Getting cell phones into Cuban hand

HAVANA, Cuba — A cell phone is a handy device on this under-wired island. Just not for making phone calls.

Cuba’s state-run wireless monopoly, Cubacel, has some of the steepest rates in the world, charging the equivalent of 50 cents per minute for outgoing and incoming calls. In a country where the average salary is less than $20 a month, half a day’s wages can disappear with the first “Hola.”

And yet, with internet access on the island so limited, Cubans are increasingly connecting to the world through their cell phones, instead of the web. When friends or family members dial from abroad, the calls are free to receive. Ditto for international text messages.

Opponents of the Castro government sense an opportunity in this trend. The U.S. government, Cuban exile groups and dissidents on the island say cell phones can be a conduit of unfiltered information to ordinary Cubans. And the role of cell phone communication via Twitter in organizing protests in Iran and elsewhere has not gone unnoticed.

Only the Cuban government is not clamping down its network, but opening it up. Since Raul Castro lifted a ban on Cubans owning cell phones in 2008, the number of wireless accounts in the country has soared by 600,000 to more than 838,000 today, according to Cuban telecom officials.

Activation fees have been slashed from $150 two years ago to roughly $25. International calling rates are also being cut, and the number of wireless users in the country (pop. 11 million) is expected to grow to 2.4 million by 2015. The island’s GSM network already covers 70 percent of Cuba’s territory and further expansions are planned.

“We’re going to keep working to provide the benefits of telecommunications to a greater number of Cubans,” said Cuban telecom official Maximo Lafuente at a recent press conference in Havana. “There’s no doubt that cell phones are an important foundation to the country’s development.”

The U.S. government wouldn’t disagree, even if it has a differing type of “development” in mind. It views cell phones as direct channels of information to an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less than 2 percent of Cuban households have an internet connection. Popular voice-over-internet-protocol services like Skype are also blocked by the Cuban government.

Last year, the Obama administration exempted U.S. wireless providers from longstanding trade sanctions against Cuba, calling increased communications with Cuba “our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island.”

“This will increase the means through which Cubans on the island can communicate with each other and with persons outside of Cuba,” the administration said.

U.S. companies and the Cuban government haven’t signed any deals, though, and the chances of such agreements seem remote. The biggest obstacle is some $160 million in Cuban telecom assets that U.S. courts have seized to award Cuban American litigants who’ve sued the Castro government in absentia.

For the meantime, then, U.S. activists and organizations are simply aiming to get more cell phones into the hands of ordinary Cubans.

Roots of Hope, a Cuban American group in Miami, has started a campaign called “Cell Phones for Cuba (C4C),” urging supporters to donate phones that can be delivered for use on the island or recycled and used to purchase new devices.

The group says the phones will “provide Cubans with mobile news and information, help them make sense of the information, and enable coordination to act upon the information.”

United Nations statistics show Cuba has only 9.8 fixed phone lines per 100 inhabitants, among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. That’s even fewer lines than Cuba had in 1958, the year before Fidel Castro came to power, when the rate was 15 per 100 inhabitants. So expanding wireless access enables Cubans who don’t have landlines to possess at least some form of communication device, even if few can afford to talk on the phones.

DIALING IN THE AMERICAS (Landlines per 100 inhabitants):

  • 1. Canada: 55
  • 2. United States: 51.3
  • 31. Cuba: 9.8
  • 35. (lowest) Haiti: 1.1
  • Entire region: 30.6
  • Source: 2009 U.N. International Telecommunications Union

Instead, Cubans primarily use the phones as text-messaging machines and glorified pagers. Users screen incoming numbers, then call back later from a public phone or the house of a friend or neighbor. Text messages are roughly 15 cents apiece — still a bit pricey — but also increasingly popular.

Even capitalist-style SPAM is beginning to contaminate the socialist island’s networks. Some Cubacel subscribers have been receiving text messages from entertainment promoters about upcoming parties or concerts, while others say they’ve gotten anonymous political messages with an anti-Castro bent sent to their phones.

Blogger and internet activist Claudia Cadelo said she welcomes the growth of cell phone use, but she said she thinks the government’s decision to grow its wireless customer base is sheerly economic. “I think it’s being done out of necessity,” she said. “But economic decisions also create openings in society.”

When Cadelo was briefly detained by Cuban security forces last November along with fellow blogger Yoani Sanchez, she used her cell phone to update her Twitter account from the back seat of the police car, alerting more than a thousand followers. The incident quickly became international news, drawing condemnation from the White House and European governments.

“Cell phones are an invaluable tool,” Cadelo said. “But they’re not a substitute for the internet.” – Swimming pool luxury villa in Havana, Cuba


Less phones per capita in Cuba now than in 1958

Juan O. Tamayo | ICCAS

Cuba’s cellular telephone service mushroomed in 2008, but the remainder of its telecommunications and information technology sectors were stagnant or even shrank, according to the most recent report from the Havana government.

