Google inks deal to speed up internet in Cuba

13 Dec 2016


Google announced on Monday that it has signed a new deal with Cuba's state-run telecommunications company to speed up internet service for Cubans using YouTube and other Google products.

The move seems akin to Facebook's failed attempt to provide a free but limited service in India. However, it will affect only a small percentage of Cubans since the vast majority of communist country's 11 million residents do not have access to the internet.

The Mountain View, California, internet giant has been making small inroads into Cuba over the past two years as the United States works to re-establish diplomatic relations with its Cold War foe. On Monday, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt signed the latest deal in Havana with Mayra Arevich Marin, president of State Enterprise of Telecommunications of Cuba, the government-run communications company known as ETECSA that handles all internet and phone services in Cuba.

The deal will provide Google's "Global Cache" service to the island, which reduces the amount of time it takes high-bandwidth content to load by storing data on servers on the island. Google previously made available some of its other products on the island nation, including its Google Chrome Web browser and Google Play music service.

"Taken together, all these projects are tied to Google's core values to make the world's information useful and accessible to everyone regardless of cost, connectivity, and language barriers," the company wrote in a statement Monday.

While some services will load faster in Cuba, Google's deals have not expanded the number of Cubans who have access to the internet. Freedom House, a US-based organization that promotes freedom and democracy, estimates only 5 per cent to 30 per cent of Cubans have any kind of internet access, meaning Cuba "continues to have some of the most restrictive internet access in the world".

The Cuban government has long restricted internet access on the island. It wasn't until after Cuban President Raul Castro took power from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008 that Cubans were even allowed to own cellphones or home computers.

Even then, finding internet service remained difficult. ETECSA recently created Wi-Fi hot spots in some of Cuba's biggest cities, allowing residents to sit in parks and plazas to get online. But that service is very expensive for Cubans - about $2 an hour, compared to the average Cuban salary of $25 a month.

ETECSA is also experimenting with providing internet service directly to people's homes and businesses, but that only began this year, and Cubans say it can cost hundreds of dollars a month.

"The fact that now the 3 per cent of Cubans who do have access can do faster searches and watch videos, that's a good thing," Jose Azel of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami told The Boston Globe. "But what we should focus on is making sure that all Cubans have access to the internet."

While Google's deal does not expand service to more Cubans, it does lay the groundwork for doing so in the future, according to Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba working group at Americas Society / Council of the Americas.

President Obama's administration has created several openings for US telecommunications companies to work in Cuba to expand and improve its Internet service. But Tummino said the Cuban government has been very suspicious, fearing that the US government would exploit the access and threaten Cuba's national security.

That's why Monday's deal with Google is so important, Tummino said, to continue the "trust-building" process that can eventually lead to broader service on the island.

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