Eased Cuba Sanctions Present ICT Opportunities and Progress

Cuban boy looking at his mobile phone. Image courtesy of Huffington PostEarlier this year the Obama administration announced that it will re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, which has been under an embargo for the last half century.  The communist country was also removed from the state-sponsored terrorism list in April.

While relations between Washington and Havana begin to thaw, U.S.-based firms will still not be able to conduct business in Cuba until Congress votes to lift economic sanctions. Until then, many American businesses are beginning to think about what services and products it can provide to a future embargo-free Cuba that are both culturally and socially appropriate.

From Global Wire Associates’ perspective, there are many business opportunities in both the media and ICT sectors.  Once the embargo is lifted, Cuba will need comprehensive upgrades in infrastructure, communications and power systems.  The country’s power grid is completely out of date and power outages and blackouts can last from a few hours to a few days at a time.  Poor households use candles if they can’t afford battery-powered lanterns.  In 2010 a couple of Russian electrical firms started efforts to increase energy on the island; however, in order for Cuba’s power grid to get the necessary upgrades, it will cost billions and need resources from a variety of international agencies and private enterprises.

Only five percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, and that is usually through government agencies, black market trade, and higher end hotels and tourist attractions catering to Western tourists.  This is mainly because of censorship by the Cuban government, but also low bandwidth and the high cost for end users.  Without Internet access most Cubans share flash drives with TV shows, movies, games, books, newspaper and magazine articles and other information to plug into DVD players if a computer is not available.

In 2011 the Venezuelan government-funded a submarine fiber optic cable linking Cuba with Venezuela and Jamaica.  The US Defense Department is also installing a similar cable between Cuba and Florida which should be operational by the end of 2015.  While the cable is initially being built to improve connectivity at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the cable will eventually provide Internet access for the rest of the island.  Cuba also just approved its first public WiFi.

Cuba has approximately one million fixed telephone lines.  A small but growing number of Cubans have satellite mobile phones, which they most likely attained from relatives living overseas.  Nonetheless, most Cubans text because the cost of a voice call is expensive.  It is common for Cubans to not answer incoming calls on their mobiles.  Instead, they take down the caller’s number and call them back on a landline since it’s cheaper.  It is also quite costly for tourists to make calls on their mobiles while on the island.  Roaming costs can be astronomical.  Luckily, Cuba has a growing number of roaming agreements with several other countries, including the United States.

Global Wire Associates views access to electricity, information and communications technology as a human right.  Through our work for the last decade in many developing countries, it is clear that when a society has access to basic life needs like power and telecommunications, that society progresses economically and socially.  Women and minorities have more equality, schools have better access to educational tools and the economy flourishes with gateways to new technologies.  An embargo-free Cuba not only provides better business opportunities and an improved economy, but it also, more importantly, helps Cuban society progress as well.

It is time for the United States to end economic sanctions in Cuba.

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