Cuba Reports 16 Percent Online In Some Capacity


AP:

About 16 percent of Cubans are online in some capacity with access to email, the island’s intranet or the worldwide Web, a government agency says.

Cuba’s National Statistics Office said in a report posted online this week that nearly 1.8 million of the country’s 11.2 million residents used some kind of “Internet service” in 2010, a 12 percent increase from 1.6 million the previous year.

The report shows a generally steady increase since 2005.

The U.S. trade embargo has long kept Cuba from connecting to nearby undersea fiber-optic cables, forcing the island to rely on slow, expensive satellite service.

Cuba currently has the second-worst connectivity rates on the planet, according to a report by Akamai Technologies Inc. But a $70 million undersea cable laid with Venezuelan help arrived this year and could come online as early as this month.

The new usage figure is separate from a survey last year by the same office that found only 2.9 percent of Cubans reported having access to the Internet, mostly through schools and workplaces.

The previous survey likely suffered from underreporting of access to black market dial-up accounts. It also was apparently more narrowly focused on direct access to the Web.

The island’s intranet is a limited but more widely available online service in which people can surf local sites and open email accounts to send and receive correspondence, including to and from other countries.

Outside experts put the real number of Cubans with access to the larger worldwide Web at about 5 percent to 10 percent.

Cuba treats its limited bandwidth as a precious resource and gives priority to usage deemed to have social merit, such as at universities. Scarce home dial-up accounts are expensive and not available to most Cubans.

The Statistics Office’s new report also cited a boom in cellphone usage since President Raul Castro loosened restrictions in 2008. While mobile users numbered just 200,000 in 2007, just over 1 million were registered by last year, it said.

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The battle of the blogs begins


ACCORDING to government figures, only 3% of Cubans frequently use the internet, making the communist island the least connected place in the Americas. Those that do require patience: according to an industry survey, Cuba’s dial-up internet access is the world’s second-slowest, after Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. Under the guise of rationing the use of bandwidth, internet access is banned in most private homes and censored in offices.

For this sorry state of affairs, Cuba’s authorities have long blamed the United States’ trade embargo. They have a point. Although a fibre-optic cable, capable of carrying heavy data traffic, runs tantalisingly close to the island’s northern coast, George W. Bush’s administration blocked a proposal by AT&T to hook Cuba up to it. In 2009 Barack Obama authorised American companies to provide internet services to the island. But Cuba showed no interest in exploring the possibility. Instead it turned to its ally and benefactor, Venezuela.

Last month officials celebrated the arrival of a 1,600km (1,000-mile) fibre-optic cable laid along the seabed from Venezuela by a consortium including France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Britain’s Cable & Wireless. Venezuela’s government has put up the $70m it cost (including a second link from Cuba to Jamaica). Once fully connected in a few months’ time, it will raise data-transmission speed almost 3,000 times.

So will Cubans now have free access to the internet? The government has no fear of that, insisted Jorge Luis Perdomo, the deputy-minister of information. Yet last month it charged Alan Gross, an American arrested in 2009 for distributing satellite gear for accessing the internet to Jewish groups in Cuba, with spying. Mr Perdomo says that Cuba simply lacks the cash to install the necessary computers and routing gear. Nevertheless, it recently found $500m as an upfront payment to buy out an Italian group which had formed a joint venture with the state telecoms firm.

Officials know that they face a small but active band of critical bloggers. In practice, the government has found it impossible to block access to the internet completely. Many Cubans bypass curbs by buying internet accounts on the black market. The loophole they exploit is that senior managers, doctors and some academics are permitted home internet accounts. Some use this perk to supplement their state salary of $20 a month by selling their usernames and passwords for around $30 a month, often several times over.

In a video circulating in Havana, probably leaked by the government, an official promises to fight back against the American government’s use of social-networking sites to promote dissent. “They have their bloggers and we have our bloggers,” he says. “We will fight to see who is stronger.” Recently, for the first time in three years, Cuban internet users could access the website of Yoani Sánchez, an opposition blogger. Along with her many supporters abroad, a handful of government backers have taken to posting their hostile comments. A virtual battle has begun.

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Internet critic is identified in Cuba


Miami Herald:

The lecturer in a Cuban government video on the dangers of the Internet has been identified — on the Internet — as a 38-year-old counter-intelligence official who follows blogger Yoani Sánchez on Twitter. Eduardo Fontes Suárez’s Facebook page is now down.

But photos of him as a teenager and details on his education and the Havana neighborhood where he lives have been appearing in blogs about Cuba.

The video, which began getting attention Thursday on the Internet, showed an unidentified lecturer speaking to an audience of Interior Ministry officers about the dangers that the Web presents to the Cuban government.

