Internet in Cuba: How Cuba became infected with the “great disease of the 21st century”

What associations do you have when you hear the expression “Internet in Cuba”? I have North Korea, only with sun, sea, beach and sultry mulatto women. This really was until recently, when the era of Castro’s reign naturally ended.

Cuba
Photo: Ed Yourdon / Flickr

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1,600km of cable along the seabed

Fidel Castro in 1995
Fidel Castro in 1995. Photo: enca

At the dawn of the Internet, Cuba did not lag behind other countries in the development of new technology. In the early 1990s, local scientists, like their colleagues around the world, began to exchange scientific information through the first networks. They say that about 60 MB of traffic has been accumulating throughout the country every month.

Going to the global web took place in the fall of 1996. From that moment of its inception, they decided to immediately strangle the Internet. No wonder, because the sagacious Fidel instantly saw that socialism was being destroyed by publicity in general and free information in particular. So soon the Internet was called “the great disease of the XXI century,” and the Island of Freedom actually abandoned the modern good that had barely appeared.

However, there was still some kind of Internet in the country. It was provided only through satellite communications with a bandwidth for the entire country of about 200 Mbit/s. A wired connection to the rest of the world was not possible due to, among other things, US sanctions. High-ranking officials and some doctors used a rare opportunity to spy on the outside world through a permitted window. The list of resources was strictly limited.

Local residents felt the first whiffs of the thaw in 2007, when the already weakened Fidel allowed people to buy computers for personal use. However, there were problems with the Internet. The Americans, you see, are nearby, but too capitalistic. And you can’t really pump through the Internet satellite. So the commander made a strong-willed decision to make people happy with modern traffic with the help of brotherly Venezuela.

Cuban Internet Club in 2008
Cuban Internet Club in 2008

Taking a loan in China for about $100 million for this case, in 2011 the Cubans embarked on a large-scale project – laying a fiber-optic umbilical cord, which was supposed to connect the Island of Freedom with the rest of the world. In transit through Jamaica, a cable with a length of more than 1600 kilometers was laid for two years under the Caribbean Sea to the seaside Venezuelan town of La Guaira.

Diagram of cable laying on the ocean floor.
Diagram of cable laying on the ocean floor.

The project was called loudly and monumental – ALBA-1. The name is a tribute to the eponymous socialist alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America, or Bolivarian Alliance for the peoples of our America). In the end, we met $70 million and got a throughput of 640 Gbps.

It would seem, what is not the victory of socialism, which once again wiped its nose with the capitalist scoundrels? Yes, but the nuances have surfaced.


Two salaries for 4 Mbps

Internet in Cuba

For such a complex and rather high-tech project, appropriate knowledge, experience and personnel are required. Cuba and Venezuela are proud countries, but nevertheless they are not too associated with high technologies and engineering.

In addition, it is not enough to connect two extreme points of the land with a submarine cable. One of them still needs to be connected to high-speed Internet by land or “air”, and from the other – to bring it to end users. It took wires about a thousand kilometers long, which were buried in Cuba.

The result was so-so. On the one hand, officially, the Internet in the country became available via a fiber-optic network in 2013. On the other hand, all this stuff worked somehow, with breaks, interruptions, and even at not at all socialist prices.

However, the problems did not prevent the authorities from starting the “internetization” of the country. In the year that ALBA-1 finally brought the Internet to the island, more than 100 Internet cafes opened in Cuba. Then, like mushrooms after the rain, public Wi-Fi zones with hourly pay began to appear.

For most Cubans, all this stuff was not available. Therefore, in parallel with the capitalist Internet, the country has been trying for many years to develop its own intranet. We are talking about an internal network without access to the global network. So in Cuba, EcuRed was wound up – its own analogue of Wikipedia, but socialistically verified. It also has a couple of thousand of its own sites, monopoly-controlled e-mail provider, and censored newspapers far and wide.

Today, to go online, you must have a temporary or permanent account. The first one operates for a month and is aimed at tourists, the second one works for a year and is tailored for local people. For an hour of Internet access, you will be charged 17.5 Cuban pesos, or a little less than $ 1. Rates for the national segment of the network are much lower – the equivalent of 10 cents per hour.

The fattest package on ADSL technology offers 120 hours of Internet per month (that is, an average of 4 hours per day) at speeds up to 4 Mbps. The price is 1,375 pesos, or $57. This is when the average salary in the country is only about $30-35. Fat business cats are ready to give a gigabit network for $7,700 per month. 100 Mbps is not much cheaper at $5000.

