Broadband Cable On its Way to Unplugged Cuba*
By Rory Carroll
Cuba is set to join the high-speed broadband era with an undersea fibre-optic cable laid from Venezuela, bringing the promise of speedy internet to one of the world’s least connected countries.
A specialised ship sailed from Camuri beach, near the Venezuelan port of La Guaria, this weekend, trailing the cable from buoys on the start of a 1,000-mile journey across the Caribbean sea.
Venezuelan and Cuban officials hailed the project as a blow to the United States’ embargo on the island. It will make Cuba’s connection speed 3,000 times faster and modernise its economy.
“This means a giant step for the independence and sovereignty of our people,” Rogelio Polanco, Cuba’s ambassador to Caracas, said at a pomp-filled ceremony in tropical sunshine.
The ship, Ile de Batz, owned by the French company Alcatel-Lucent, will lay the cable at depths of up to 5,800 metres and is expected to reach eastern Cuba by 8 February. Cuba’s government said the cable should be in use by June or July.
Cuba has some censorship restrictions but the impact could be profound. The country has just 14.2 internet users per 100 people, the western hemisphere’s lowest ratio, with access largely restricted to government offices, universities, foreign companies and tourist hotels.
The 50-year-old US embargo prevented Cuba tapping into Caribbean fibre-optic cables, forcing it to rely on a slow, expensive satellite link of just 379 megabits per second.
Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, Havana’s closest ally, funded the $70m (£43.8m) cable and named it Alba-1, after the region’s Caracas-led leftwing alliance. Improved communication is necessary to effect “historic, political and cultural change”, said Ricardo Menéndez, Venezuela’s science, technology and industry minister.
The cable should boost President Raúl Castro’s drive to modernise Cuba’s centrally planned economy and make state enterprises slimmer and more efficient. About 500,000 state workers will lose their jobs this year. In addition to broadband, the cable will let Cuba’s creaky telephone system handle millions of calls at once. It will be extended to Jamaica next year.
Cuban officials said the priority would be improving communications for those who already had access to the island’s intranet, a government-controlled version of the internet. Broadband would mean higher quality communication but not necessarily “broader” communication, said the communist daily newspaper Granma, dampening hopes of an information explosion.
Most Cubans would still have to rely on state media for news,, meaning a diet of propaganda about government successes and distorted reporting of the outside world, said Antonio González-Rodiles, 38, a scientist in Havana. “I think it’s pretty unlikely they are going to let Cubans access this immense information source, given there’s no clear [state] desire to democratise our society and reduce censorship. A lot of things are going to have to change before Cubans will be able to navigate this sea of information.”
The recent lifting of a ban on mobile phones and personal computers means more information is bypassing state channels, especially through the use of memory sticks, but high costs and state monitoring may have limited the impact.
Bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez have won attention and plaudits abroad for their chronicles of daily life, but they remain a marginal force at home.
Cuba’s usual form of international communication – post – received a setback at the weekend when Havana suspended all deliveries to the US.
Authorities said sacks of mail were being returned from the US because of tighter counter-terrorism restrictions, following an attempt to smuggle explosives in cargo from Yemen.
Returning the packages was costing Cuba’s postal service, prompting the abrupt suspension until further notice of a service which only resumed in 2009 after a 42-year gap during the cold war. The Obama administration lifted the postal ban in what was seen as a cautious effort to improve ties with Havana.