By Anett Rios and Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cubans suffering long lines for food, fuel and medicine now have a new problem: painfully slow internet.
Internet service, never speedy in a country that first authorized cellular data only five years ago, has slowed to a crawl in recent months, leading to an outcry from many island residents, who say it is hitting both work and pleasure.
Jorge Noris, a 36-year-old IT engineer, said he has begun waking up at odd hours of the morning, when most Cubans are still asleep and offline, to upload his content to online servers.
“The internet keeps getting worse and worse and we’re reaching the point where getting online is becoming impossible for the average Cuban,” he said.
Cable.co.uk, a company that compares internet speeds, ranked Cuba 203 of 220 countries surveyed during a 12-month period ending June 30, 2022, the slowest in Latin America.
A five gigabyte movie that downloads in little more than 5 minutes in the United States can take 3.5 hours to transfer in Cuba, the survey showed.
Cubans like Noris have little choice. A state-run telecommunications firm, ETECSA, has a monopoly on the market in the communist-run country.
ETECSA head Tania Vel zquez recently told state-run media a vast increase in users in 2022 had bogged down already decrepit infrastructure in need of modernization.
“In 2022 we registered … more than one million new users seeking access to the internet,” she said. That had contributed to a 63% increase in the volume of traffic, she said, noting that Cuba’s sputtering economy had made it impossible to upgrade vital technology at the same rate.
Cuba’s telecommunications revenue in foreign currency began to slide after Cuba devalued its peso in January 2021, spawning a black market exchange sometimes eight times the official rate.
Cubans who once depended on family to recharge their internet accounts from abroad using foreign currency exchanged at the official rate now opt to exchange dollars on the black market, then purchase internet data in peso packages.
As a result, Cuba’s revenue in dollars derived from the “export” of telecommunication and information services plunged 80% in 2021 alone, from a peak of over $8 billion in 2020, according to national statistics agency ONEI. Data for 2022 is not yet available.
Cuba’s ETECSA has since launched promotions to encourage purchases outside Cuba in dollars.
“We are very pleased to offer (packages in pesos) that satisfy the majority of our customers, but it is also important to offer alternatives to attract the foreign currency that allows us to sustain our service and do it with quality,” Velasquez said.
Cuba’s government has made strides in increasing online access for citizens since 2013, when the internet was first rolled out to the general public via a telecoms cable from Venezuela.
But getting online can still be a touchy subject.
Certain websites, including some media outlets, are inaccessible from Cuba without the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that encrypt data and obscure where a user is located, letting them circumvent censorship.
Global internet watchdogs have also said Cuba has restricted internet access during recent protests to suppress coverage of the demonstrations and limit their spread.
Following widespread anti-government protests in Cuba in July 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed his government would work to make the internet more accessible to Cubans.
But the Biden administration in 2022 proposed to scrap a plan to install a new undersea telecommunications cable to Cuba which would have significantly bolstered capacity, citing national security concerns.
Cuba’s government has since announced another cable project, called Arimao, which aims to connect Cuba to the Caribbean island of Martinique by April.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Anett Rios; Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Dave Sherwood; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Daniel Wallis)