prices [to drop] every day for months and they always have a justification for not doing it,” says Carlos Fernández, a young man who has participated on Twitter in the intense campaigns that have been carried out in the last year to try to influence the only telephone company authorized to operate in the country.

“What I fear is quite the opposite, that they take hold of all this coronavirus and cut off services so that people can’t share what is happening or report the cases of infected people they know,” he warns. “We must not forget that Etecsa is a company that does not work for the interests of its customers but rather for the interests of the Government. If the higher-ups want them to close up, they will do it  without batting an eye.”

In September of last year and when the energy crisis triggered alarms on the Island, the official media began to talk about telework. The practice is supported by the Labor Code, which went into force in June 2014, but many state companies do not try it because it demands, among other things, fluid connectivity between the employee and the center.

“They give me a number of free megabytes every month to use on my mobile,” a worker from an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Trade tells this newspaper anonymously. “Although I could do my job perfectly from home, I have to go to the office every day because those megabytes are not enough to do everything from a distance,” he regrets.

“Part of the megabytes they give me are for me to defend the Revolution in the networks, and the rest are for me to look for the data that I need for the reports, but if I tried to work from home I wouldn’t be able to connect for three days in a row,” she explains. “We have been told that we have to keep showing up for face-to-face work because the ministry does not have, at the moment, a way to guarantee teleworking.”

However, the employee fears for her health. “We are more than a dozen people breathing and moving in a closed room with air conditioning; if one has the coronavirus the others do not have any protection,” she adds. Among her hopes is that Etecsa will launch special offers in the coming days in the face of the pandemic: “It is at least what they can do with all the money they’ve earned.”


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