“The Internet is a field of battle,” the lecturer declares as he argues that the U.S. government has tried at least since 2008 to use the Web to subvert the Cuban revolution.

Popular bloggers like Sánchez – she regularly criticizes the Cuban government — and even groups of young Cuban-Americans that reach out to their counterparts on the island are part of a covert U.S. campaign against the island, he adds.

By Friday night, the lecturer had been identified by readers of Penultimos Dias, a Spain-based blog about Cuba issues. Other blogs, including the Miami-based Café Fuerte, fleshed out his identity in the following days.

Fontes Suárez is a 38-year-old computer engineer who joined the Interior Ministry’s counter-intelligence section after he graduated in 1990 or 1991 from Havana’s Vladimir Ilich Lenin high school, which is reserved for the children of Cuba’s ruling elites, according to comments posted by visitors to the blogs.

He is the son of a lieutenant colonel in the Interior Ministry’s State Security Directorate — in charge of domestic security — and now lives in the Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, according to the posts.

He’s married to Beatriz Basabe, a biochemist who works for the Nutrition and Food Hygiene Institute in Havana, where she carries out nutritional studies, according to another comment.

By Monday, Penultimos Dias had published three photos of Fontes Suárez as a teenager, but attempts to view his Facebook page were answered with the message, “This content is currently unavailable.”

“I don’t know how they are going to fight in the ’cyberwar against Cuba’ if they withdraw from Facebook. With those opponents, we’ve already won,” wrote one visitor to Penultimos Dias.

Other comments on the blog identified him as the holder of the Twitter account “Tatofontes” — Tato is a common nickname for Eduardo. The last Twitter he posted came near midnight on Dec. 15 – “Buanas (si, mal escrito) Noches La Habana — Good Night Havana.

The Tatofontes account shows he is “followed” by 92 other persons on Twitter and that he in turn “follows” 112 others. Among those he follows are Yoany Sánchez, pro-government singer Silvio Rodriguez and the El Nuevo Herald newspaper.

Traffic jams unlikely on Cuban data highway


HAVANA (Reuters) – A Venezuelan fiber optic cable should plug Cuba into high-speed Internet within months, but it may not immediately bring an explosion in connectivity to inhabitants of the communist-ruled Caribbean island.

Virtual highways in Cuba, known for its 1950s autos and low car ownership, are also dated and the small number of individuals logged on makes it one of Latin America’s least wired nations.

This weekend, a unit of the French company Alcatel-Lucent is due to start laying a 1,000-mile, $70 million submarine fiber optic cable from Venezuela, and it is due to reach Cuba’s southeast coast in February.

Havana says the connection should come online in June, but Cuban officials warn that technological and financial constraints will still not allow them to grant massive public access to the Internet.

“Deploying connectivity is not something you do overnight because it costs a lot of money and you need other investments,” Deputy Communications Minister Ramon Linares recently told the local media, in apparent reference to servers, routers and other network gear.

The limitations on Web usage have become a new front in Cuba’s long-running conflict with the United States, which, along with human rights groups, says tight Cuban regulations on Web access restrict citizens’ freedoms.

In turn, President Raul Castro’s government says the five decades under a U.S. trade embargo have blocked Cuba off from technology and mean it cannot yet afford to expand full Web linkups much beyond workplaces, education sites and hotels.

Socialist allies Cuba and Venezuela are united by their opposition to U.S. power. They see the fiber optic line, which also extends to Jamaica, as a way of emphasizing independence from Washington.

Cuba plans to use the 640 gigabit-per-second link, which is 3,000 times faster than the current system and financed by oil-rich Venezuela, to improve already existing access points such as those at information technology clubs, post offices and research centers.

Cuba reported 1.6 million Internet users in 2009, or 14.2 per 100 inhabitants, one of the lowest ratios in the hemisphere according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Like most of those users, the 40 people leaning over computers in a fluorescent-lit national post office in downtown Havana only have access to an intranet of government-approved sites and email services.

“There is not Internet here. Just email. You should go to a hotel,” said the supervisor while dozens more waited outside to check emails at $1.50 an hour. Full Internet for an hour at a four-star hotel costs $10, half an average monthly wage.

Cuba blames such high fees on the U.S. embargo which it says has for decades barred the island from hooking up to commercial fiber optics cables crisscrossing the Caribbean. For decades Cuba had no alternative but to route all communications via a costly and slow satellite link.

BYPASSING THE ‘EMPIRE’

Soon after taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized U.S. telecom companies to take steps to connect Cuba to the Internet via fiber optics, arguing that increased information flows would better support U.S. goals of promoting democratic change in the country.

