Internet access in Cuba has historically been tightly controlled—until 2008, a government permit was required for private citizens to own a computer or a cellphone. The internet itself didn’t arrive until 2013, and under extreme limitations. But a nine-hour government test of mobile wireless internet on Tuesday has sparked hopes for greater internet access.
The test was run by Etecsa, the state-run telecom company that also administers the hot spots, according to the New York Times. Etecsa mobile phone customers had free internet access from 11 am to 8 pm Tuesday, according to local news site 14ymedio.com, whose report was translated and reported by the Times. It’s yet another sign that full mobile internet service should be on the way. Reuters reported in July that Etecsa has said it would expand mobile internet services to all customers by the end of this year. The company has not yet announced the start date or rate of the service, though it announced in a Facebook post Tuesday that it intends to carry out further tests.
Etecsa customers found out about the test through word of mouth and social media, as there were no special alerts, Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez told the Times. But the moment was no less significant. “Yesterday was the first time Cubans had internet access in their pockets,” she told the Times. “Even though it was pretty frustrating because the connection wasn’t great, it was a very hopeful moment for us Cubans.” An elite group, including official journalists, some businesspeople, and diplomats, has had access to the free mobile internet for the past two weeks, according to 14ymedio.com.
Government leaders, including the president, have signaled a shift toward internet access in recent months. President Miguel Díaz-Canel told Parliament in July, “We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online.”
The country has historically been wary of handing its 11 million citizens internet access. It wasn’t until 2013 that the government connected to the worldwide web, via a fiber optic cable to Venezuela. And after that, it only allowed Cubans to access internet at “internet clubs” and hotels that charged as much as $8 an hour for slow internet, according to the Associated Press.
But internet access has improved in recent years. In 2015, the government opened 240 public Wi-Fi hot spots in parks and street corners and lowered the price of internet access, according to Global News. Etecsa now has 630 public internet hot spots that charge about $1 an hour, according to the New York Times. Reuters reported that in 2015, a leaked government document outlined a plan to connect at least half of homes by 2020 and 60 percent of phones to internet. It’s unclear whether that plan has been officially implemented and, if so, to what extent—the company connected only 11,000 homes in 2017, Etecsa president Mayra Arevich told state-run media in December. The company has announced it will expand mobile internet to all of its mobile phone customers by the end of this year, according to Reuters.
In January, the U.S. government launched the Cuba Internet Task Force to “promote the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba.” But it’s not the first time the U.S. has moved to promote internet freedom in Cuba. In 2014, the Obama administration loosened trade restrictions on U.S. telecommunications exports to the country, as part of its bid to normalize relations with Havana.
Although expanding internet access may win Diaz-Canel popular support, some observers remain skeptical about prospects for a Cuba in which free speech and other democratic norms are protected.
“While Cubans might see many of the benefits of internet accessibility, it’s very likely that internet access for them is also going to bring about a greater level of surveillance and also a greater level of censorship,” Sanja Kelly, director of Freedom House’s global assessment of internet freedom, told Slate.
But even if the momentum is slow, the move to increase internet access in Cuba could be a “starting point.”
“I can’t say that there will be internet freedom for Cubans overnight,” Roberta Braga of the Atlantic Council told Slate. “This opening of free internet for nine hours is not what’s going to be reflected necessarily in the coming months in the island. But I do think that it’s a starting point and it’s a positive one.”