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    Starting up in Cuba, but not connected

    Starting up in Cuba, but not connected
    By Nick Miroff April 14 at 3:30 AM

    HAVANA — Great technology companies are born in garages, of course, and
    that is where 31-year-old Bernardo Romero has launched his Cuban
    start-up, Ingenius.

    And like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in the 1930s, and Steve Jobs and
    Steve Wozniak in the 1970s, Romero doesn’t have Internet access, either.

    “At least,” he said, “we have a garage.”

    It is no small feat, by Cuban business standards. Romero also has five
    employees, a sign, printed advertising and a government license to
    operate his company — almost none of which was allowed by Communist
    authorities a few years ago.

    What keeps Romero and other similarly aspiring entrepreneurs crippled is
    a near-total lack of Web access. Raúl Castro’s limited opening for
    private business has been good for Cubans in physical trades such as
    shoe repair and plumbing, but the country’s digital laborers are still
    largely disconnected.

    When one of the engineers at Ingenius needs to upload work for a client,
    he travels by bus or bicycle to a cybercafe run by the state telecom
    monopoly, ETECSA, paying $5 an hour for mediocre WiFi. The converted
    garage, like most of Cuba, isn’t plugged in.

    “If we had Internet, we could really take off,” said Romero, who will
    design and build an entire Web site from scratch for $150.

    That is a wisp of what it would cost in the United States. And as a
    result of President Obama’s recent moves to ease 1960s-era trade
    sanctions, American companies and clients can now hire private Cuban
    businesses like Ingenius for services such as translation work, software
    development and accounting.

    The potential bonanza is not lost on Cuba’s highly educated, lowly paid
    professionals, now more eager than ever to hire out their services to
    U.S. clients. Romero estimates there are at least another 20 small,
    licensed, tax-paying technology start-ups like his in Havana. Far more
    Cuban programmers and software engineers are said to be freelancing for
    foreign customers off the books.

    Nearly all are stuck with the same problem: They can’t reliably and
    affordably get online. That deprives them of the tools essential to work
    with customers remotely, such as video conferencing, access to software
    updates and the ability to send and receive large files.

    At a business conference in Panama last week before the Summit of the
    Americas, Cuban trade officials insisted to an audience of global
    corporate leaders — including Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg —
    that there were no political or ideological obstacles to expanding Web
    access, only financial and technological ones.

    “Cuba today is comparable to India when their software export industry
    was starting — both had a lot of smart, trained programmers, but they
    were working with old technology and had poor Internet connectivity,”
    said Larry Press, a professor at California State University at
    Dominguez Hills, who writes about the island’s Web infrastructure on his
    blog, The Internet in Cuba.

    Almost anywhere else, a government that has invested so much in quality
    education would be alarmed that its skilled engineering graduates lack
    the basic building blocks to drive development and spur growth. Cuban
    authorities have begun to acknowledge as much, but they show little
    detectable urgency to broaden Web access if it means ceding tight
    control over the country’s data networks.

    Their reluctance stems partly from fears, not unfounded, about U.S.
    schemes to digitally undermine Cuba’s one-party state, including a
    now-defunct “fake Cuban Twitter” service, Zunzuneo, whose unwitting
    users didn’t know they were getting messages sponsored by Washington.
    Alan Gross, the U.S. subcontractor freed in the Dec. 17 prisoner
    exchange announced by Obama and Castro, was arrested in 2009 for trying
    to set up illegal satellite networks on the island.

    The Castro government seems especially apprehensive about Arab
    Spring-style unrest enabled by smartphones, so mobile data plans simply
    aren’t available. Flashy Cubans walk around with dumbed-down iPhones
    that don’t connect to the Web.

    The bandwidth deficit may reflect an enduring ideological ambivalence
    about private business as well. Cuban authorities continue to treat the
    entrepreneurial zeal of their countrymen as a natural phenomenon that
    needs to be contained, rather than encouraged, like a wild river. It’s
    an Army Corps of Engineers approach to economic development, not a
    chamber of commerce one.

