Cuba and the Internet: Choices, Challenges, and Opportunities

Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda
Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
University of Information Science
Havana, Cuba
January 22, 2016

I am honored to be back in Cuba, this time with my friend Tom Wheeler, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, as well as other high level representatives from the U.S. Government, academia, and the private sector.

President Obama has taken significant and historic steps to cut loose the anchor of the past and to chart a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba that will engage and empower the Cuban people. That is nowhere truer than when it comes to telecommunications and technology and our technical community and industry have responded enthusiastically. We have with us on the trip some real leaders in technology and communications.

We strongly urge the Cuban leadership to respond to this initiative because it will benefit both our peoples.

We are here on this trip to advance President Obama’s goal of deepening our relationship and the lines of communications between our two peoples. We want to share our perspectives and experience as you work to expand Internet and communications connectivity. We believe that greater connectivity could deliver tremendous economic benefits and improve the delivery of services to the Cuban people, and we think that you and your leaders agree.

The question I most often hear at home is whether or not Cubans will be able to develop the Cuban economy using information and communication technologies? I say yes. Given the talent, creativity, and capabilities of its, young engineers, programmers, and innovators, I have no doubt Cuba is on the way to becoming an active participant in shaping the global Internet realm. And the world will welcome your engagement.

So what have we and many other countries learned from engaging with the Internet over the past 20 years that might help you in considering next steps?

In short, we have learned that in order for any country to benefit from and acquire modern information and communications technologies (ICTs), there are various measures that governments around the world take in order to attract investment, operate networks, and deliver services. We hope that Cuba will consider these initiatives, including transparent procurement for telecommunications, encouraging competition in the industry, broader provision of Internet and mobile wireless services, new initiatives for connecting schools, health facilities, and rural communities; broadband deployment plans, and the opening of the telecommunications sector to private companies for “last mile services.”

While not every country has adopted each and every one of the policies, many have, even given varying levels of economic development, as well as varying philosophies of the role of the state in markets.

We are here to respectfully share our ideas on how the adoption of telecommunications and Internet technologies and changes in policy can help Cuba’s economy achieve great benefits.

I also want to note that the Cuban government has taken some positive steps in this area over the last year and so we offer some ideas for building on those initiatives.

  1. First, we commend Cuba for increasing the availability of public Internet access spots. In 2015, the Cuban government established some 58 Wi-Fi hotspots. We consistently hear that demand for access at these locations has been tremendous. There are now more public Internet access points than ever before and we urge the Cuban Government to continue adding more hotspots around the island, expanding their successes.
  2. We recognize Cuba has reduced the cost of public Internet access but it is still too expensive. The cost of Internet access remains high relative to income in Cuba but prices are dropping. When the Cuban government established the 35 Wi-Fi hotspots, it also reduced the hourly rate from $4.50 to $2.00 which is good. But this effectively means that it still costs the average Cuban about 10% of his/her monthly salary to get online. At the same time the hourly cost, however, for access to Cuba’s closed Intranet system is only about 60 cents. Reducing the Wi-Fi hotspot cost for access to the global Internet further would go a long way in improving Cuba’s internet access rate and the utility of that access.
  3. Cuba is investing in DSL technology and we see a real opportunity to integrate more modern technology to advance its broadband strategy. Around the globe, we see the benefits of using fiber or high-speed mobile technology, as well as satellite service, and cloud-based solutions, as key components of any nation’s Internet infrastructure. More and more, nations draw on foreign direct investment and joint ventures to make this possible and Cuba should consider changes to policy to attract that kind of investment and allow those kinds of joint ventures.
  4. Cuban demand for mobile wireless technology is on the rise. Cuban mobile networks operate primarily on 2G technology (second generation), which was first introduced in 1992. Smart phones need at least 3G (third generation) to run effectively. Cuba has an opportunity to skip generations of technology and leap to 3G and even 4G networks. Often, nations spur investment by allowing foreign firms to build infrastructure and deploy services on some commercially viable basis.
  5. We also believe Cuba could and will need to loosen regulations for consumer and residential Internet use if the Internet is to reach Cubans where they live. The Cuban government continues to regulate the sale and distribution of Internet-related equipment, and residential connections are not yet freely allowed for the majority of Cubans. Cuban import regimes also prohibit phones that utilize Global Positioning Systems and require special authorization for modems and satellite dishes.
  6. Cuba can take greater advantage of U.S. regulations. U.S. regulations now permit a wide-range of activities that would support the Cuban ICT sector. By taking advantage of these changes, Cuba can enjoy state of the art communications and fast track its entry into the global Internet community.
  7. Cuba has made progress in upgrading its infrastructure and would further benefit from a new submarine cable from Miami to Havana. Linking Cuba directly to the United States would increase capacity within Cuba and allow for more efficient routing of traffic. The additional international link would serve a vital purpose in needed network redundancy and emergency preparedness.
  8. In order to reap the full economic benefit from vast sources of information and tools on the Internet, people need open access. We should have faith in people’s ability to discern the value of information for themselves and avoid centrally censoring or blocking voices or services.

All or some of these policies have proven themselves useful in other countries and we hope you will consider them here. We do not want the Cuban people left behind. And we very much want to work with you to connect Cuba to the world.

Thank you very much