Future of ICT Infrastructure

Cuba represents the last unconquered market for most multinational companies, including telecommunication companies like Verizon and ICT companies like Google. In recent years, these companies have been working to soften U.S. regulations and shift Cuban political will towards a more open market. During his visit to Cuba last March, President Barack Obama made it clear that United States policy is leaning toward loosening restrictions to support its private sector interests in the new market. Companies like Starwood and Airbnb are already active in the Cuban market, and others like Google are working with the government to establish mutually-beneficial agreements in order to enter the Cuban market. Verizon signed a deal on March 14th to establish voice roaming between Cuba and the U.S. for American customers—a huge step for the telecommunication sector and for relations between these two countries in general.
In addition, according to recent announcements by the Ministry of Communications, the Nauta service (Internet access accounts) should reach 2,246,208 people by 2018, which is a reasonable goal considering that 1,800,000 accounts currently exist. Though these are just estimates, ETECSA is planning to align these numbers with investments being made to improve Internet access in the country.
On the other hand, in February 2016, ETECSA released plans for a new pilot project, pioneered by the Chinese company Huawei, to link fiber optic cables—high speed broadband Internet—to homes in Havana Vieja. Although there have been no updates on this matter in the last months, some rumors claim that the deal with Huawei might fall through.

Feasibility of future plans

Big questions about the feasibility of these types of agreements and relations remain unanswered and require further research. For example, how can Cuba create an enabling environment for economic development?, What are some of the incentives that the Cuban government will provide to attract foreign investment?, What is Cuba doing to increase Internet access for its people and for foreign companies trying to enter the market?, and Is the expansion of Internet access ever going to be a priority for the government?
The Cuban government has yet to release any details of its long term plan to upgrade telecommunication infrastructure, making the answers to these questions harder to predict. However, on June 8th, 2015, a classified document from the Ministry of Communications was leaked on an online blog called La Chiringa. The document detailed information on the National Strategy for the Expansion of Broadband Infrastructure in Cuba (Estrategia Nacional para el Desarrollo de la Infraestructura de Conectividad de Banda Ancha en Cuba), which was subsequently dismissed by an official statement. Some of the intended plans are, in fact, already being implemented, such as the expansion of WiFi hot spots. However, this document is the closest thing to an official government statement on the intentions of Cuban officials regarding Internet expansion.
If implemented, the plans outlined in this report could transform the future of ICTs on the island. Some examples include:
  • Reaching more than 50% broadband penetration (1,942,950 homes) by 2020. To meet this goal, the government is planning to upgrade Internet infrastructure from dialup to broadband.
  • Reaching 100% Internet access in the Communist party offices by 2018, as well as 80% among commercial entities and 95% within the health and education sectors by 2020.
  • Lowering Internet prices to not exceed 5% of the average monthly salary of Cubans (20-25 CUC).
  • Deploying WiFi hot spots throughout Cuba by 2016 and providing 3G services for mobile users.

One of the most controversial aspects of this strategic plan is the claim that the government will “diversify the entities that offer Internet service,” which suggests that the telecommunication market could be open to increased competition. This would be the greatest push for the ICT sector, as it requires big investments for installation, upgrade, and maintenance of the services that can only be supported by open market competition and privatization of the sector.

Freedom of expression on the Internet

There are many policies and restrictive laws in place regarding the freedom of the Internet. According to Freedom House, a nonprofit organization specializing in exposing restrictions on freedom of speech, Cuba ranks 81st out of 100 countries, thus making it one of the most restrictive countries in the world in regards to freedom of speech on the Internet.

Freedom House, 2015
Freedom House, 2015


Should ICT in Cuba progress more rapidly than expected, the effects of these changes for the Cuban people must be at the forefront of debate. In current conversations about ICT development, the needs and demands of the population (i.e. individual freedom of expression) are ignored and often forgotten.

Unintended consequences of ICT

The transformation of ICTs in the Cuban context presents an opportunity for social and economic change that will alter the lives of Cubans in very deep ways—for better or worse. The unintended consequences of blanket Internet access and its overall impact on Cuban culture and daily experience must be further explored before decisions are made. In general, the world is coming to terms with the many benefits and unintended consequences of digital technologies and ICTs. For example, in the case of terrorism and new media, the tools designed to benefit humanity by improved information sharing are being used to destroy communication networks, restrict the spread of accurate information, and target individuals. The Cuban experience offers an opportunity to use global knowledge of best practices around digital technologies to benefit the Cuban people, avoiding some of the negative consequences and capitalizing on the benefits of ICTs.

Conclusion

The future of the telecommunications sector in Cuba seems very uncertain at this point. This uncertainty, combined with the silence and secrecy of the Cuban officials, suggests that anything can happen for Cuba at the moment since officials are not outright opposing certain options for growth. For example, progress could advance very rapidly, or Cuba could remain disconnected for longer than expected. In the meantime, Cubans have little hope that things are going to change in regards to economic opportunities and Internet access, at least in the short term.
Furthermore, Cubans likely do not understand the full extent to which ICTs could impact their lives. Ten years ago, the rest of the world did not fully grasp how technology would become present in every part of daily life, revolutionizing communication and transforming economies and societies. Lessons learned throughout the rest of the world can be applied to ease the Cuban transition into a digital society. There are many questions in Cuba’s future in relation to ICTs, but one thing is certain, the digital age has arrived in Cuba, and there is no turning back now.
"The sky is not the limit, the Internet is." -- Young Cuban on the Malecón

Malecon and the future plans.jpg
Sunset at the Malecón in Havana. Photo by Tricia Johnson


Written by: Mariela Machado Fantacchiotti
Edited by: Laura Lehman and Emily Sylvia