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    Cuba gets high-speed internet connection

    Cuba gets high-speed connection

    Cuba, the least connected country in the hemisphere, awaits high-speed
    Nick Miroff
    June 10, 2011 06:23

    , Cuba — It's been four months since Cuban officials stood on the
    shores of the island's south coast and hailed the arrival of a new
    undersea fiber optic link to , notching it as a new blow to
    U.S. imperialism.

    The cable is due to go online this summer and once Cuban authorities
    finally turn on the juice, bandwidth capacity for the least-connected
    country in the hemisphere will leap by a factor of 3,000.

    For an island where a mere 3 percent of the population has web access
    and millions of adults and teenagers have never been online, the cable
    has the potential to jolt Cuba out of the data dark ages and rattle a
    society where the newspaper ink and airwaves all belong to the state.

    Cuban authorities have been dampening expectations of instant mass web
    access since last autumn, announcing that priority will be go to
    universities and other public institutions, rather than private individuals.

    And with uprisings in the Middle East exploding off computer screens and
    into the streets in recent months, officials here may be even more wary
    of unleashing the social media steamroller of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

    That may explain why Cuba's state media has said little about the
    undersea cable since its completion in February. Employees at Cuba's
    telecom monopoly say that they have no word on when the cable will begin
    functioning, and attempts to reach managers were unsuccessful. But a
    Venezuelan technology official, visiting Havana with President Hugo
    Chavez, said Thursday that the cable would be fully operational next
    month, having completed a testing phase.

    The government has long blamed the U.S. for keeping Cuba
    out of the global information loop, pointing to George W. Bush-era
    efforts to block Havana from connecting to the network of underwater
    cables that carry the bulk of the world's internet and data
    transmissions. One such cable linking Miami to Cancun, Mexico passes
    within 20 miles of Cuba's north coast, but the island isn't plugged in.

    Instead, Cuba relies on slower satellite transmissions, while
    restricting internet access to academics, certain professionals, and
    government officials, as well as foreign diplomats and businesses.

    Other Cubans go online with black market accounts or pay exorbitant
    rates for access at hotels. But web browsing on the island is
    still achingly slow, with dial-up connections averaging about 5
    kilobytes per second. Watching videos, let alone opening the pages of
    many popular sites, is nearly impossible on the island, even for the
    fortunate few who can get online.

    By contrast, Cuba's new cable link to Venezuela has a transmission
    capacity of 640 gigabytes per second — enough for 10 million
    simultaneous phone conversations, according to state media. Built by a
    Chinese-French joint venture at a cost of some $70 million, it stretches
    1,000 miles across the ocean floor to the friendly shores of Venezuela,
    which financed the project.

    Larry Press, a technology expert whose "The Internet in Cuba" has
    been tracking the cable's development, said that unless Cuba boosts its
    existing telecommunications network on the island, it won't be able to
    take full advantage of the enhanced bandwidth.

    "To utilize the capacity of the new cable, they will have to upgrade
    equipment, organizations, and worker skills," Press writes. "If they do
    not, the cable will be of limited value — a strong link in a weak chain."

    "They must have plans for the implementation of complementary
    infrastructure when the cable lands, but I have not been able to learn
    of them," he added, in an email interview.

    As criticism of Havana's limits on internet access have amplified in
    recent years, Cuban authorities have accused Washington of using the
    internet as a tool of subversion against them. In March, an American
    subcontractor, , was sentenced to 15 years in for
    trying to set up satellite internet equipment on the island.
    Authorities say the equiptment was part of a U.S. scheme to foment
    unrest and undermine the government.

    Meanwhile, Cuba's bloggers and web activists say they've been waiting
    anxiously for news of the cable's activation.

    "If the cable is activated, I'm sure some of those fibers will reach
    people like me," said Yoani Sanchez, the prize-winning writer who has
    become Cuba's most famous government critic with her Generation Y blog.
    Cuba's lack of web access is a frequent target for Sanchez, as well as a
    major source of frustration for young people on the island whose
    knowledge of the internet mostly comes from movies and television, but
    not personal experience.

    Cuban officials insist there have been no "political obstacles" to the
    internet on the island — just technical ones. The government blocks some
    anti-Castro websites on its servers, but many others remain accessible,
    and authorities stopped censoring Sanchez's Generation Y blog last year
    without explanation.

    "We'll be glad the cable's there if it's working, but as long as it's
    dead it just becomes a ploy to buy more time," Sanchez added. "I don't
    want to have to wait until 2015."