Cuba is on the brink of an internet revolution

BERLIN — Less than a week ago I found myself waiting in several long lines in Cuba to buy a card for anywhere between £3 and £5 (Cuban’s can get it for more like £1) that would provide me with a username and a password that I could use to get online for an hour at a time.

Each time I purchased one of these internet cards — issued by Cuba’s state-run telecoms company, ETESCA — I had to then find a public square or a high-end hotel in order to access the internet.

For someone that is used to being connected 24/7, this was something of a shock. But for Cubans, who still aren’t allowed access to the internet in their homes, a lack of connectivity is something they have always had to live with. The Caribbean island has the lowest level of internet connectivity in the western hemisphere.

But this week we got a big sign that Cuba is slowly starting to embrace the internet.

Google, arguably the world’s biggest internet company and a portal to almost everything online, started turning on servers in Cuba. The activity was reportedly spotted first by internet monitoring firm Dyn on Wednesday, and Google confirmed it had set servers live in Cuba in an email to The Verge. In turning on the servers, Google became the first foreign internet company to host content within the long-isolated country.

It means that Cubans will now be able to access Google products like YouTube and Google Search through a local Google server in their country. ETESCA will use the servers to locally deliver some of Google’s most popular and high-bandwidth content, such as YouTube videos. That should make streaming video content and using Google Apps faster and more efficient for Cubans. But it won’t probably won’t change the slow speeds that Cubans get when they visit non-Google sites, such as Facebook.

Previously, Cubans had to access Google’s products through a submarine cable, which currently connects Cuba to the internet via Venezuela, according to BuzzFeed.

The difference should be noticeable for Cubans almost immediately, according to Dyn. Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the company, told CNBC: “I think this will be very noticeable for Cubans. The internet in Cuba will still be a painfully slow process. This is just another somewhat rare step forward. For Google services, which will be hosted in country, it will be a milestone.”

The partnership between Google and Cuba was announced in December in a blog post on Google’s website.

“Google and the national telecommunications company of Cuba ETECSA have signed an agreement to offer the Google Global Cache service, contributing to improve the online experience for Cubans who use Google products,” wrote Marian Croak, VP of access strategy and emerging markets, and Brett Perlmutter, manager of strategy and operations for Cuba, in a joint post Google on Google’s Latin American blog.

“This agreement allows ETECSA to use our technology to reduce latency by locally delivering some of our most popular and high bandwidth content, such as YouTube videos. This means that Cubans who already have access to the internet and want to use our services will see an improvement in terms of the quality of the same and a reduction in latency for the contents in cache.”

Google did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

Cuba cuban government buildingSam Shead/BIA Cuban government building in Havana.

For many people in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is around £20, the £1 an hour pay-as-you-go internet cards are something of a luxury. That’s particularly true for people living in rural areas, where the country’s tourist currency, known as the Convertible Peso and worth about 25x more than the normal Cuban Peso, is harder to come by.

Several Cuban citizens that I spoke to last week wanted Cuban leader Raul Castro and his communist government to make the internet cheaper and more widespread to allow them to take full advantage of what it has to offer from both personal and business perspectives.

Two Airbnb hosts that I stayed with said that having an internet connection in their home would make their lives significantly easier, adding that most of their income comes from letting out rooms on the platform.

But, one added, the government “likes to be in control” and that restricting internet access has helped with this.

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