The Two Faces of Cuba’s Wi-Fi Services

October 21, 2015 | Print Print |

Luis Rondon Paz

People on La Rampa in Vedado.

HAVANA TIMES — Some months ago, ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly, set up a number of pay-for Wi-Fi hot spots around the country, allegedly aimed at greater public Internet use. This has resulted in incomes above what the company had predicted.

“This is the best! I can speak with my sister in Canada and I pay a lot less than the 4 CUC per minute they charge for phone calls. With that same amount, I can chat with her for nearly two hours!” Luis Alejandro told Havana Times while sitting on the curb in front of the Habana Libre Hotel with his cell phone.

“There are five official Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana. These are located at La Rampa, the Marianao Amphitheater, Parque 51 in La Lisa, the Fe del Valle park at the intersection of Galiano and San Rafael and part of the main road in the Villa Panamericana,” Daimi explained over the phone at 118, a new number for complaints and customer information related to Wi-Fi services.

According to Daimi, the Wi-Fi networks operating in open areas can withstand between 50 and 100 users, depending on the antenna in use. This means that the higher number of users, the more difficult it is to connect to the network.

When asked whether foreigners who are not residents of Cuba could purchase Nauta pre-paid cards, she explained that they can do so without any difficulties and that they can even set up a permanent account at the same price than any Cuban natural.

“One of the problem’s we’ve been trying to solve has to do with the 2 CUC pre-paid cards. We get many calls a day from customers who are unable to access the Internet or disconnect from the network,” Yeidi, another 118 operator commented, adding that, when Wi-Fi services were offered in closed spaces, many people complained because they had not been logged off from the network and lost their credit this way. According to the ETECSA operator, the problem was solved months ago.

Wi-Fi at Hotels

“In the case of hotels, access is restricted to guests owing to the high demand and, in some cases, limited use of the service is requested of users,” an employee of Havana’s Capri hotel who asked to remain anonymous remarked, adding that the policies implemented by some hotels to guarantee quality Wi-Fi services work to a certain extent, as people outside the hotel are connecting to the network and undermining the quality of the service directly. “The problem is that the demand continues to be far higher than the offer, I don’t know what ETECSA was thinking when it failed to take this into account!” he concluded.

Outside the Miramar business center.

What the Media Are Saying

Several Internet sites have published the concerns of Cubans with regards to massive Internet use. Cuba’s official TV even devoted a Cuba Dice (“Cuba Says”) segment to the issue. The report criticized the terrible planning evinced by ETECSA, which failed to provide comfort for its customers, despite the high demand for the service, as well as the superficial replies offered by some of its executives in this connection.

Tablets, Laptops and Cell Phones: Easy Prey?

“Buddy, of the five Wi-Fi hot spots they’ve set up in Havana, the best are the ones at La Rampa and San Rafael and Galeano. But be careful, ‘cause, if they set their sights on you, you’re easy prey for them. They go after you and you can lose something more important than your cell or tablet, which, incidentally, isn’t peanuts,” said Idalberto, a craftsman who would rather pay 5 or 10 extra CUCs at the bar of a hotel, where he claims he has more privacy, comfort and safety.

A Good Idea, In Theory…

“Man, the thing is, there’s barely any information out there. Better said, there’s no information of any kind. At ETECSA offices, all they do is charge you and send you on your away. Now, just ask yourself this: who can afford to pay 50 Cuban pesos (US $2.50) every time they connect to the Internet?” asked Javier Alvarez, a resident of Sancti Spiritus vacationing in Havana. He added that, if these offices lack the competent personal to inform the public about Wi-Fi services, they shouldn’t have opened in the first place.

Paranoia, Safety and Will Power

“The permanent account is there to control you. This is the only country in the world that asks you to fill out a form to open a permanent email and Internet account. I use a one or five-hour prepaid card. There’s no way I’m opening a permanent Nauta account!” said Javier, a self-employed person living in Vedado. He criticized the new Wi-Fi services as a short-term solution, another way of keeping people distracted and hold back development.

According to Javier, the other side of Wi-Fi services is the lack of an objective will by the government to undertake measures that will make a real and effective contribution to increasing Internet access in Cuba. He added that, through the web, many services could be set up to help recover the initial investment in the short term.

