Expectations muted after US delegation pushes Cuba on Internet

A group of top U.S. officials and business leaders visited Cuba last week to urge the government there to more rapidly build out its Internet infrastructure and make it more widely available. 

U.S. officials said they recommended that the country “leapfrog” current buildout of aging technology, such as DSL and 3G mobile service, for faster technology such as fiber and high-speed mobile. Officials also urged the country to relax regulations that are preventing many in Cuba from getting Internet in their homes, along with other censorship or blocking policies.

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But expectations were muted after the trip. 

“We pledged our support and the support of U.S. companies to achieve this. It is unclear, however, just how anxious the Cuban government is to open up expanded network capabilities,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a blog post Wednesday.

The delegation included Wheeler and Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda, who leads communications and information policy for the State Department. Others on the trip included Information Technology Industry Council President Dean Garfield and other telecom companies. 

Since last year, the U.S. has relaxed a number of sanctions on telecom trade between the two countries. In a broader announcement Tuesday, the Commerce Department said it would from now on generally approve the export of telecom equipment to Cuba that would help with connectivity. 

The Federal Communications Commission also recently made it easier for U.S. telecom carriers to provide voice and data service to Cuba without extra scrutiny. 

Cuba’s Internet service is still hugely limited. The percentage of people online remains in the single digits.

The Cuban government last year set up dozens of wi-fi hotspots, but the United States says the price for a connection is still too high, amounting to about 10 percent of an average person’s monthly income. 

There is also lingering mistrust between the two countries in the communications space. Less than two years ago, The Associated Press uncovered a largely unsuccessful U.S. government effort to create and fund a kind of “Cuban Twitter” to help undermine the government. 

Among a series of recommendations during a speech in Havana last week, Ambassador Sepulveda called to install a submarine fiberoptic cable to link Cuba to the United States.  

“Linking Cuba directly to the United States would increase capacity within Cuba and allow for more efficient routing of traffic,” he said. “The additional international link would serve a vital purpose in needed network redundancy and emergency preparedness.”