Friday, January 21, 2011

Magnificent? Raising and lowering expectations in Havana

Can anyone explain what this phrase in the middle of the following article means?

"...officials say the link-up may not provide internet-starved Cubans with greater access to the world wide web..."

Why not?

Venezuela clicks in for web-starved Cubans
By Marc Frank in Havana, January 19, 2011

It has been said that the only things the Cuban government can do nothing about are the hurricanes that lash the island every year and the inexorable march of the new economy.

Cuba is the least connected country in the hemisphere. So the prospect of a fibre optic cable linking Cuba to the rest of the world, which will dramatically boost internet capacity, is potentially as big a change as Raúl Castro's new efficiency drive, which will see half a million state employees, one in 10 of the labour force, laid off this year.

Although officials say the link-up may not provide internet-starved Cubans with greater access to the world wide web, the Venezuela-sponsored link is due to reach Cuba in February and be operational by July.

In a country that currently relies on satellite transmission, the cable will increase data capacity 3,000 times and carry up to 10m international calls simultaneously.

"I have no doubt that, at least in the short term, this will do more to modernise the economy and improve our efficiency than the measures we are taking to shed excess labour and grant companies more autonomy," said a local Cuban economist who acts as a consultant to state-run companies and asked that his name not to be used.

"It also opens up new possibilities for online business."

A Chinese subsidiary of French company Alcatel-Lucent is providing the $63.4m cable. The French vessel Ile de Batz began to lay the 1,000-mile line from Venezuela this week.

"This is very, very important in terms of connectivity, it will be a change like night and day," says Cuban telecommunications engineer Antonio, who has been involved in the sector since the 1980s and asked that his surname not be used.

"Now, using videos, photos, teleconferencing and other facilities will work, and without a doubt it will be magnificent," he added.

Magnificent for some, but not for others
Antonio, like most Cubans, said US sanctions were largely responsible for the dismal state of Cuban communications.

But he added that Havana was also loath to allow the free flow of information and used the embargo as an excuse to drag its feet on technologies that "in the end can't be stopped".

Before the 1959 revolution, Havana was renowned for its sophisticated media industry – especially advertising and radio, with broadcasters regularly beaming programmes across the region. Since then, the country has all but missed the information revolution, and young Cubans often cite a sense of isolation as reason to leave the island.

Bookshops carry few foreign publications. Computing skills are taught at school, but personal computers are rare. Meanwhile, those who do have online access are faced with slow and unstable satellite connections that can make opening an e-mail a hair-pulling experience.

According to government figures, only 1.8m Cubans, 16 per cent of the population, have web access – and most of that is to an "intranet".

Access is restricted and available only with permission from a government that claims the virtual world is a weapon of US cultural subversion. Few, therefore, expect Cuba's undersea link to lead to a democratic explosion of social media.

When a ban on mobile phones was lifted in 2008, for example, only a few thousand were in use on the island – mostly by foreigners and government officials. Now, an estimated 800,000 mobile phones are in Cubans' hands – but high call costs prevent them being used much.

"The underwater cable will provide higher quality communications, but not necessarily mean a broader extension of the same," the Communist party daily, Granma, warned last November, seeking to lower expectations.

Priority will also go to those already with access, Granma added. That means broadband will become available to government, state and foreign companies; tourists; some Cuban professionals; and those who buy time online at hotels or have black market passwords.

The cable, which contains less than 10 per cent US product, thereby meeting a Washington embargo, is owned by Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, a Cuban-Venezuelan state venture.

London-listed Cable & Wireless Communications last year agreed with TGC to build another cable linking Cuba to Jamaica.

The Venezuelan link will arrive as Cuba is part of the way through economic reforms that aim to rationalise the inefficient state sector and will lay off 1.3m workers over the next three years. They are expected to find jobs in a newly liberalised private sector.

(Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London)

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