Thursday, March 2, 2017

Cuba remains analog in a digital world

This is a guest post by Google Policy Fellow, journalist and PhD student Olga Khrustaleva. Olga’s dissertation is on the Cuban Internet and she wrote the following after a research trip last year. I was surprised to learn that one can get black market cable TV in Havana and extent to which people are reselling ETECSA WiFi connections using Ubiquity Nano routers (as opposed to local hotspots using Connectivity software on laptops) in spite of their being illegal.

Raul announces death of Fidel, video
I was in Cuba when Fidel Castro died. That evening we went to bed early and were about to turn the lights off when my partner heard our upstairs neighbor tell her husband that the leader of the Revolution had passed. Neither of us could believe it and my partner shouted loudly:

-          Murio Fidel?
-          Si, the neighbor shouted back.

We turned the TV on and after a regular and uninterrupted newscast Raul Castro made an official announcement.
The apartment building where we stayed in the (quite marginal) neighborhood of Centro la Habana didn’t have glass windows, only wooden shades, so our neighbors’ lives inevitably became a part of ours. One neighbor woke us (and probably the entire house) up every morning shouting the name of the maintenance boy. Another one probably had bronchitis or something worse as she was coughing all day and night long. Some never turned their TV off; others always kept their door open. The night Fidel died everyone was watching the same channel – we could hear the echo of Raul’s voice from all neighboring apartments.
              Unlike the rest of the world that has been digitizing rapidly in the past 20 years Cuba still continues to live in analog mode. It’s much more convenient and customary for many to shout than to make a call or send a costly text. Public phones are still widely used and a phone conversation in Cuba usually starts not with polite “Hola, como estas?” (Hi, how are you?) but with “Dime” (tell me) – right to the point. First it sounded rude to me, but I quickly understood that people here simply can’t afford small talk. From 7 am to 11 pm a minute costs 35 cents, with the average official salary still being about $25 a month. Soon I became used to asking whether the person I was calling on the cellphone wanted to call me back from landline, an offer everyone gladly accepted. 
              Tricking the system?
Even with various restrictions at place, Cubans manage to get access to things. Cable TV is illegal, but easy to get for anyone ready to pay 10 CUC a month. The day after Fidel’s death we went to see a lady who changed dollars without the commission charged by official banks. The lady, let’s call her Monica, travelled abroad – to a few countries that still didn’t require visas for Cubans – every month or two to buy merchandise to sell in Havana. When we came by, Telemundo was showing people partying on the streets of Miami. Monica told us that if police saw what they were watching, they could have problems, but on normal days no one really cared much about cable.
The wifi provided by ETECSA is available in public parks, squares and hotels. To access it one needs a card (1.5 CUC for hour) with a user name and password. The first time I went to use wifi at a little park close to my house I was approached by a guy who offered Internet connection for 1 CUC an hour (back in November the ETECSA price was 2 CUC for hour). The park was full of people and few had ETECSA cards. Soon I learned that there were at least four different groups at that park offering Internet access. Each of them used "nanos, Ubiquity NanStations, to create wifi hotspots that shared a single ETECSA connection.
              To run a sub-network the guys logged in using ETECSA cards and then sold the connection to the people in the park. When someone wanted to connect, one of the guys would type in a password on the person’s phone and, when the time was over, delete it. Back in November they paid 2 CUC per hour connecting maybe 10-15 people an hour for 1 CUC. With so many people using the same link, the speed was so bad that sometimes I couldn’t even check email. Yet, many people around me were video-chatting using an app called IMO (Skype and several other popular apps doesn’t work in Cuba). Several people I met had nano stations (which are sold for around $200 in Cuba and for $50 on Amazon) in their homes in Havana so that they could use Internet without having to go to a park or hotel.
              I briefly talked to Ricardo (name changed), one of the guys who ran one of the sub-networks. He said they had the nano in the car parked nearby and that they had to be careful because there were cameras in the park and if the police saw them with someone else’s phone they could have problems. “Recently they took [to the police] some guys for sitting on the back of the bench,” Ricardo said. “And next day we went out to work a bit nervous.”
              Recently ETECSA lowered the price to 1.5 CUC for hour, but my guess is that the sub-networks will continue to exist as they benefit both, the guys who sell access as well as people who get the opportunity to connect to Internet paying less. ETECSA and the government likely are aware of the sub-networks, which exist in almost every park or square with ETECSA wifi, but tolerate them. Like El Paquete, this wifi businesses doesn’t present any danger to the government. The main connection is still managed by ETECSA, with access to some websites blocked and the majority of people are connecting to communicate with their families abroad, but they may worry that they are losing revenue.

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