In a town a few hours from Havana, Julio, 19, sat with his guests on the roof of his house, enjoying the warm Caribbean sun. “Mira, ¿ves?” he asked his visitors, meaning, “Look, can you see?”
Julio was pointing at the small antennas that popped up from almost every rooftop across the town—antennas that he installed himself to reroute public WiFi into homes.
This would not have been possible a year ago. In Cuba, Internet access is hard to come by. But in July 2015, ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.), the state-owned telecom monopoly, began rolling out WiFi hot spots. From 35 in 2015, there are now over 90 nationwide and counting. It is easy to identify hot spots on street corners and in parks and hotels by the clusters of people crowded together with their devices, video chatting, sending e-mails, playing games, and browsing social media.
That is because private Internet is a luxury that most Cubans have never experienced. Cuba’s Internet is among the most expensive in the world, at a cost of $2 per hour for what is often a frustratingly slow WiFi connection. One month of 24-hour access would cost approximately $1,440, a prohibitive price for anyone, let alone the average Cuban making $20 to $25 per month on a government salary. Internet service at hotels can be faster, but at $10 per hour, the price is impossibly expensive for locals. In a country of 11 million people, only a small percentage are connected to the Internet. (The level of connectivity in Cuba is debated. One popularly cited estimate is five percent, but Cuba’s official measure was roughly 27 percent in 2014, from before the installation of WiFi hot spots.)
Perhaps because of these setbacks, Cubans like Julio have found innovative work-arounds. Julio was never formally trained in information and communications technologies. He taught himself to use a computer and found a way to install antennas that could pick up the WiFi signal from the nearest ETECSA hot spot. Julio configures the links and
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