Experts say the regulations are ambiguous, and it is not clear whether Cuba would now be allowed to use existing fiber optics links passing close to its coast.

Little progress has been reported so far by U.S. telecom companies as a result of the 2009 measures.

A small Miami-based company called TeleCuba says it has been granted a license by the U.S. Treasury Department for a project to lay a cable to the island.

Many U.S. companies are nervous about dealings with Cuba, which nationalized all private enterprise in the 1960s and is only slowly opening up a limited private sector.

“Foreign investors are still kind of shy about investing in Cuba because of the freezes in assets and the fact they’re dealing with a opaque regime,” said Heather Berkman of political risk analysts Eurasia Group.

Cuba has largely ignored Obama’s telecom advances and insisted in seeking more Internet access through its friend Venezuela, more than 10 times more distant from its coast than the United States.

The Venezuelan cable, dubbed as “strategic” by both governments and first planned several years ago, should reach Cuba by February 8.

For Cuba, it means not only better access to the Internet but a much greater capacity for simultaneous long-distance calls.

Cuba’s arrival into the broadband-era comes as Castro introduces economic reforms aiming at modernizing the Cuba’s socialist system and allowing more small private businesses.

“The government will have to decide what it will use this greater bandwidth for,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based group promoting better relations between the two countries.

“My hope is that it will enable more and more Cubans to take advantage of the benefits of this technology and it should be a helpful addition to the private sector activities that the government is trying to promote,” she added.

www.particularcuba.com

Fiber-optic cable linking Cuba to Venezuela, Jamaica to come online in 2011


Havana, Oct 9, 2010 (EFE via COMTEX) — A $70 million undersea fiber-optic cable that will link Cuba with Venezuela and Jamaica is due to start operating in July 2011, Cuban media reported.

The project, which will involve laying two pairs of submarine cable over a distance of 5,340 kilometers (3,320 miles), will dramatically multiply Cuba’s connectivity capacity, the official news agency Prensa Latina reported Friday, citing officials on the communist-ruled island.

Deputy Informatics and Communications Minister Alberto Rodriguez said the cable “will strengthen national sovereignty and security” in keeping with the integration aims of the eight-member Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA, an international cooperation organization founded by Cuba and close ally Venezuela in 2004.

The cable will enable “greater quality in info-communication services” and create “more favorable conditions for confronting future developments,” Rodriguez said at the start of a business forum in Havana.
The main cable will link the northern Venezuelan city of La Guaira with the southeastern Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba – a distance of 1,552 kilometers (965 miles) – and have a 640-gigabyte-per-second capacity, while the other segment will connect Cuba and Jamaica.
Waldo Reboredo, vice president of Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe S.A., the Cuban-Venezuelan joint venture that will operate the undersea cable, said the “shark-proof” cable will be financed with Venezuelan bank loans as well as the company’s own funds and have a lifespan of 25 years.
Reboredo added that the cable will allow the island to “multiply its current data, image and voice transmission speeds by 3,000,” reduce operation costs by 25 percent and could be extended in the future to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Lesser Antilles.

But he noted that these technological advances “will not imply an end” to Cuba’s current satellite-based Internet service, which he said is “all Havana is allowed due to U.S. hostility.” Cuban authorities accuse Washington of preventing the island from accessing the Internet via undersea cables, one of which connects Cancun, Mexico and Miami and passes just 32 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Havana.
Cuba has had a satellite-based Internet link since 1996 that offers a 65-megabyte-per-second upload bandwidth and a 124 Mb/s download bandwidth; according to the Cuban government, any modification of the channel must be licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Havana blames the United States’ decades-old economic embargo on Cuba for high costs, slow speeds and the fact that Internet service on the island is almost entirely restricted to companies and some professionals in fields such as health and culture.

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Undersea cable network to benefit Cuba’s telephone service


HAVANA, July 14 (Xinhua) — The Venezuela-Cuba undersea cable network will benefit Cuba’s telephone development, said Maximo Lafuente, vice president of Cuban Telecommunication Company (ETECSA) on Wednesday.

According to Lafuente, the cable will cost 70 million U.S. dollars covering 804,500 km from La Guaira, Venezuela, to Santiago de Cuba, 1,384 km southeast of Havana.

It will be extended to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Lesser Antilles. The Franco-Chinese company Alcatel Shanghai Bell is responsible for its operation which started two months ago.

Cuba’s international connection will increase with the remarkable enhancement of its transmission speed, said Lafuente.

Cuba has more than 1 million mobile phone users, accounting for about 10 percent of its population.

