Cuba’s internet is changing fast (it needs to).

I’m no fan of state owned telecoms companies.  They’re generally where ambition goes to die.  They stifle innovation.  And customers never get a good deal when there’s a monopoly.

But Cuba’s Telco chief Maya Arevich Marin, President of ETECSA, has rather impressed me.

Here’s a country with 11 Million people.  And a decent phone and SMS service.  But by their own figures a measly 150,000 daily internet users.  So penetration under 2%.

By the end of this year the Government plans to double internet WiFi hotspots to 145. Today there are now over 700 public access points in navigation rooms, cyber-cafes, hotels and airports.

What a difference a year in Cuba makes.

But Mrs Marin is doing a rare thing for a Telco chief.  She’s getting out and about and publicly explaining her strategy.

In a year-end interview here Mrs Marin has been explaining where ETECSA, the company she leads, is heading.  It’s in Spanish but I’ll just pick out one or two highlights:

  • Acknowledgement that Cubans want to be connected and significant investment is now being made to ramp up infrastructure and to drive access
  • 40,000 Cuban doctors are now connected to the internet
  • All Cuban universities are now online
  • An interbank network has been created. There are now 773 ATMs in Cuba, 150 of which were installed this year

I’m always impressed that health and education seem to be a priority for Cubans.  Their health sector actually rivals many in the so called developed world.

The Cubans are also experimenting by locating customer assistants at WiFi hotspots. And they are also working on a system to let people buy internet time online rather than through an agent. Send a 2 CUC text message for a 1-hour pass. That’s an amazing deal for Cubans who will see MB rates slashed at these prices.

Bravo Cuba and ETECSA.

And for Europeans visiting Cuba, some good news.  Without warning or fanfare the Government have turned the data roaming switch back on for UK network provider O2.  O2 phone users were cut off a few years ago for some unknown reason.  But Blackberries lit up again with pings just before Christmas.  At about £40 for 50MB it’s not the worst deal, compared to other networks.

Yes, there’s a long way to go.  The Cubans’ biggest challenge is going to be finding the capital to invest in transforming the network.  This is about national infrastructure and (literally) hardwiring the country to support its development as an economy.

Cuba has also managed a world class 4% GDP growth last year, even without being wired to the outside world. Outstanding. Imagine its growth rate when Cubans and Cuban businesses get properly connected to the world.

So I salute Mrs Marin’s candour and admire her willingness to bring this pressing issue into the public domain.

Time and tide waits for no man.  But connecting Cubans to the world, and putting them online, must be a top priority.

Written by David Lenigas