Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Getting Online

While Guatemala is one of the most developed countries in the world when it comes to mobile phone networks — listing 20.7m user accounts in a country of 13.8m inhabitants* — in contrast, only around 1m (out of 11m) Cubans have cellphones and there are no prepaid plans on offer from the state telephone company. Landlines are also uncommon: 15.5 per 100 inhabitants.

At just 3%, Internet penetration is also at the lowest level in the western hemisphere, with home usage actually illegal. Cuba is thus a sobering destination for any self-respecting geek to get to grips with, though there can fewer better places to study WOM transmission. Anyway, one hardly expects the Castro brothers to be quaking in their faded green fatigues at the prospect of a 'Cuban Spring' any time soon.

The larger Habaguanex hotels do tend to offer at least one connected desktop PC for guests' usage. One gets online by purchasing a scratch card at reception, costing 5 CUC ($5) an hour**. The trouble is that the hotel employees are not fully trusted to manage the storage of these cards, which are kept in a special draw, locked and unlocked by a roaming official who drops in twice a day for this express purpose. At the time most people check into their hotel the cards are already off limits, and so one tends to have to wait until mid-morning the next day to get an e-fix. And then the card may only be used at the hotel which issued it.

One is able to open and close sessions to conserve the time on the scratch card, but the connections are generally so slow that it can often take 30 minutes or more just to read a couple of emails, and in most instances I found myself having to use the basic HTML version of gmail in order to get access to my messages. Everything comes through a proxy, so some of the sites I access for work here in Guatemala were obviously not on the approved list. After a while one tends to give up.

The slowness of Cuba's Internet connection is one of those things that are habitually blamed on the 50-year-old US embargo (as the island has historically depended on satellite links to reach out to the wider infrastructure), but the arrival of a fat new fiber-optic cable from Venezuela last year did not seem to have improved things much when I visited in November.

I did however stumble across one remarkably speedy fixed connection at the ETECSA office in Trinidad***, and on my last morning in Habana Vieja I discovered the sole location offering wi-fi (6 CUC an hour) — the business centre on the Hotel Parque Central's mezzanine level — which is additionally the only facility in this part of town where one is able to print out a document (such as a boarding pass...).

Any hope I might have had that things would be a little less stringent and expensive at the hotels managed by private firms soon evaporated. Not only do they sell the cards at a mark-up from the socialist price, their equipment is often older and their connections yet more sluggish. The Meliá-run Paradisus Rio de Oro five star resort in Holguín province boasts rooms with wi-fi on its website: just the sort of barefaced lie any totalitarian state would usually be really proud of.

* However 70,000 handsets were stolen here in the first quarter of 2011, a problem that the Cubans can consider themselves fortunate not to have to contend with!

** The average salary on the island is just 20-30 CUC a month.

*** These phone company offices require a passport number to associate with the scratch card number, or in the case of locals, an ID number. They know what you are looking at...

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