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Cubans left frustrated by slow and costly internet rollout

  • Young Cubans connect to the internet from their mobile phones in Havana. Photo courtesy: AFP
  • A man looking at his phone in Havana. Photo courtesy: AFP
  • Hundreds of Cubans have joined a Twitter campaign to demand that the government makes internet more affordable. Photo courtesy: AFP
  • Mobile packages up to $30 a month are out of reach of most Cubans. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Katell ABIVEN

Havana (AFP) -- Six months on from the euphoria that greeted full internet access for mobile phones on the communist-run island, frustrated Cubans complain it is too expensive, too slow and crippled by government censorship.

Hundreds have joined a Twitter campaign to call for affordable rates.

"We are hungry, hungry for information, hungry for online surfing, hungry for knowledge and intellectual freedom," summed up one user.

"It's not possible that the internet is a luxury in the 21st Century," said another campaigner using the hashtag #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet -- "drop internet prices" in Spanish.

Another accused state-owned telecommunications company Etecsa of spying on the population.

Etecsa "is spying on us and censoring us with full impunity."

Blocked sites

"Cubans' purchasing power is one of the lowest in the American continent, so is the minimum wage and access to the internet is not among the cheapest," said Norges Rodriguez, who runs a technology blog, Yucabyte.org.

Mobile packages run from $7 for 600 megabytes to $30 for 4 gigabytes.

Those prices put it of reach for the vast majority of Cubans who subsist on a wage of around $30 a month paid by public sector jobs.

Uptake is poor for home internet. Only 79,000 homes have signed up to the service, -- out of a population of 11.2 million.

"If you want to connect to the internet at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you have to pay the equivalent of $800 a month.

"There is no flat rate on that service, as you have in the rest of the world," he said.

Rodriguez said the Havana government also banned any news sites critical of the government.

"The government has blocked all media websites with content they dislike."

The ongoing US embargo means sites like Google, Apple and Amazon cannot be accessed from Cuban IP addresses, said Rodriquez.

The government recently greenlighted the importation of routers to allow private wifi networks, albeit using state-monopoly Etecsa servers.

Critics say the dollar-an-hour cost makes it too expensive.

Before the roll-out of 3G technology in December -- opening up the online world to the country's 5.3 million smartphone users -- the internet was available to the general public only via wifi hotspots, payable by the hour.

No turning back

Last year, Abraham Jiminez discovered that his online magazine, El Estornudo, was blocked.

"Readers started to write to me saying they couldn't access it, and when I realized I couldn't either, I thought it was a server problem," he says.

Sixteen months later, the site -- which offers an independent view of the news -- remains inaccessible in Cuba. He never received an official explanation over why it was blocked.

He says the Havana government is scared about the reach of social networks, especially since the arrival of 3G.

"This has generated a different discourse from the official discourse, with real life effect," says Jiminez.

"Now, once they organize online, Cubans can demonstrate against animal abuse, for the rights of the LGBT community, protests like that would have been unthinkable in the past."

"That's what the government is afraid of."

Larry Press, professor of information systems at the University of Texas and author of a blog on the internet in Cuba, agrees.

"When the internet was first launched, Cuba was possibly one of the most advanced nations in Latin America and the Caribbean" because of connections built-up by the Soviet Union," said Press.

"In the pre-internet network they were doing quite well. Then they got an internet connection that was subsidized by the United States

"They decided not to follow the internet, to not let it in," fearing a large-scale rollout would lead to social unrest and a political shift similar to Moscow's Perestroika.

"Today, I think it is still in the back of their minds," said Press.

However, Jiminez says that with the rollout of 3G, however slow, "they cannot go back" now.

 

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