By Kejal Vyas
Internet access in Cuba is among the world’s most restricted and expensive but a rapprochement with Washington is boosting hopes for connectivity improvements and the development of some cool apps.
That’s what technology experts will be aiming for when they convene at Facebook Inc.’sMenlo Park, Calif., headquarters later this month to focus on solutions for the Communist island nation.
The so-called Code for Cuba “hackathon,” organized by Miami-based nonprofit group Roots of Hope, aims to attract U.S. engineers, software developers and entrepreneurs to work on increasing access to information as the Caribbean country begins flirting with freer telecommunications.
“Our goal is to empower Cuban people as the conversation on technology there is more open now,” said Natalia Martínez, chief innovation officer at Roots of Hope, which opened registration for the hackathon in late March.
The idea is to create programs that can be applied in Cuba immediately, Ms. Martínez said. The tricky part, however, is a requirement to stay within the confines of Cuban law, which forbids satellite connection and restricts private imports of goods like wireless routers, she said.
Since the Cold War foes announced their historic détente in December, companies and nonprofit groups have been eyeing new business and technology openings in Cuba. San Francisco-based home-rental service Airbnb Inc. began offering accommodations to licensed U.S. travelers in Cuba this month, while Netflix Inc. in February made its movie-streaming service available. Google Inc. executives also visited the island last month in hopes of expanding there.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are expected to meet this weekend in Panama at the Summit of the Americas, Cuba’s first time participating in a gathering of the hemispheric group.
“There is a real potential if there is a will from the Cuban side,” a senior U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named, said after bilateral talks in late March that centered on telecommunications.
Whether Havana eases censorship and its telecommunications monopoly is unclear, the official said, and there are still uncertainties over how U.S. companies will be paid, since Cuba can only purchase telecom equipment and services in cash.
Cuba has set ambitious goals, aiming to have 60% of its 11 million inhabitants using the Internet with connections reaching over half of the country’s homes by 2020.
At the moment, only about a quarter of Cubans access the censored Internet, according to Cuban government statistics, while home connections are illegal except for foreigners. Going online at designated cyber centers and hotels is unreliable and slow. At around $5 an hour, it’s also too costly for Cubans, who on average earn $20 a month, according to the government statistics. Only two million people have access to 2G mobile Internet technology.
“As long as the Cubans create an environment that’s attractive to investment…I think services will reach the island,” the U.S. official said last month.
Huawei Technologies Co., China’s largest telecom equipment maker, is in talks with Cuba to provide commercial networking gear, said a company spokesman in late March.
In recent months, Cuba opened its first public Wi-Fi hot spot, offered a 50% discount on Internet access through April 10 and began permitting dissenting opinions on two online state news forums.
“This is going to be a generational shift for Cubans,” said Claude Pupkin, executive vice president of business development at Newark, N.J.-based IDT Corp., which in March became the first U.S. company in decades to have a direct phone contract with Cuba that allows calls to ping between both countries without going through a third nation.
“It’s going to be baby steps and it’s going to feel incremental and slow, ” Mr. Pupkin said. “But in five to 10 years, there’s going to be a lot more freedom, more cellphone penetration and Cubans will be more connected to the world.”
IDT said it is evaluating other opportunities in Cuba, including introducing its money-transfer service.
Such efforts are aided by the Obama administration’s move to increase limits on remittances, ease travel restrictions and allow the use of U.S. credit cards in Cuba. However, Washington’s trade embargo and its naming of Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1982 still keeps most U.S. businesses away.
Nonetheless, Cuba’s struggling economy and reduced aid from allies such as embattled Venezuela may force the island to open up, political analysts say.
“The Cuban regime is nervous, but the problem is that they can’t break out of their economic isolation without breaking out of their information isolation,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the California-based Hoover Institution think tank, who will be serving as a judge during the hackathon.
Starting on April 25, technology experts will come together at Facebook to brainstorm innovative ways for Cubans to work around Internet restrictions and connect into the global information flow. Teams will then compete for prize money to develop the best solution possible during the two-day challenge.
Roots of Hope’s first hackathon last year in Miami led to the development of two applications that allow Cubans to perform basic Internet functions through email, a useful proposition in a country where users have email accounts but find many websites are blocked.
One of the programs enabled searches on Google and Wikipedia as well as Twitter, while another established a Craigslist-like online market for Cubans, all via email. The market application has some 40,000 monthly users on the island, said Ms. Martínez, of Roots of Hope.
Organizers say the easing of U.S.-Cuba relations may give developers in the San Francisco Bay Area more options to help Cubans engage with the world.
“If our only goal is to open up Cuban society and help generate the conditions for transition to democracy, then this was the right thing to do,” said Mr. Diamond.
Write to Kejal Vyas at email@example.com
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