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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 assigns IP (Internet protocol) addresses between computers, antennas, and the WiFi hot spots, charging his friends and neighbors a small fee for the setup. The antennas feed very slow WiFi signals directly to household computers. Although it still costs $2 per hour to access the signal, users get the benefit of having it in their own homes.
Cubans are experts at making do with limited resources and limited access to information. In this case, a teenager is connecting his town to the World Wide Web, opening up new streams of information and income for himself and others.
The Internet is based on the concept of sharing information across distances. Cubans have adapted such information sharing to their context, but without the wires.
Instead of sitting in front of their computers and chatting with friends online or sharing videos or music through the Internet, they go to a neighbor’s house and enjoy a coffee or a beer while they download videos, apps, and movies from phone to phone, pen drive to pen drive, or computer to computer. Their data network is still person-to-person, but it has worked.
The best and most well-known example of this innovation is El Paquete, or “the Packet,” an assortment of movies, television shows, music, magazines, and news sources that is compiled and uploaded somewhere outside of Cuba (most likely the United States or Spain) to a server on the Internet. The content is downloaded by local El Paquete managers on the ground and then transferred directly from a USB drive to personal computers. Local managers get into the business of El Paquete distribution by paying a one-time fee for a username and password to access the server and a per-hour fee for download time, usually done each week. They are then able to log in and download the content they want, depending on customer demand. A student at the University of Havana might want to read The New York Times; rural tobacco farmers might be more interested in Venezuelan soap operas. El Paquete managers distribute data weekly or monthly from house to house with one-terabyte memory sticks. For $2 per data exchange, Cubans thus get weekly or monthly updates of news and pop culture just like the rest of the world, ranging from the most recent Newsweek to the latest season of Game of Thrones. They view content on laptops, smartphones, personal computers, and even, in some cases, wide-screen televisions equipped with USB portals.
El Paquete does more than just entertain. Besides its news content, which connected Cubans to the outside world in spite of the embargo, it also contains an offline version of Revolico, the Cuban online marketplace similar to Craigslist and eBay. El Paquete providers updateRevolico’s offline version manually, so even Cubans who never get online can still participate.
Distributing USB drives is not the only way Cubans share information offline.
Carlos is a chef at a tourist stop on the road between Havana and Cienfuegos. At 50 years old, he calls his Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini “mi compañero” (my friend). The phone contains 16 gigabytes of applications. One of them uses geolocation from cell phone towers to track his five-mile run each morning. He can video chat with his kids on IMO, an app that is the equivalent of a lower-tech version of Skype. (Skype is blocked in Cuba, but even if it weren’t, it would be of limited use given the slow connectivity.) Carlos can chat through text on JChat, which works offline through “mesh networking,” a technology that functions through peer-to-peer Bluetooth connections. He can find cultural events happening in Havana on Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy (What’s Up for Today), an app created and updated by Cuban entrepreneurs and app developers and supported by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. He finds reviews of local restaurants on a Yelp-like app called A La Mesa (At the Table), and he can even transfer phone credit to a friend using aPlus Saldo.
To Carlos, the most important app is Zapya, which facilitates app sharing through Bluetooth connections. Although most of us outside of Cuba download apps online through 3G or 4G mobile Internet or WiFi, Cubans use Zapya. Carlos shares his applications with anyone he meets who is willing to exchange new apps with him.
These ingenious work-arounds have been developing over the last decade, a response to the Cuban government’s penchant for providing select information without allowing full access to the Internet.
Cuba’s official substitute for the World Wide Web has long been its intranets, a set of highly regulated Web portals with access to a handful of state-sponsored websites. A Cuban e-mail service called Nauta can be accessed through the majority of these intranets, as well as through 2G mobile data and regular Internet connections. In the past, users could not connect to Gmail or Facebook via the intranet, but those regulations have been lifted. Over the last few years, the government has begun allowing access to what was before a highly controlled Internet, although many services such as Skype are still not allowed in Cuba. Content is also highly controlled by the government through surveillance software.
Antiquated as it is, the intranet system still provides useful information curated specifically for Cubans. For example, over the past 24 years it has provided Cuban doctors with an aggregated news source of updated medical information through Infomed, Cuba’s medical network. Infomed employees update content on the portal, posting science news and medical journal articles, with special priority given to content originating in Cuba. Doctors have unlimited access to Infomed from desktop computers at clinics and hospitals and are allowed 25 hours of intranet access from home each month. However, the government’s support for medical information has not been reflected in other fields; the intranet doesn’t do much to help Cubans working in other sectors.
Although access to the Internet in Cuba is improving, major barriers still exist. For Cubans who can afford to pay $2 per hour at WiFi hot spots, there is the inconvenience of carrying a laptop to the park and dealing with a slow connection while sitting on a bench in the Cuban heat. The bandwidth isn’t adequate for uploading or sending large files, and keeping a professional website up-to-date is nearly impossible.
But there are plans for expanding the Internet. ALBA-1, an undersea fiber-optic cable that runs between Cuba and Venezuela, was completed in 2011 and began to experience traffic in 2013. Before this cable came into service, Cuba’s only connection to the Internet was through satellite links, which did not have the broadband capacity to support high levels of traffic. But compared with the rest of the world, the island is still extremely isolated. For the expansion needed to increase Internet access and support high-speed online services such as Netflix or YouTube, Cuba will need significant investment in infrastructure.
Until then, Cubans will continue to overcome limitations and censorship in unprecedented ways. Although only a fraction of the population is “officially” connected to the Internet, many more Cubans connect to one another offline or create new ways to gain and, subsequently, share access. It is worth remembering that the developed world is only now beginning to create apps that don’t require Internet or data use—and it took those countries years to do it. Cubans managed to bypass an entire step in the evolution of technology. They have reinvented the Internet, and they have a lot to teach the world.