“The Cuban economy could grow significantly by eliminating the bureaucratic obstacles that hold back the private sector and the development of ITCs, as well as encouraging responsible and free access to the worldwide web. At these times of change we’re going through, this is important; if it fails to take advantage of its human capital, because of the arrogance or incompetence of its leaders, the country will be increasingly at risk of falling into the hands of those giant technological monopolies that they have so often criticized,” he sentenced.

According to unofficial sources, ETECSA is planning to gradually install dozens of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Havana.


What's your opinion?

  • bjmack

    I would imagine the internet is the most feared hi-tech venue the present regime fears for obvious reasons. It will happen that a good portion of Cuba will be wired for internet and that will be sooner than later. Sad how the same group of people who fought Batista based on his dictatorial rule
    and cruelty are doing the exact same thing to the people of Cuba but this cannot go on much longer.
    Elio of course knows what’s best for the citizens of Cuba!

  • There’s even free WiFi in Havana now! http://www.bestcubatravelguide.com/free-wifi-in-havana/

  • Sleepy

    I have used the wifi service when travelling in Cuba in July. I was only offered the permanent account at first and that I bought. Then, the battle was to find the first hotspots in Habana. The only one that we could find at first was standing outside Sevilla Hotel. First times connection was not working, the next days, rather randomly, it was working. But standing outside the hotel in the street, rain or shine, with very weak signal, like being a begger for signal was not comfortable, physically and psicologically alike.
    Then we discovered the other hotspots at Galleno and La Rampa. But still using internet that way was not very comfortable. Nowhere in Habana.
    It was a bit better outside Habana, in Santiago, Baracoa, Trinidad, Camaguey… More comfortable and safe sites.
    Other difficulty was recharging. Queues at ETCSA offices were often very long (and queues in Cuba are always outside, in the hot) and top-up cards rarely available. Often, the time would run even when disconnected, therefore I had bad surprises more than once, that my credit had almost expired when I thought I had plenty.
    In shorter words, I was overwhelmed by the experience of witnessing the start of more widespread (this is an exaggerated wording, though) Internet connections in Cuba and the enthusiasm about it. And it provided us an unexpected, though not cheap and far inbetween, link home, which I had given up hoping for before heading to Cuba.
    But difficulties where many and all seemed still a bit rough. But I hope the service will improve and most above all it will reach private homes in the usual ways (ADSL and such) sooner than later.

  • TIM

    Once again the Cuban people can save themselves from a little publisised problem with wireless digital signals that disorientate polonating honey bees and along with pestisides have devistated honey bee hives. Not to mention all the disorientated
    people addicted to the devices. the cost of this technology is more than money,
    the society looses touch with what is most important , family… because they over use the devices… and dont even get face to face with people, money is not the all in price , societies begin to use blogging ideas in there day to day routines and the richness of the human experience is dimminished.
    Thank You

  • Irina

    Phone call from Cuba to Canada from a local mobile is costing 1.20 CUC per minute, from canadian mobile – 3.00 CAD per min. I was in Havana in September – October, and walking or driving through all of those hotspots, I did ask myself, how all of these people can afford to buy those cards to connect to the Internet? And there are lots of people, majority of them are young generation. I had no interest, to get connected, I just used my “texting abroad” package to stay in touch with my loved ones. I took time off from my work, so my work can wait too, so network wasn’t a necessity for me. Internet is great, when we need to search for some information, but only if we search responsibly. There is so much “junk” on that internet. A do agree with TIM, that the cost to the society is more than just money. The impact on young generation can be and often is devastating and sometimes even tragic. How many children in Cuba are the victims of “cyber bullying”? How many of them have been abducted and sold, thanks to the Internet? How many of them have been contacted by pedophiles, who pretending to be their friends? They are protected from it yet, those will be real fears for parents, once Internet reaches private homes.

    • Sleepy

      Think positive Irina (and TIM)!
      News about children exploitation (and all sorts of children exploitation are going on in Cuba as I am writing) have been out there way before these few wifi access points were available!
      So, the problem is not in wifi, but in something not working well in the society and the well-being of Cubans.

      Of
      course, I also have been wondering about how Cubans can afford wifi
      services (money from Miami? Those happy few dealing with
      foreigners/tourists?), which was not cheap for me in the first place.
      But widespread Internet can also drive opportunities, cultural, social and economic.
      Opportunities that must be well accompanied by knowledge about how to wisely use them.

      But the stories about Havana Malecon businesses were going on without Internet.