Cuba to roll out mobile internet services amid concerns over cost

Cost will be too much for many Cubans as country's average monthly wage is around $30.

    Outdoor wi-fi hotspots are popular in Cuba but often overcrowded and with slow connections [File: Desmond Boylan/AP Photo]
    Outdoor wi-fi hotspots are popular in Cuba but often overcrowded and with slow connections [File: Desmond Boylan/AP Photo]

    Cubans will be able to access the internet on their mobile phones for the first time from Thursday, according to the state-run telecommunications company ETECSA.

    The announcement is a milestone for the Communist-run island country, which has long been one of the Western Hemisphere's least-connected countries and is one of the last countries in the world without mobile internet.

    Nearly half of the Caribbean country's 11.2 million residents have mobile phones, although not all will be able to afford to access the internet on them.

    In the Mesa Redonda news programme broadcast late on Tuesday, ETECSA executives announced a range of packages valid for 30 days from 600 MB for the equivalent of $7 to 4 GB for $30. Without a package, 100 MB will cost users $10.

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    The cost will be excessive for many Cubans as the average state wage is around $30 a month, with many people relying on relatives abroad sending money or side gigs to get by. 

    "It was about time this became a possibility for Cubans too," Havana resident Joaquin Montiel, 58, told the Reuters news agency. "But for some, like me, it's still a remote one."

    Montiel said he will not be able to afford a mobile phone with 3G technology on his wage of less than $20 a month as a salesman in a state company.

    A controlled advance

    Prior to the announcement, President Miguel Diaz-Canel welcomed the move in a  post on Twitter, saying Cuba "continues to advance in the digitisation of society".

    Diaz-Canel, who took over from Raul Castro in April, has championed greater connectivity, underscoring the potential for the internet to boost the economy and enable Cuba to better defend its revolution online.

    In an unprecedented move by a Cuban leader, he opened a twitter account in October, with many government officials following suit.

    TRANSLATION: Today, the Ministry of Communications will announce and explain mobile internet service in Mesa Redonda. We continue to advance in the digitisation of society.

    The move to improve internet access comes as Cuba's National Assembly considers revisions to the country's new draft constitution, which will be voted on in a national referendum in February.

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    Regarding the internet, one article proposes the 'democratisation of cyberspace', while another condemns the use of the internet for so-called 'subversion'. 

    "We already know that independent journalists and bloggers work in a legal limbo that exposes them to arbitrary detentions and we know that their work is already blocked and filtered," said Louise Tillotson, Amnesty International's researcher for the Caribbean.

    "At the constitutional level, the language continues to be quite hazy and stands to open the door for criminal laws to be applied towards people that are deemed to be subversive," she told Al Jazeera.

    The internet is tightly-regulated in Cuba, with a state system operating alongside the world wide web [File: Tomas Bravo/Reuters]

    Patchy access

    Cuba has lagged far behind most countries in internet access, with a combination of lack of cash, the long-running US trade embargo and concerns about the flow of information to blame.

    Until 2013, internet access was largely only available to the public at tourist hotels on the island. The government has since made boosting connectivity a priority, introducing cybercafes and outdoor wi-fi hotspots, as well as slowly starting to hook up homes. 

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    But the fee to access the internet in hotels is expensive and many Cubans complain about having to brave insects and elements to use the outdoor hotspots, which also lack privacy.

    The popularity of the wi-fi areas means connection can be painfully slow.

    Tania Velazquez, ETECSA vice president, said the company would be rolling out the service over several days in order to avoid the network congestion that occurred during mobile internet testing earlier this year.

    At the time, many Cubans complained they could not use their mobiles for making calls or sending texts.

    Velazquez also announced that access to state-run applications and websites like Ecured, a Cuban Wikipedia-style site, would be significantly cheaper than access to the world wide web. 

    Additional reporting by Charlotte Mitchell: @charbrowmitch

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies