US embargo makes Cuban internet slow and expensive

by Dalia Acosta, Inter Press Service

Authorities in Cuba blame the U.S. embargo for the high local cost of Internet connections, and for the serious problems in web services in this socialist Caribbean island nation.

"Despite the fact that international fibre optic cables run very close to Cuban shores, the rules of the (U.S.) blockade prevent connection to these," said Cuban Informatics and Communications Minister Ramiro Valdés.

According to Valdés, Washington agreed to Cuba's connection to the Internet in 1996, but opposed its connection to any fibre optic cable, "meaning that the nation is forced to use a satellite channel with a mere 65 Mbps (megabytes per second) broadband for output and 124 Mbps for input."

"The rules also state that any new addition to or modification of the channel requires a license from the U.S. Treasury Department," he said.

Apart from the fact that Internet access is restricted to certain sectors of the population, with fees of over 200 dollars a month for full access, the slowness of the connection is a daily problem in Cuba. "Here you don't surf, you float," said Laura Gómez, 49, a computer scientist.

"Connection via fibre optics would not only permit a faster connection, but also significantly lower costs," said Valdés at the inauguration of the international Information Technology (IT) Convention 2007, which has drawn over 1,650 experts from 58 countries to Havana this week.

Until recently, the problem seemed to depend solely on the nature of the relations between Havana and Washington. Now it will be solved by laying an undersea fibre optic cable from Cuba to Venezuela, which will allow Cuban communications to link up with other countries.

This initiative is included among the 16 bilateral agreements signed by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments on Jan. 24. In addition to establishing the international telecommunications system, the agreements cover projects in the tourism sector, oil exploration and transport.

Valdés made no mention of the possibilities opened up by this agreement, but he emphasised the progress made by the government plan to computerise society, in spite of the obstacles arising from the four-decade embargo.

According to official statistics, over 11,000 students are taking higher education degrees related to IT and telecommunications, another 38,000 are attending courses at IT polytechnics, and more than one million people have taken courses in over 600 Computer Youth Clubs all over the country.

"Our communication networks will continue to improve, and the range of equipment available will be increased and modernised, with priority being given to the sectors of greatest social relevance: health centres, education, cultural and scientific institutions," Valdés said.

According to the minister, in Cuba "all schools now posses IT and audiovisual resources as learning tools, even in the most remote centres, which run off solar power, and even if they only have one pupil."

Internet access is mainly available at workplaces and educational institutions. In some cases, international electronic mail and surfing restricted to the national intranet, a local network, is available. Those who have full Internet access, paying connection fees in dollars, are still barred from visiting pornographic sites or websites that are hostile to the Cuban government.

Full access is provided to foreign embassies and companies, and to the international press in Cuba, for instance. An unspecified number of Cuban journalists working for the state press are also given access to this service, and pay special rates.

Universities, scientific institutes and the state media also have full access connections.

According to government figures, in mid-2005 the country had 335,000 computers, equivalent to 29.8 for every 1,000 population. In 2004, only 13 out of every 1,000 people were hooked up to the Internet. There were 480,000 registered electronic mailboxes, but it was not possible to tell how many people actually used them.

There are no precise figures on use of the Internet in Cuba, but experts judge that at least 10 people make use of each official e-mail account. To these must be added illegal accounts, purchased on the black market, and an unknown number of users of free international e-mail services like Yahoo! or Gmail.

"Let's see what happens when we have fibre optic connections. Let's hope the range of choice widens," said Luis Gutiérrez, a 37-year-old doctor who surfs the Cuban intranet. "The modern world is all on the Internet, and we Cubans can't live our whole lives apart from the world."

Minister Valdés complained that "the U.S. blockade not only prevents us from acquiring equipment and IT programmes from U.S. companies, but also, due to its extraterritorial nature, it persecutes our commercial operations with companies from other nations, even in the most distant regions."

The economic sanctions also "prevent U.S. citizens and institutions from using the Web as a means by which to perform transactions with Cuban institutions; and blocks are also put on attempts to download software and information, including free downloads, if the IP (Internet Protocol) number is identified as being from Cuba."

Computer scientist Gómez, in charge of communications in a mixed company involving foreign and Cuban state capital, told IPS: "You realise how much the blockade influences your life, when you want to download or buy an antivirus programme like Panda, and they tell you it can't be done because you're in Cuba."

"It doesn't make any difference that we're not a wholly Cuban firm, and it doesn't make a difference that the supplier is not a U.S. company," she added.

article originally published at http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=36567.

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