In general, landline internet in Cuba is not very good. According to Ookla, the country is in the penultimate place in terms of access speed and with an indicator of 3.9 Mbps, second only to incomparable Turkmenistan.

In such conditions, freedom-loving Cubans could not help stirring up another revolution. It seems that Cuba has become the only country in the world in which the Internet began to spread literally on flash drives.


The world’s freest internet on a flash drive

Internet in Cuba
Photo: cubanet

This phenomenon is simply called “Package” (if Google translated El Paquete from Spanish correctly). An amazing thing appeared in 2008. It all started with the distribution of discs on which films, American TV shows, games, programs and a bunch of other content were recorded.

However, if in our country such collections died out by themselves with the spread of high-speed Internet, then in Cuba, on the contrary, the “Internet on a flash drive” was born to an unprecedented scale. Today “Packet” is a 1 TB directory of all sorts of things.

Some unknown guys with access to high-speed Internet are pumping terabytes of various content from the network: music, new pirated films, serials, video clips, archives of sites with news on computer topics, educational software, training videos and much, much more.

Internet in Cuba

The Package is then distributed through a network of distributors throughout the country. Typically, these points of distribution are points of sale of mobile phones. Bring your external hard drive and they’ll have anything from a fresh terabyte archive recorded for you. The content is updated once a week, you can buy not the entire package, but its individual categories, with the content of which, if you wish, you can familiarize yourself in advance on the Internet (well, or the merchant on the spot will tell you what to take).

The freshest is delivered on Sundays – on this day, almost $1 is asked for the “Package” in its entirety. From Wednesday, the same assembly will already be half the price. You can subscribe to a monthly subscription, then it will be even cheaper.

By rough estimates, this gray scheme generates between $2 million and $4 million monthly, and has so many people involved that it can be considered the largest private employer. How does the government look at all this?

Cuba, like any other self-respecting dictatorship, does not represent itself without censorship. So, it is argued that the country’s authorities use Avila Link software to monitor the network, thanks to which they can get access to user logins and passwords. The government is also suspected of using Chinese Internet surveillance technologies, which, in addition to Cuba, are supplied to friendly Zimbabwe and Belarus.

Internet in Cuba

How did the authorities let the potentially extremist, terrorist and Nazi “Packages” threaten to national security pass? It’s very simple: many experts believe that the “Internet on flash drives” is spreading not so much bypassing the authorities, as with their permission and, perhaps, even under their supervision. This version explains the fact that the “Packages” do not contain the most popular content: pornography and anti-government materials.

Similar was the case for the world’s largest “home network” StreetNets (SNet), which operated in Cuba until recently. In Havana alone, about 10 thousand computers were connected to it, and users could freely exchange any files with each other. And it seemed, too, it was believed that SNet was not under the control of the authorities. But for any criticism of the government or the publication of erotic materials, the user was immediately and permanently disconnected from the network. A couple of years ago, the Cuban telecommunications monopoly ETECSA took over the entire SNet infrastructure.


Mobile revolution

Internet in Cuba

If the situation with the fixed Internet in Cuba is still not very good, then the mobile, which, in fact, appeared only a couple of years ago, has already left many European countries far away.

Cellular communication tried to appear here at the beginning of the century. The service provider is the same one and only ETECSA monopoly. Until 2008, only tourists, foreign workers and civil servants in the highest positions could have a mobile phone. But already ten years ago, the entire territory of the country was covered by cellular communications.

Internet in Cuba

Smartphones have long been useless due to the proliferation of 2G. Several years ago, it was possible to access the network from the phone only in specially designated places, mainly in parks where Wi-Fi zones were organized. Access was carried out using cards that could be bought at the ETECSA office, standing in line, or from outbids twice as expensive. For one hour on the Internet, I had to lay out $1.5-3.

The real revolution happened just a couple of years ago when ETECSA signed a memorandum with Google. In December 2018, the operator launched 3G, and in March 2021, LTE became available throughout the country. Currently, there are about 7 million cellular network users in Cuba, of which about 4.5 million use the mobile Internet. Not bad considering the 11 million population.

The situation with tariffs is as follows. $4 is the cost of a gigabyte of Internet in the LTE network. For $8 they will sell 2.5 GB, and the rich for fifty bucks can count on 14 GB of mobile traffic. According to Ookla, Cuba is currently ranked 84th in mobile internet speed with 25.7 Mbps. For comparison: Belarus has 124th place and 16.45 Mbps.