Kate Woodsome | Washington DC
Cuba, as seen through reflective puddles, windows and windshields. Photo by Zoriah.
Whenever my Internet connection is slow, I try to imagine I’m using a typewriter so that I’m pleasantly surprised, rather than infuriated, by the pace and technology. It’s a mind game I learned years ago when I lived in Cuba, where the Internet is painfully slow.
This week, the Cuban government announced a change that might just pick up the pace. The state-run Granma newspaper acknowledged Thursday the government is conducting tests on an undersea fiber-optic cable connecting Cuba with Venezuela and Jamaica and, through them, the world.
The report said the ALBA-1 cable, in the works since 2007, has been operational since August when Cuba began studying voice traffic related to international telephony. Then, this month, it started testing the quality of Internet traffic on the system.
This is a big deal.
Until now, Cuba has only had satellite-based Internet largely because of restrictions under the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
The global Internet monitoring group Renesys first broke news of the cable’s activation in a blog post this week that sparked an international buzz and seemingly forced Granma to confirm the report.
Doug Madory of Renesys says he has sifted through Cuba’s Internet traffic for the past six years and has never seen speeds like he’s seeing now. The latency, or lag time, is way down.
“Now it’s down to sometimes below 200 miliseconds, which has never occurred in Cuba. Ever,” he told me.
That doesn’t mean Cubans will be streaming movies uninterrupted anytime soon. Madory says latency is still “pretty high” because of various factors, like antiquated equipment.
And even if the speed improves further, that doesn’t mean access will.
“How much this helps the people of Cuba is an entirely different matter,” Madory says.
If you’re Cuban, you’re not allowed to get on the Internet without government permission. There’s a local intranet in schools and state-run computer centers, but connection to the World Wide Web is mostly limited to government officials.
When I was in Havana, I’d run up the steps of the Capitolio, leaving my Cuban friends outside their own capitol building while I paid outrageous prices to use the Internet cafe for foreign tourists.
There are ways around the restrictions. Some government workers quietly pad their salaries by renting out time on their home computers, but the price is prohibitive for most Cubans.
Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger who’s gained a global following by emailing posts to friends outside the country, mocked the Internet “upgrade” on Twitter.
— Yoani Sánchez (@yoanisanchez) January 23, 2013
Her tweet reads: “#Cuba If the #FiberOpticCable with #Venezuela is active, why does an hour of Internet in a hotel still cost one-third of a monthly salary?”
Sanchez, temporarily detained last year for her blogging and political interests, sends tweets using an SMS phone messaging system. It’s just one of the tricks Cubans use to connect with the outside world.
Granma said after tests on the ALBA-1 cable are finished, it will not “automatically increase the possibilities of access.”
The newspaper reported the island’s telecommunications infrastructure will have to improve, as will its foreign exchange resources. And only then, it said, will Cuba “achieve the gradual growth of a service we provide free today mostly with social objectives.”
Cuba is changing. Mobile phones are no longer banned, and the government just ended its requirement that Cubans get a special exit permit to leave the island. The country’s economy is sluggish, and loosening certain restrictions like these could be a way to improve the foreign exchange resources Granma mentioned.
But for my Cuban friends who were left waiting outside while I surfed the Web, the changes are as painfully slow as the Internet.