Cubans finally connecting thanks to Wi-Fi hotspots

After decades of stringent control, the Cuban government has finally eased the reins on the flow of information by allowing more of the island’s ordinary citizens to access the Internet. Slowly, but surely, the isolated island is beginning to integrate with the wider world.

The government in Havana has opened Wi-Fi hotspots in 35 areas across the country, making it possible for ordinary Cubans to access a service that was so far available only to the elite. Luis Manuel Diaz Naranjo, spokesman for the government-owned telecommunications provider ETECSA, told The Guardian that each hotspot would be able to handle 50 to 100 users at a speed of one megabit a second.

Before these hotspots were launched, broadband access to the Internet was limited only to affluent individual subscribers, government officials and some doctors. Ordinary Cubans could get access through state-run Internet cafes or 600 youth computer clubs, but they charged steep hourly rates. The standard charge was $4.50 an hour, putting Internet use beyond the reach of most Cubans as they earn an average wage of $20 a month.

It will cost $2 an hour to use the newly launched Wi-Fi hotspots. While it is a substantial slash in price from $4.50 an hour, the new cost is still unaffordable for many Cubans. But most islanders have welcomed the move, saying it was high time Cuba joined the Internet age. Spotting Cubans using smart phones and tablets is becoming a more common sight since Wi-Fi was recently rolled out. Social networks are generally the most visited sites, with Facebook emerging as a clear favorite.

Many see the Cuban government’s move as an outcome of the recent thaw in hostile relations with the United States of America. The two countries are finally on the way to re-establishing diplomatic ties and have agreed to open embassies in each others capitals. Economic relations are expected to improve as a result. Havana’s move to widen Net access on the island is seen as an outcome of this significant diplomatic development.

Incidentally, Google has been pushing for freeing up the Internet in Cuba for some time. Its chairman Eric Schmidt visited Cuba last year “to promote the virtues of a free and open Internet”. Since then company executives have reportedly proposed a way to quickly expand Net access across the entire island nation.

The Communist-led government in Cuba has so far been known to strictly control the flow of information to its citizens, be it through the Internet or the media. The only other country to exercise a similar degree of control on information is North Korea. Cuba has among the lowest rates of Internet use in the world, with just 3.4 percent of homes enjoying connectivity, according to a U.N. agency. But the launch of the Wi-Fi hotspots seems to signal the beginning of dramatic change on that front. According to a report in the Miami Herald, there is a possibility that wider home access using ADSL technology will be launched in the near future.

William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University, told Reuters: “Historically, Cuba has had probably the worst Internet access in the hemisphere. Clearly, the Cuban government has decided that broadband Internet access is essential to a 21st century economy. The Internet cafes and now this Wi-Fi network show that the government is serious about expanding Internet access.”

While most Cubans are understandably elated at finally being allowed to use the Net, there are hidden dangers they possibly need to become aware of. Users of the new Wi-Fi hotspots could serve as easy prey for hackers on a mission to steal personal and financial information. A virtual private network (VPN) – software that encrypts all data sent and received on the Internet – is an effective way to thwart such hacking attempts. However, the launch of the Wi-Fi hotspots marks the crossing of a significant milestone in Cuba’s journey of integration with the rest of the world in the information age.

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