Future Tense

How to Get Online Illegally in Cuba

Across the country, people have turned to a Philadelphia-based company to access the internet.

Young Cubans connect to internet from their mobile phones in Havana on June 6.
Young Cubans connect to internet from their mobile phones in Havana on June 6. Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

There are two main ways to get online in Cuba. You can take the official route, forming lines behind 25 other individuals for more than an hour at an office of Etecsa, the Cuban government entity that oversees telecommunications and connectivity. There, you can buy top-up scratch cards to access the Etecsa Wi-Fi hot spots around Havana. It’s a relatively new development: Internet access in Cuba dramatically changed in 2015, when the government opened 35 public Wi-Fi hot spots in several cities across Cuba. Today, according to the Etecsa website, it operates more than 986 hot spots across the country that consumers can access via top-up scratch cards. Etecsa charges 1 CUC (about $1) per hour of internet consumption. In a country where the average income is 30 CUC per month, that’s expensive and inconvenient—which means consumers are open to more creative workaround solutions.

Instead, many Cubans consume internet the second way: via Havana’s network of informal, clandestine, and illegal Wi-Fi hot spots known as Conectifai, which piggyback off the public Etecsa network. Taking this approach saves users hours in line, headaches, and at least 20 CUC. Conectifai entrepreneurs set up their own private hot spots and, through a network of street “dealers,” sell access to their internet at a much cheaper price, providing a far more attractive solution for the average Cuban.

It’s all possible thanks to a single American company. The name “Conectifai” is the phonetic spelling of the Spanish pronunciation of Connectify, a Philadelphia-based software company whose primary product, Connectify Hotspot, allows users to turn a PC into a Wi-Fi hot spot to share internet with other devices. Connectify has no official presence in Cuba—in fact, its use is illegal. Still, Conectifai entrepreneurs connect to the Etecsa network with a computer and download the Connectify software to create private hot spots.

Connectify has been in Cuba since Etecsa set up those public hot spots in 2015. Although aware of the illegality, the company has embraced its product’s utility as a “popular tool for creating ‘do it yourself’ infrastructure using nothing more than a laptop” among these internet entrepreneurs and remains committed to their “ongoing efforts to get the people of Cuba online,” according to a blog post from April 2017.

Not only has the Connectify Hotspot software been available in Spanish since 2017, but the company also launched the ¡Viva Hotspot! campaign, which “provides Cuban citizens with free Connectify Hotspot MAX licenses.” Today, Connectify has made essentially all of its Premium features free to users in Cuba. The company also provides free Spanish-language versions of Speedify, its virtual private network, which allows users to browse the web with a private connection—particularly relevant considering Cuba’s strict censorship. (You could face jail time for Googling anything “anti-revolutionary.”)

There’s no government data on illegal connections to Etecsa hot spots, making it impossible to compare how many Cubans get online directly via Etecsa vs. Conectifai. But numbers from Connectify give us some hints. In 2018, the company says it saw 53,667 new users in Cuba, which is defined as a computer running the software and setting up at least one hot spot. From January–May of this year, 20,663 new users have hopped on. And each hot spot can host many users, whether it’s entrepreneurs offering it as a service for a fee or families setting up internet access at home. Compare that with the roughly 1,000 Etecsa hot spots nationwide.

Héctor, a Conectifai entrepreneur, runs two locations: a sleepy corner park in Old Havana, where he “deals” to locals, and one of several Conectifai hot spots outside of the famous Bar Floridita. (Héctor and other Conectifai entrepreneurs’ names have been changed to protect them.) Two young men working for him “deal” internet at his Floridita location. Being a Conectifai “dealer” consists of sitting out on the street all day, collecting cash, and entering the network password in the phones or PCs of customers who approach.

Héctor began using the internet in 2011, at age 14, at the hotel where his mother worked. At the time, internet access was only available at government offices and tourist-centric hotels. After school and on weekends, he would go to the hotel and spend his time Googling toys and soccer, he recalled, until one day when he became interested in what the internet actually was.

“I’ve learned everything I know about connectivity by Googling it. I had the advantage of internet access at a time when no one else had it.” This “everything” included hot spot solutions such as Connectify’s.

Alex Gizis, founder and CEO of Connectify, comments that democratizing access to the internet has been a mission of the company’s since its early days—ever since the team realized that their product was unintentionally providing utility in markets where access is restricted.

