Earlier this year, Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, introduced a bill on the congressional floor titled the Cuba DATA Act. The bill encouraged U.S. telecommunication companies to set up shop in Cuba and was widely cheered by human rights activists and business leaders alike.
But not so fast.
Just because American companies have been given the green light by the U.S. government to do business in the country, experts say it’s unlikely Google or Verizon will be dropping any high-speed fiber-optic Internet cables on the island any time soon.
“This isn’t just one side, you also have to have a Cuban government that’s interested,” says Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Cuba Study Group. “What challenges will the Cuban government pose regarding censorship? It’s a complicated scenario.”
Bilbao says there are a number of complicating factors to delivering widespread Internet access to Cubans. First and foremost, though, he says the Cuban government may just simply not allow it. The government has historically held a tight grasp over the Internet, and that policy is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the second-largest challenge is that it will be enormously expensive to build the infrastructure. And with Cubans living on about $20 per month, it’s hard to envision a business model that would be profitable for a major U.S. company.
“Let’s say you wanted to offer residential Internet,” Bilbao says. “What’s the purchasing power of the average Cuban household? Can they afford to pay for a residential Internet connection?”
He adds, “If you want to set up an Internet infrastructure, you’d have to drop a fiber-optic cable 90 miles through the Caribbean or through the Bahamas and you’d have to create switching servers and stations inside Cuba.”
Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, agrees the costs would be incredibly high, but it’s the Cuban government that will present the largest hurdle for U.S. telecom companies.
“There are some in the [Cuban] government who resist these things,” says Herrero. Some members of the government, he says, “are not too keen on the idea of having American telecoms providing broad access to the Internet and widespread connectivity throughout the island.”
Last week, Verizon did make an announcement about entering the Cuban market. The company said it had contracted with Etecsa, the (one and only) Cuban-owned telecom company that operates as a monopoly, to offer roaming services to its customers.
Verizon did not, however, announce plans to build cell towers or build out an actual Internet infrastructure.
There’s also the question of policy. Herrero believes that, though President Barack Obama has been supportive of trade agreements with Cuba, a future president may be less likely to support Cuban initiatives.
“The number one obstacle for a lot of these telecom companies looking to get in is changes to the policy itself,” says Herrero. “It is theoretically possible that should you get someone into the White House in 2017 that is not too keen on our relationship with Cuba, and wanted to roll back our relations with Cuba, they could do that.”
This summer, the Cuban government opened 35 Wi-Fi access points nationwide.
The government maintains that 25 percent of the country’s 11 million residents have access to the country’s Internet, though critics say that’s an exaggeration. Either way, the Cuban government version of the Internet is much different from most other places in the world. It’s a lot more like a corporate intranet, and users can’t access sites like Facebook or Twitter. “In speaking with hundreds of Cubans, it’s obvious the 25 percent number isn’t remotely close to being accurate,” writes Jason Koebler at Vice. “I didn’t meet one single Cuban who had Internet access in their homes during the three weeks I was there.”
Still, there are even some solo entrepreneurs who are traveling to Cuba in hopes of building an Internet infrastructure. Peter Zimble, a Los Angeles-based tech entrepreneur who has built Internet infrastructure in Iraq, actually moved to Havana to try to build an Internet business. “There’s really no one you can talk to in Cuba who doesn’t believe the Internet is going to change their lives, change the situation here,” Zimble told WLRN-TV in Miami recently.
The article added, however, “Only one person can give the Internet the green light in Cuba: President Raúl Castro. And that could take a while.”