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Teaching Twitter in Havana


Minnpost.com:

HAVANA, Cuba — As an educational institution, Cuba’s Blogger Academy suffers from a few notable deficiencies. Its six-month course doesn’t grant an accredited degree, and its single, cramped classroom — the living room of founder Yoani Sanchez — isn’t even hooked up to the internet.

Then there’s the possibility that the next knock on the door might be the police. They haven’t shut down the Blogger Academy yet, but on this web-starved island — the least-connected country in the hemisphere — this classroom is a place where the digital revolution really feels like one.

At least the 30-odd students squeezed onto benches and chairs in Sanchez’s 14th-floor Havana apartment see it that way. They’re taking a risk to come here twice a week to learn how to use Twitter, or write code in WordPress for their own blogs. That’s not because those software programs are illegal in Cuba, but because Sanchez, 34, is considered dangerous company.

Sanchez remains largely unknown on the island, where her award-winning blog, Generation Y, is blocked. But she has a huge following among Cubans living abroad, and she has used her literary talents and the power of the internet to become a potent symbol of opposition to a one-party socialist system run by men in their 70s and 80s. With the Blogger Academy, where the instructors are volunteers and tuition is free, Sanchez is drafting others to the digital cause.

“Today we’re going to talk about Twitter,” Sanchez began on a recent afternoon, quieting the room. The students ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. One’s man late father had been a leader of the Cuban Revolution. Given the Castro government’s record of infiltrating opposition groups, it was also likely a few of the students were there to take notes on their classmates, not their coursework.

No one seemed too worried about that, though, and the atmosphere was friendly, almost festive. Sanchez used a projector to cast an image of her laptop screen onto the wall, displaying web pages she’d saved from the last time she was able to use the internet. Like most Cubans, she isn’t allowed to have an internet connection at home but can pay to go online at hotels and cyber cafes. “Who can tell me the difference between tags and categories?” she asked the class.

There were other classes that day on journalism ethics, photography, and Wikipedia. A nearby table was stacked with photocopied handouts of articles with titles like “Can Journalism be Participatory?” and a Twitter manifesto called “The revolution in 140 characters.” Students huddled to share the room’s few laptop computers.

At most journalism schools, it would be ordinary subject matter. But on an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less than 1 percent of the population has an internet connection, it seemed like the first tremors of a paradigm shift.

Cuban authorities, meanwhile, see it as little more than a new phase of an old fight. They view Sanchez’s rapid rise to international fame as part of the broader U.S.-funded campaign to foment anti-Castro activity on the island. Sanchez insists she funds the academy and supports other bloggers with the money she’s earned by publishing articles and a book abroad.

“We’re not trying to challenge or subvert the government,” Sanchez said in an interview. “This isn’t a political party. There’s no boss here, and no director. No one is telling us what to write, or what type of criticisms we can make. We’re just trying to create a virtual world that reflects the variety of views that Cubans really have — but are now suffocated and hidden by government controls.”

Rosa Miriam Elizalde, the editor of the pro-government website Cubadebate, said she views Sanchez as a figure who has been hyped up for a specific political purpose — to attack Cuba. Elizalde said there was nothing wrong with the material taught at the Blogger Academy, but she said Sanchez’s goals were hardly apolitical.

“You can’t criticize learning,” Elizalde said. “But you can criticize the intention behind her efforts, which are taking place in a framework of a U.S. policy of subversion and aggression.”

Elizalde also questions the international support Sanchez receives to run her blog, which is translated into 18 languages. “We’re not talking about some blogger in Sweden,” Elizalde said. “We’re talking about a blogger in Cuba, which the United States has been waging economic and political warfare against for the past 50 years. And this is just the latest form of that warfare.”

Several of the academy’s students say they’ve faced more than criticism in recent months, receiving threats and other forms of harassment from the government. A few said their computers and cell phones had been confiscated by state police.

“There are people who think I’m doing something wrong by coming here, but I don’t think so,” said Regina Coyula, 53, a housewife and former Cuban state security agent who now writes a blog, Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting), launched with Sanchez’s help.

“I think I’m giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do, whose views aren’t reflected in the official media,” said Coyula. “We’re people who want change, and we want the current government to be an instrument of change.”

Sanchez said the academy’s graduates are developing the skills to shape Cuba’s future media organizations. Blogger Orlando Luis Pardo described their one-room school with a quote from famous Cuban novelist Jose Lezama Lima, likening it to “building a cathedral in the air.”

“Somehow this is the image that I have,” Pardo said. “Something very big and very beautiful that we are trying to build, and very fragile also, that could crumble to the ground at any time.”

“We hope not,” he said, “but it’s something very fragile.”

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