How Google can make Cuba’s web truly worldwide

(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
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Netflix made headlines earlier this month when it became the first major streaming service to launch in Cuba following the diplomatic rapprochement with the US. Apple drew similar attention shortly after, when it was revealed that the company had removed Cuba from its list of trade-restricted countries, opening the door to a new nation of iPhone customers.

But even as these moves conjure images of smartphone-wielding Cubans streaming House of Cards on their devices, the country’s limited internet infrastructure remains a stumbling block to any sort of fast-speed access.

Cuba has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the Western hemisphere, estimated at 26% by the International Telecommunications Union, according to a human rights report compiled by the British government. Even this figure, however, reflects access mainly restricted to a national intranet of websites, email and pro-government bloggers. Freedom House puts actual internet penetration at about 5%.

Most Cubans who access the worldwide web do so only through work or school, and usually then using shared computers. A small number of internet cafes opened by the Cuban government in 2013 ostensibly broaden connectivity, but these charge exorbitant usage rates—$5 USD an hour, and 70 cents per hour for the country’s intranet—according to a 2013 report by Internet Monitor, a project of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The relaxed export rules under the new US-Cuba entente, therefore, would allow American telecom and technology companies to help build out Cuba’s internet. One company that could end up playing a role in Cuba’s infrastructure upgrade is Apple’s chief rival, Google.

No, this wouldn’t be the same as battling Apple for smartphone hegemony in China. But what better way to highlight Google’s far-flung efforts to widen internet access than by connecting a country that’s become synonymous with frozen-in-time technology? It could also put a definitive period on the US trade embargo, which has deprived Cubans of the Western hemisphere’s largest trading power since 1960.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt himself called for lifting the embargo last June, when he and other company executives visited the country to help promote free and open internet access. In a Google+ post,  Schmidt also noted that much of Cuba’s internet infrastructure to date is made out of Chinese components. “The result of the ‘blockade’ is that Asian infrastructure will become much harder to displace,” he wrote.

Google declined to comment on any plans for helping to expand or update Cuba’s internet and wireless systems. But its actions speak for themselves—it has already launched several high-profile initiatives in the last couple of years for connecting more people to the internet globally. These projects involve technologies ranging from stratosphere-traveling balloons, to low-earth orbit satellites, to Wi-Fi networks and Google Fiber broadband service in the US.

Much of the emphasis has been on finding lower-cost ways than traditional fiber optics to deliver internet service to developing countries and remote areas worldwide. The enlightened self-interest angle is that Google is helping to accelerate the development of future markets for its products and services, from old-fashioned search to Android-powered phones.

That focus on providing cheaper access, coupled with Google executives’ Cuba visit last year, could give the company an edge over more traditional ISPs when it comes to partnering with Cuba.

In the short-term, Google could provide Wi-Fi expertise and equipment to bolster the informal mesh networks that have sprung up to close the internet gap. Google powers Wi-Fi access at Starbucks stores in the US. It could do the same at the 140 or so official internet cafes Cuba opened last year, at reduced cost, or free in exchange for “powered by Google” branding—though that might be a tough sell for communist officials.

Longer term, Google’s experiments with beaming internet connections from above could benefit Cuba by obviating the need to lay more fiber. In January, Google and financial services giant Fidelity invested $1 billion in Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture, with the aim of providing internet service to underserved regions through a fleet of hundreds of small satellites.

For now, however, this all falls in the realm of speculation. According to Larry Press, a professor of information systems at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who runs a blog tracking the internet in Cuba, any partnership with Google or would require the blessing of ETECSA, Cuba’s monopoly internet-service provider.

But Press posits that the Cuban government may be more amenable to working with Google because of its mission to spread the internet globally. Havana has long cast itself as an advocate for the developing world.

It all seems surprisingly plausible. Schmidt and other Google executives reportedly met with Cuban officials during their visit last year. Given the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba since, Google executives could be returning to the island nation sooner than expected.