The WiFi Hotspot Revolution

Story by Emily Benson
Video by Briceyda Landaverde

Havana, Cuba – It’s 10 p.m. in Old Havana and scores of people are packed onto one street, but it’s not for drinking and it’s not for a party.

The streetlights are weak, yet faces can be made out from the collective blue, buzzing light illuminating from the group’s electronic devices. Lines of boys sit hunched over on a low wall, laptops propped on their legs and eyes glued to their screens. Many have headphones in their ears, their fingers gently scrolling their phone screens, soaking up the luxury of the World Wide Web.

It’s a Wi-Fi hotspot: areas where Cubans can receive Wi-Fi on their smartphones and gain access to the unfiltered unrestricted Internet.

Cubans huddle up near a hotspot areas to get Wi-Fi connection. Photo by Emily Benson.

Cubans huddle up near a hotspot areas to get Wi-Fi connection. Photo by Emily Benson.

To get access, you first must purchase a “Wi-Fi card,” a flimsy, yellow, paper card with a very Zen-looking lady sitting crossed legged on the front and a username and password on the back. When at a hotspot, a login screen will pop-up instructing you to type in your card’s information. Then: Viola! Internet!

There are 35 hotspots that span the country, although most are in rural areas. Let that sink in a second: 35 hotspots. New York City alone is hoping to add 7,500 free hot spots in the coming year.

Wi-Fi is the only way Cubans can get Internet, which means that most of their day people’s phones are only good for texting and calling. Imagine having no Internet while riding the LIRR home from school. No Facebook to go on in the middle of your boring math class. No silly, snapchats to send to your significant other.

But since the country’s launch in July 2015, these hotspots are giving the people of Cuba access to knowledge and information outside of their island, which in turn, is helping to change Cuba into a more open country.

“[It’s a] benefit for me and all Cubans in reality,” says Yunier Perez, 28. “Now we can all have access to the Internet to be able to communicate to other people, see the world. Before we didn’t have access to any of that. We were like Indians.”

According to Reuters, the Cuban government is hoping to expand on its Internet access in the near future. Cuba has promised getting the Internet into 50 percent of its households by 2020. The country is also committed to achieving 60 percent mobile phone access by that year as well.

Photo by Emily Benson.

A man checks his phone at a WiFi hotspot. Photo by Emily Benson.

While the promise of expanding Internet access is a cause for hope, the country is far from close to its goal. According to the United Nations, Cuba ranks 125 out of 166 in the building of telecommunications infrastructures. About 5 percent of the Cuban population has a private Internet connection and an estimated 25 percent are able to get online.

Christopher Gillette, senior producer for AP Television News in Havana, has been living in Cuba for the past few years and says that the most notable thing about Cuba is its growing acceptance of free speech online and freedom of the Internet.

“The government is facing enormous pressure to deliver not only better Internet access but a better life to its citizens,” said Gillette.

The question of if the government will appropriately respond to this pressure is a remaining question, but Gillette is optimistic about the growth.

“I do believe there will be concerted efforts to meet these goals, in part because they need to modernize the economy and cannot do it without better Internet access, a computer, literate workforce- but also because the people are demanding it.”

Outside La Pina De Plata, a bar and restaurant in Old Havana, clusters of people can be seen connecting to Wi-Fi that is offered by the restaurant but can still be accessed from the street.

This tactic to get Internet is very common. Instead of going to one of the five designated hotspots, Cubans will connect to Wi-Fi that is provided in new hotels, restaurants and bars that offer Wi-Fi to accompany the influx of tourists.

Clumps of people can be seen standing outside hotels, scrolling through their phones, some just trying to catch a quick break before going to work or school, others getting in a quick Facetime with family in Florida or elsewhere in the United States.

Perez stood outside La Pina De Plata in a parking space, scrolling through his Facebook timeline. Perez works in sound and audio and says he uses the web for his personal studies in music, and likes looking up music he hasn’t heard before and learning about the music industry.

“I utilize it to study things. The things I haven’t studied: music, sound, rhythm,” said Perez.

The biggest problem for Perez is the price of connecting, saying it costs a lot for him to get online, and the time he is allotted is easily run through. Even if one can afford to get Wi-Fi, the connection is often so poor or so slow that it’s hard to do anything of significance.

It costs $2 to purchase a one-hour Wi-Fi card, and $10 for five hours. It doesn’t seem like much, but considering the average monthly income in Cuba is $20, and how quickly five hours can dissipate, these cards are expensive for most of the population.

Mercedes Curbelo, a 57-year-old museum employee, hopes that as Wi-Fi accessibility expands, the price of the Wi-Fi cards will drop and more people will be able to access the web.

“There are people who can buy three or four hours…but there are others who can’t,” said Curbelo.

According to the Washington Post, “the Cuban government says the only obstacles to improved Internet access are technical and financial, not political or ideological.”

Yoani Sanchez, an advocate for Internet expansion, has questioned the Cuban government’s socialist principles. One reference she makes is to the ALBA-1 submarine fiber optic cable that was connected from Venezuela in 2011, but was kept hidden until newspapers broke the story of the cable being active in 2013.

Since 2013, the usage of the ALBA-1 cable has significantly grown. A recent study by Northwestern University has shown that in July, almost all international traffic moved to the undersea cable, greatly improving the connection performance.

Financing Internet expansion is especially difficult in Cuba with a broadband subscription costing close to 4 times the gross national income per capita. Even with this, the government was able to establish 35 hotspots for its citizens and incoming tourists to access.

Netflix recently announced that its streaming services will be accessible on the island, and there have been ongoing discussions between Cuba and Google about working together in establishing infrastructure. Cuba has also been talking with U.S. competitors like China to build new infrastructure, and the country’s evident desire to expand Internet for its people speak volumes about how much Cuba’s attitude and culture is changing.

Curbelo says that she is optimistic about the future of web access on the island and adds that she’s sure, down the road of time, Cuba will be a more open and connected country.

“Everyone will have access,” said Curbelo. “Everyone will be able to buy it, everyone will be able to communicate with friends and neighbors who are not in the United States, but in Italy, Germany, Hati.”

Curbelo stood, leaning against the outside wall of Havana University, phone clutched in hand. She said she uses the hotspots to talk to her son who lives in Miami. She can’t stay long to talk because she has to go to work, but for five minutes, she can connect and go online. For five minutes, her family is here and life is normal.

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