Cubans Get Web Access, But Costs Are High

An hour of surfing is worth a week's wages, but authorities promise to cut prices at a later date.
  • One of the new public internet access centres in Cuba. (Photo: Nico Cervantes)
  • Outside an internet access centre. (Photo: Nico Cervantes)

Cubans have welcomed a government initiative to make internet access more widely available, but they say the high costs will put it beyond the reach of most people.

The new service was rolled out across the country on June 4 via 118 public access points, similar to internet cafes, with few restrictions on what sites users are able to access.

However, one hour’s connection costs the equivalent of 4.5 US dollars – a week’s salary in a country where the average monthly wage is 475 pesos, about 19 dollars.

Official announcements say payment has to be in “convertible pesos” or CUC – a parallel currency pegged one-to-one with the US dollar, and separate from the normal peso.

Three types of connection are available – full internet access at 4.50 CUC an hour, email only at 1.50 CUC and use of Cuba’s own intranet network at 0.60 CUC.

Deputy communications minister Wilfredo Vidal González told the official newspaper Granma that the high prices would apply until the state telecoms company managed to recover some of the investment it had put into setting up the service, particularly the cost of infrastructure, computers and international connections.

He said the policy would be same as applied to mobile phone use – when overall usage increased, prices would be cut.

For the moment, though, the costs will exclude the majority of potential web surfers.

Edgar Chiong, an electrical engineer who works in a repairs workshop, sees the internet experiment as reminiscent of the time the government made mobile phones, hotel rooms and rental cars accessible to locals – but at impossible prices.

Even so, he said, Cubans were excited by the idea of getting internet access.

“They haven’t internalised the fact that if you can’t pay for the service, its existence serves no purpose at all,” he said. “It's another way of exploiting the haves and excluding the have-nots. My salary is 630 pesos [25 dollars], which is good in comparison with the average. Nevertheless, it isn’t enough to feed my family and cover the costs of public transport... so I can’t even dream of the internet.”

Until now, most Cubans have had no way of accessing the internet, apart from in hotels at six dollars an hour, or for students at university. Certain businesses, government offices and hospitals also had access, and some foreign embassies allowed dissidents to use their computers.

At the new centres, connection speeds are a minimum of 512 kilobytes per second, and all computers have USB ports for connecting external storage devices. Wifi access is also available.

Internet users also have access to some websites critical of their government, although the Cubanet news sites and at least ten other blogs and sites are currently blocked.

Aurelio Murcia, a 31-year-old graduate, noted that even though the computer centres were expensive, their arrival was a significant step.

“It's the first phase, complicated by the [limited] number of points of access and the real potential for using these services. But using this technology, we will soon be up-to-date on key international internationally in any sphere,” he said.

Murcia said that he was particularly excited about the prospect of web services being extended to private homes, which the authorities have indicated will be possible in future, and also access via mobile phone.

Osniel Carmona Breijo is an independent journalist reporting from Havana.

(Correction: more websites are blocked than first stated.)

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.