Tech Boom Cuba

The Internet in Cuba is bloody awful. I know from personal experience. But it is better than it was a week ago, a month ago and a year ago. At least Cubans still actually talk to each other because emails are an unaffordable luxury for most, at least for the time being.

Perhaps this is why Cubans have speed texting down to a fine art. Seriously fast. No emails, just texts. The Cuba cell network is brilliant and Cuba-to-Cuba phone and text are as good as anywhere else on earth, especially in the cities.

Less than five percent of Cubans have Internet access. A big leap from a short while ago. Some hotels have free Wifi now and some hotels will sell you Wifi cards. But at $10-$20 an hour it’s damn expensive for a slow, shitty connection that keeps dropping out. Not very good then for streaming the latest episode of Downton or CSI. In fact impossible. I did actually manage to watch BBC One last week for two minutes until it buffered out.

The 35 new Wifi hotspots which just opened in Havana remind me of those old drive-in cinemas where you sat in your car in a field with the speaker hanging through the window watching Grease. Cubans hovering in cars round the clock, and sucking up whatever bandwidth they can get their hands on.

We don’t really know how deep the changes are as a result of the increased connectivity…those huddles of people around the hotspots are real and for now, we don’t really know what they are looking at, or who they are communicating with.  And Cubans are by nature entrepreneurial, it is in their blood.  Just look at what they did to South Florida in a generation.   Miami went from a moribund, geriatric resting place to one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

Local Cubans can get ETCSA cards for 2 CUCs per MB (1 CUC is about $1)… still expensive for Cubans, but certainly not out of reach of people working in the tourist industry and getting tips in foreign currency or CUCS, or for that matter people with relatives in Florida funnelling regular funds to them.

I’ve heard Verizon and Sprint now have data roaming at something like $2 MB. So the times they are a changing. A colleague says his European mobile works for data on roam in Cuba now, albeit slowly, but he cancelled the contract after receiving £600 ($1,000) phone bills for a week in Cuba. We need to remember how much we all paid for roaming 10 years ago. It was a damn lot. Things should get cheaper for Cuba, now the wifi and data flood gates are opening up.

So here’s the problem. Big companies, small companies – taxis, restaurants, musicians, ‘casas particulares’ (Cuban B&Bs) struggle to market themselves. It’s massively inefficient. For example there’s already a major room shortage despite the upsurge in tourism.

But Cubans are smart. And necessity is the mother of invention.

On my last visit I happened upon one or two great examples of Cuba’s fabled underground tech culture.  Cubans are getting a good street reputation for IT and are now being sought after by programmers.  And entrepreneurial Cubans have been setting up some brilliant websites and apps for foreigners visiting the country.  Maybe some of the next generation of global tech gurus and internet billionaires will come from Cuba.

So Cuba may be behind the curve on connectivity just now.  But stand by.  Because Cuba’s coming online and when it does it’s going to do it with a bang.

Written by David Lenigas