Two days before Christmas, Luis Gonzalez received a little Chinese modem from Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications company.
The 55-year-old theater producer connected the device to his phone and his laptop computer, which instantly lit up with a service unimaginable in the Cuba of just a few years ago — relatively fast home internet.
“It’s really easy to sit and find whatever you need,” Gonzalez said as he sat in his living room updating his Facebook account, listening to Uruguayan radio online and checking an arriving tourist’s landing time for a neighbor who rents rooms in their building in historic Old Havana. “Most Cubans aren’t used to this convenience.”
Home internet came to Cuba last month in a limited pilot program that’s part of the most dramatic change in daily life here since the declaration of detente with the United States on Dec. 17, 2014.
While Cuba remains one of the world’s least internet-connected societies, ordinary citizens’ access to the internet has exploded over the last two years. Since the summer of 2015, the Cuban government has opened 240 public Wi-Fi spots in parks and on street corners across the country. Cubans were previously restricted to decrepit state internet clubs and hotels that charged $6-$8 for an hour of slow internet.
In a country with an average monthly salary of around $25, the price of an hour online has dropped to $1.50, still steep but now well within the range of many Cubans with private income or financial help from relatives abroad.
The government estimates that 100,000 Cubans connect to the internet daily. A new feature of urban life in Cuba is the sight of people sitting at all hours on street corners or park benches, their faces illuminated by the screen of smartphones connected by applications such as Facebook Messenger to relatives in Miami, Ecuador or other outposts of the Cuban diaspora. Connections are made mostly through access cards sold by the state monopoly and often resold on street corners for higher prices.
The spread of connectivity has remotely reunited families separated for years, even decades. It’s fueled the spread of Airbnb and other booking services that have funneled millions in business to private bed-and-breakfasts owners. And it’s exposed Cubans to a faster flow of news and cultural developments from the outside world — supplementing the widespread availability of media spread on memory drivers.
Cuban ingenuity has spread internet far beyond those public places: thousands of people grab the public signals through commercially available repeaters, imported illegally into Cuba and often sold for about $100 — double the original price. Mounted on rooftops, the repeaters grab the public signals and create a form of home internet increasingly available in private rentals for tourists and cafes and restaurants for Cubans and visitors alike.
On the official front, Google and Cuba’s state-run telecoms monopoly Etecsa struck a deal last month to store Google content like YouTube video on servers inside Cuba, giving people on the island faster, smoother access.
While the explosion of internet in Cuba has taken place alongside the process of normalization started by Obama in 2014, it’s unclear how much better relations have speeded up Cuba’s move online.
What is clear is that Cuba began to dramatically increase access about six months later when the government began opening Wi-Fi spots around the country. For many Cubans, the start of home internet in December is potentially even more significant, breaking a longstanding barrier against private internet access in a country whose communist government remains deeply wary about information technology undermining its near-total control of media, political life and most of the economy.