“At any given time, there are two or three people spending time making sure our product works everywhere in the world, meaning we spend a disproportionate amount of time on these countries where we have no revenue. But if it works there,” Gizis says, referring to the countries where governments have consistently tried to block the company’s software, “then no other user in any other country is going to have any issue. So we might as well solve the hardest problems first.”

Connectify sees downloads of Speedify in other countries with severe censorship laws, too, including Iran, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela. In Venezuela, for example, Connectify is on track to see more than twice as many downloads of Speedify in 2019 than it did in 2018 (4,059), highlighting the product’s utility in a country where government censorship becomes more extreme every day in crisis. Similarly, through May, Speedify was downloaded 12,756 times in Turkmenistan (also on track to be downloaded twice as many times as it was in 2018) and 71,641 times in Iran. (A Speedify “download” is counted when a computer runs the software and connects the VPN at least one time.) Both Connectify and Speedify even appear to have been downloaded in North Korea—company statistics say that Connectify was downloaded 23 times from January through May, and the VPN seven times. (It is impossible to independently verify this information.)

In Cuba, I would sit with a dealer, who would count for me the number of people connected to their hot spot. Identifying those dealers could be tricky. I would start by finding a user in the area I needed to approach for the password. Users are easy to spot—they’re the people sitting around using their phones.

At a portside park in Old Havana, locals browse Facebook and blast the latest reggaeton hits off their phones, all connected via Havana’s network of illegal, informal internet hotspots.
At a portside park in Old Havana, locals browse Facebook and blast the latest reggaeton hits off their phones, all connected via Havana’s network of illegal, informal internet hotspots. Morgan Babbs

Once dealers quickly realized I was just an overly curious tourist, they happily shared details of their creativity, cash flows, and history of involvement with Conectifai. Each entrepreneur referenced underdevelopment in Cuba as their motivation for joining Conectifai. Many threw around the term “public service.”

“We’re just doing what the government itself can’t do,” said Héctor.

“Imagine a university student that needs to download a big paper,” said Alejandro, another Conectifai dealer. “Where the hell are they going to go to download that paper, given how slow the internet is in Cuba, that isn’t going to leave them more broke than they already are? That’s what we’re here for.”

It’s a public service, but it’s also lucrative. Doctors, lawyers, or executives at large state-owned companies (such as Etecsa) may earn around $80 CUC. After costs, Héctor says he earns more than $400 CUC per month thanks to Conectifai. He has no other side gigs or formal employment.

Connectify’s footprint in Cuba goes beyond information access. Since 2015, it has given birth to an entire industry of clandestine internet-related services. Setting up and running Conectifai operations requires black market transactions, police bribes, and informal technical servicing provided (illegally) by Etecsa technicians who get to charge between $50 and $150 CUC for one hour of work, or two to three times their monthly salary.

Connectify also inspired more sophisticated DIY solutions that have become popular in the past year, particularly in Havana, by taking advantage of products from the companies Mikrotik and Ubiquiti Networks. Unlike Connectify, though, neither of these companies mentions the use of their tech in Cuba’s DIY revolution. (I reached out to both but have not heard back from them.) But even when entrepreneurs aren’t technically using Connectify, the name Conectifai refers to any informal Wi-Fi network.

The Cuban government is in the process of relaxing regulations around internet access. After a series of infamous tests in September 2018, in which the entire telecommunications network went down or experienced delays for hours at a time, 3G internet access officially came to the island in January. In May, the government legalized the importation of routers. Individuals are allowed to have a private internet service in their own home—as long as they agree to not sell access to it. But having an in-home router or a 3G data plan is a luxury reserved for those who do not live off government salaries. Conectifai is still the most accessible way to get online.

Regardless of the changes with respect to private internet services, Connectify’s work in Cuba is not over. Gizis predicts that improved internet speeds in Cuba will bring on more censorship efforts from the government, making the Speedify VPN product more relevant to the Cuban market.

Back in central Havana, Alejandro, after a rapid-fire round of questions, is truly perplexed as to why I even care about all of this. I tell him I’m impressed with how entrepreneurs like him, against all odds, have been able to innovate within a lackluster public infrastructure, making connectivity accessible for the general public.

“You guys are running the show here!” I tell him.

“Hey! Just wait, maybe one day we’ll actually get real quality internet connectivity here! You’ll have to come back.” He waves, “But bring a full camera crew … from Univision! We’ll have all these people streaming it on YouTube with no delays! Put me on TV, ¡mama!

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.