The data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONE) (1) in fact put Cuba at or near the hemisphere’s bottom in terms of fixed telephone lines, personal computers and access to the Internet. ONE’s data, especially on the economy, is sometimes regarded as suspect. But its June report is so grim that it’s difficult to believe the figures could be worse.

The sole positive news was a significant jump in the number of cellular lines from 2007 to 2008, apparently the result of Raul Castro’s decision to allow all Cubans to contract for cell service—though at sky-high prices, about $35 a month for the service in a country where the average monthly income officially stands at about $17. Cell service during that period grew by about 136,000 lines, from about 330,000 to about 466,000, according to ONE.

Yet fixed telephone lines barely grew in the same period, from 999,490 to 1,033,565. With a total of 1.42 million fixed, cell and other telephone lines in a country of 11.2 million people, the island’s telephone density per 100 inhabitants at the end of 2008 stood at 12.6, the lowest in Latin America and even lower than Haiti’s, the poorest country in the hemisphere.

In its information technology sections, ONE reported that 1,314,000 Cubans had graduated as of the end of 2007 from computer literacy courses at the 611 Youth Computer Clubs (Joven Club de Computacion), government-run centers spread around the island that claimed to have 6,300 computers. Yet the rest of ONE’s numbers left many puzzling how those Cubans would use that knowledge, given the limited number of computers and internet connections.

Cuba has some 630,000 personal computers—56 per 1000 people, compared to the 191.5 per 1000 reported by the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis—of which 400,000 are “connected in network,” according to the statistics office. Its 1,450,000 reported “users” equal about 13 percent of the population, although Havana residents say most of those computers are at work places, such as ministries, factories and hospitals, and that most of those “users” are likely only on the island’s “intranet”—a system that limits their access to mostly government web pages and domestic e-mails.

Even at 13 percent, Cuba lags far behind other Latin American countries in Internet access. It’s ahead of El Salvador, with 9.9 percent, but behind Costa Rica’s 35.7 per cent and Jamaica’s 53 percent, according to Internet World Stats, an independent web site that tracks the industry. The average for all of Latin America and the Caribbean is 29.9 percent.

ONE also reported computer equipment imports worth $6.1 million in 2008, compared to $3.6 million in 2007 and a mere $120,640 in 2006, as well as 2,168 domain names registered under the “.CU” extension. Under a sector titled “Investments in information technologies and communications” it reported 317 million Cuban pesos invested in 2008, far less than the 423 million it reported for 2007 and about the same as the 312 million it reported for 2003.

Celular phone in Cuba

Celular phone in Cuba

Despite Cuba’s clear lag behind the rest of the region on the communications and information technology sectors, Raul Castro has given no hint that he might take advantage of President Barack Obama’s decision in April to ease some of the telecommunications sections of the U.S. embargo. U.S. companies can now provide cellular service and roaming in Cuba, satellite TV and fiber optic cable facilities, and accept payments for those services from U.S. residents—for example, someone in Miami paying for a relative in Havana to receive satellite TV.

Castro’s stance is not going to help Cuba improve its service—or its world rankings—in those sectors. While the 12.6 phone lines per 100 inhabitants reported for 2008 was about double the 6.4 lines per 100 reported for 2003, it’s still way below the 15 per 100 that Cuba reported in 1958—at the time the second highest rate in Latin America. – cuba hotel reservation and online hotel booking

Cuba Wants Expanded Cell Phone Service

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 8 — Nearly a half million Cubans currently own a cell phone after the government headed by Raul Castro freed up access to them for its citizens, said Maximo Lafuente, vice president of the Cuba Telecommunications Company (ETCSA). The executive says the government has the “firm intention” to continue expanding the service and make it accessible to the majority of the population if the resources permit, reported IPS.

Currently, cell phone lines are only available in Cuba’s hard currency the CUC. Although the price for a line has dropped from 110 to 60 CUC (140 to 75 USD) they are still beyond the reach of those without remittances, tips or other non-salary related income. Nonetheless, the island’s network of home and public phones, albeit insufficient, is very inexpensive with local calls costing on a fraction of a cent per minute.

Cell phone costs slashed for Cubans

The Associated Press

It’s now a little bit easier to activate a cell phone in Cuba.

Cuba’s telephone monopoly Etecsa is cutting the cost of activating a cellular phone from $120 to about $65 – a move that could put the once-restricted devices in the hands of more ordinary citizens.

In April, the government opened cellular phone service to any Cuban who can afford it. Previously, only foreigners and Cubans holding key government jobs could have cell phones.

Customers still must buy a phone card for the calls. Making or receiving local calls costs 30 cents a minute. Calls to the U.S. are $2.70 a minute.

Cell phones are still out of reach for most Cubans, whose salaries average about $20 month.