    Cuba has fallen so far behind in technology that even its problems are
    obsolete. When manufacturers of laptop computers phased out the 56k
    modem about 10 years ago as a standard accessory for connecting to the
    Internet through a phone line, most of the world had gone wireless by
    then and barely noticed. But for Cubans, it was a hardware crisis.

    A generation after Americans dialed into AOL accounts through a series
    of beeps, squawks and static, many Cuban Web users still connect that
    way. On a good day, they can achieve download speeds of 4 or 5 kilobytes
    per second, approximately 10,000 times slower than the U.S. residential
    service offered by Verizon or Comcast.

    “I would not be surprised if Cuba had the highest rate of dial-up among
    Internet users of any nation in the world,” Press said.

    Online classified sites such as Revolico — Cuba’s versions of Craigslist
    — offer $20 external USB modems for connecting a modern laptop to a
    phone line.

    It might sound like the Web-browsing equivalent of driving around Havana
    in a 1950s Chevy. But it is much worse than that, as Cuban dial-up users
    will attest. At least the Chevy gets you to your destination.

    “The other day, someone sent me a simple PDF file, and it took an hour
    and a half to download,” said Georgina Gómez, an English-language
    interpreter who specializes in medical translations.

    Gómez has a 7-year-old daughter and can’t easily get to a government
    computer lab, so she must rely on an achingly slow dial-up link from
    home. Her Cuban e-mail service has an account size limit of only 10 MB;
    if a client tries to send her a large file, it crashes her inbox.

    “Books with illustrations are the worst,” she said.

    Gómez charges a nickel a word, which she said is one-quarter the going
    rate in the United States for technical translation work. And even
    though she’s had a lot of new inquiries in the past few months, she’s
    had to turn down offers because she can’t download video files from
    documentary filmmakers or big PowerPoint slides.

    “It’s just too complicated,” she said.

    Cuba’s main link to the global Internet is a single undersea fiber-optic
    cable that runs across the Caribbean to Venezuela. The state is the lone
    service provider. But broadband accounts are restricted to government
    ministries, state businesses and a limited number of foreign residents
    and diplomats. Ordinary Cubans can’t sign up for residential dial-up
    accounts even if they can afford to pay for it.

    Some Cuban engineering graduates take low-paid jobs at state companies
    to secure high-speed Internet access at work, then moonlight for private
    customers on the side.

    Cubans with the money can purchase prepaid WiFi cards for use in the
    lobbies of major tourist hotels, or log on at state computer labs, but
    users must register their names and ID cards with Big Browser.

    Cuba’s obstacles are not all self-imposed. One of the more contradictory
    elements of U.S. policy toward Cuba is a stated goal of expanding Web
    use while U.S. economic sanctions and other measures continue to block
    Cubans’ access to sites and Web tools needed most by entrepreneurs such
    as Romero.

    Google Code, for example, and Google AdWords — both of which are
    critical for programming work and Web design — are blocked on the
    island. The company says it must comply with U.S. trade sanctions and
    the U.S. State Department’s designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of

    When a delegation from Google Ideas visited Havana last month, Cuban
    technology students asked them if their Cuban-made apps could be made
    available through the Google Play Store. The company executives said no.

    The two countries recently met for first-ever talks on Internet and
    technology issues, and U.S. officials said Cuba has set a goal of
    50 percent household connectivity by 2020. Currently, only about
    5 percent of the island’s homes are thought to have online access — by
    dial-up — making Cuba one of the least-connected countries in the world.

    Romero said he is not discouraged. Like a lot of young Cubans, he sees
    Obama’s opening as the beginning of the end of such frustrations.

    He has close relatives in Florida and could have left the island years
    ago. “But I chose to stay and make my company here,” he said. “Over
    there, I’d just be another low-level worker. Here, it’s a wide-open field.”

    Source: Starting up in Cuba, but not connected – The Washington Post –