Cuba: Net Loss

Havana, Cuba. They huddle at night outside big hotels on their smart phones and laptops connecting to wifi hotspots. They are outside telecom buildings and in parks. Sitting on the ground or on a step, on their mobile phones punching away. What is going on? In a word, Etecsa, the state-run telecom that sells wireless internet time by the hour–when it’s working.

The most reliable internet nodes are the high end hotels in town.

Word on the street will guide you to the right hotel that has the best connection speeds. But reliable information has a very short shelf life in Havana. One hotel that the Lonely Planet touted as the best connection in Old Habana, was an absolute dog’s breakfast when it came to getting onto the net. There was always someone coming out to fix the router.

Amnesty International called Cuba the least connected country in the Americas although computer ownership is on the increase and homes are slowly getting connected to the outside world. The BBC reports that 5% of Cubans enjoy internet at home. In Australia 93% of the population uses the internet.

Cubans are accustomed to dealing with shortages and outages. Controlling the net is an example of how the Cuban government can be a choke point when it comes to speed and quality of net traffic and blocking critical content. Though Cubans can use social media to stay in touch with overseas relatives at Havana’s hotspots.

Cost is also a consideration when accessing the net: $3-$5 USD per hour to buy a scratch-off card with the code you need to get online, prices beyond the reach of most Cubans. The international internet in Cuba is run on a fibre optic cable with Venezuela that was reportedly switched on in 2013. But is it really working? Some hotels do have fast connection speeds and the government has increased wifi access points.

But can you imagine designing online training in Cuba which has a highly educated population and pent-up demand? Reliable delivery would certainly be challenging.  Here is a country that reportedly spends 13-percent of its central budget on free education, far outranking the U.S. and U.K. Distance education is offered in Cuba for fifteen courses.

Yet here is a country where forms are still filled out by hand. Where there is no such thing as changing your booking online. Where emails stack up in a long queue before they get sent out in batches.

Those of us engaged in producing online training take for granted a reliable pipeline to send out our information with fast up and download speeds. In Cuba, designing online learning it would be like going back to the dial-up era.

A short plane ride away, on a dirt track in Peru heading to a remote town nestled below a mountain peak, there was not only global roaming but data downloads available. As the dirt swirled around the vehicle, text messages were going back and forth. And in small towns above the Sacred Valley of the Incas children sit by the roadside sharing a mobile in the shadow of a towering mountain range.

Granted, in Peru you wouldn’t be able to complete an online course on how to prevent injury when rolling down a cliff face in a car without seatbelts, but at least you are connected. And Peru does have online universities.

Will Cuba be far behind?