Cuba to roll out nationwide internet access for mobile phone users

Cuba says it is planning to roll out internet access this week for mobile phone users, making it one of the last countries to provide the service on a national scale.

Mayra Arevich Marin, head of the state-run telecom monopoly known as ETECSA, announced on a TV news broadcast Tuesday night that the country will release four internet access packages starting Thursday morning.

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"Service will start at 8 a.m. on December 6. For it, [customers] must have a cellphone that supports 3G technology and they must have used the data network before November 26," said Tania Velázquez Rodríguez, vice president of business strategy and technology at ETECSA, according to CubaDebate, an officially sanctioned tech news blog.

The Cuban government this year conducted a series of internet tests to gauge interest and logistics for a nationwide rollout.

"The tests were very beneficial because they allowed us to evaluate best practices before launching the service, and that's why it was optimized for 3G," Rodríguez said.

But the tests were met with criticism by some Cuban residents who complained of slow or ineffective access during the testing periods.

Over the past several years, the communist-run Cuban government has worked to build the much-needed 3G infrastructure across the island.

In 2017, the government signed off on allowing citizens to use home internet — a service that wealthy Cubans appear to have taken advantage of. Other residents looking to hop online usually frequent parks and plazas that have public Wi-Fi connection spots.

Those areas, particularly in more populated cities like Havana, are often crowded with users looking to gain internet access on their phones.

To log on, many residents have to wait in line to buy ETECSA cards that contain unique codes. In addition to having time limits on the cards, ETECSA also limits the number of cards an individual can buy in one visit, creating a black market for the cards.

The state's telecom company attempted to counter the secondary market by linking the cards to state-issued forms of identification. Tourists have had to display passports to purchase the cards.

Cubans who looked to monetize internet access, such as those renting out houses and rooms on Airbnb, have faced far more hurdles because of the ID restraints.

While Cuba's internet is mostly uncensored, certain sites are blocked by the government, according to the The Associated Press, which first reported on this week's nationwide internet expansion.

The costs of the new service will be roughly 10 cents per megabyte, with one package of 600 megabytes costing about $7, the AP reported. While the packages are in line with the average cost of internet access globally, the prices will likely be out of reach for many Cubans, particularly those who make between $20 and $30 a month on government salaries.

"There will be more access to information and easier means for citizens to connect and network, meaning information can spread more rapidly, but it doesn't somehow mean that democracy will inevitably spring up," said Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation who authored the book "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.”

Singer noted that countries like Egypt, China and Saudi Arabia have shown they have other means of control.

“The models range from surveillance at the most personal level to automated censorship and manipulation of web trends and ideas," Singer said in an email to The Hill, noting that while China has a model of "mass mobile access ... mass government monitoring as never before is being exported. Cuba is one of the many nations that have explored interest in the China model.”

Updated at 1:53 p.m.