Mobile Internet and the Right of Cubans to Social Networks

A group of Cuban high school students share audiovisual content through a cell phone. (14ymedio)

Elías Amor Bravo, 3 January 2018 — Cuba’s restrictions on internet access are an example of the types of controls the regime imposes on the population. On 28 December, however, it was announced that in 2018 the island’s inhabitants were expected to have access from their cell phones, something that thus far has not been the case. Good news, no doubt.

Many wonder how, in an era of telecommunications and social networks, it is possible to survive given such backwardness. But the reality is that in Cuba internet access is through satellite, which not only means not only higher service costs but also limitations on its effective development. Alternatives such as the undersea cable that exists around the island are not enough to increase capacity. In the end everything depends on policy decisions by the regime that would allow free use of the internet for all Cubans, a right that continues to be restricted.

Cubans have certainly shown a special interest in anything having to do with web communication and internet access. Authorities have provided figures on the use of social networks in Cuba and, as of July 2017, the regime claims a growth in social network usage of 346%, though obviously this is starting from very low levels that are not seen in other countries. These figures only make sense after taking into account the fact that almost two million Cubans live overseas and many maintain contact with their families on the island.

The state-owned Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA), which has a monopoly internet service on the island, is apparently still preparing to offer mobile internet service in 2018 though it has not provided exact dates or deadlines for service to begin. Commitment to customers: zero.

With respect to mobile telephone service on the island, official figures indicate that 600,000 new mobile lines were activated in 2017, serving 4.5 million Cubans out a total population of about eleven million. Despite these seemingly impressive figures, the reality is that Cuba has one of the lowest levels of connectivity in the world and is almost 10 years behind in its the use of mobile technologies.

As in many other areas of family finance, what explains this backwardness are actions of the regime, which is the only authorized provider, and limitations on accessing the internet at home. Access is currently limited to workplaces, state enterprises, universities and schools. Another factor to consider is the high price of the service, with home internet service costing between 15 and 70 convertible pesos (CUC) per month according to official ETECSA figures. This is a price too high for a country where the average salary is around $ 20 a month, with the CUC being at parity with the dollar

Therefore, given the inability to receive internet service at home, Cubans now gather outdoors to use the wireless internet access points in the parks and public thoroughfares, an image that has become emblematic of the population’s desire and need to communicate and obtain information. They have a right to complain.

The internet is undoubtedly one of the challenges facing the generation of Cubans, who hope to take over from the Castro regime after Raúl Castro gives up power next April. And many believe that, as in other undemocratic countries in the world, social protests may begin to emerge in Cuba through platforms such as social networks, mobile communications and home-based internet, which are outside the control of informers and state security of the state, which monitor everything.

The successful modernization of Cuban society — a vital but insufficient condition for the transition to democracy, freedom and the rule of law — may depend on the rise and consolidation of social networks. I do not doubt it. As a result, the regime has laid its cards on the table. It not only openly accepts Cuba’s inexplicable backwardness relative to other countries in the use of the internet, but it keeps costs very high, making it unavailable to a population that day after day struggles to gain access.

Another example of the backwardness of mobile communications in Cuba is the fact that ETECSA is taking advantage of the late arrival of the service to introduce the option of making payments using a mobile phone, an option widely available in many African countries with levels of development much lower than those in Cuba. Characterizing mobile banking as a spectacular step forward to pay for services such as telephone, electricity or water requires Cubans to use the banking system to handle current accounts which they use to deposit their paychecks and pay their bills. Does ETECSA know that the percentage of Cuban workers manage their economic affairs in this way? Let’s hope they find out. It will be a surprise.