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Cuba’s “offline internet” travels on foot

How the internet gets around in Cuba.
By Leo Mirani
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It is easy to forget, in a culture of always-on internet connections, cloud-based applications, and streaming media, that large portions of the world do not enjoy the same level of access as smartphone-wielding Westerners. In places without affordable internet access—or with heavily regulated internet—people still want access to much of the same stuff that makes up so much of online traffic: movies, news, games.

The Guardian has a fascinating story about this dynamic in action. In Cuba, Jonathan Watts reports from Havana, couriers ferry hard drives containing terabytes of data from home to home and business to business. A cottage industry of sorts has sprung up around this so-called “offline internet.” Enterprising businessmen pay $17 for the latest data dump every Friday, retailing it to customers for lower prices over the course of the week.

Restrictions to internet access mean many Cubans can only connect to a national intranet, or a domestic version of the internet. Cybercafes are expensive. An hour of internet access at a hotel costs roughly $8, notes Emily Parker, a reporter and author, in ”Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,” her book on the internet in China, Cuba, and Russia. In a country where the weekly wage hovers around $4.50, that is prohibitive.

The bloggers and dissidents profiled in Parker’s book use a similar tactic to the small businesses and consumers in the Guardian story: posts are written on domestically assembled computers at home, then transferred to a CD or flash drive to upload when access is possible.

It is not only in censorious countries that the internet travels offline. In poorer countries where the smartphone boom has begun but the data boom has yet to follow, media is consumed in a similar fashion. In India, for instance, it is common for small mobile-phone dealers to run a sideline in pirated content. Most smartphone owners use low-end Android devices, which normally come with removable memory cards. Dealers load up these cards with Bollywood movies and music in exchange for a small fee. Media consumption on smartphones is pervasive; it is just unpaid for, and unseen by analytics dashboards.

No matter how widely the internet spreads, such methods of data transfer will remain. In poorer countries, they do so for reasons of economics or politics. In richer ones, offline transfers can sometimes be more efficient. A popular trope is that FedEx has greater bandwidth the internet. The idea is that, for extremely large files, it is often faster to simply courier a hard drive than to transfer it over the wire. That’s not going to change.

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