HAVANA: Cuba has allowed the launch of the island’s first known free, public internet service at a Havana cultural centre that quietly began offering open Wi-Fi in recent weeks.
Dozens of youths have been flocking each day to the centre run by famed artist Kcho, whose spokeswoman said state telecom Etecsa approved the move in a small but unprecedented loosening of Cuba’s strict internet regulations.
The service is slow compared with what internet users are accustomed to in much of the world. But connectivity-starved islanders say it’s a boon that lets them access Facebook, read news of the world and communicate with friends and family overseas.
“I come as often as I can,” said Adonis Ortiz, a 20-year-old sporting a gold chain and an American-flag bandanna around his neck. He was video-chatting with his father in the United States, whom he last saw in person nine years ago.
“Thanks to this service I can talk to him,” Ortiz said.
Kcho has close ties to the Cuban government: Fidel Castro last appeared in public at the opening of the arts centre in January 2014. Last week, he said the Wi-Fi comes from his personal internet connection, authorised through the Ministry of Culture, with a speed of two mbps.
“This is an unusual thing, and it’s only possible through the will to do it and absorb the costs,” Kcho told The Associated Press. “It is expensive, but the benefit is tremendous. … I have something that is great and powerful. I can share it, and I am doing so.”
In the courtyard of his cultural centre in western Havana, tech-savvy millennial lounge in wicker chairs beneath a white canopy, tapping away on laptops and tablets. More are glued to smart phones as they sit on the footpath outside.
A sign on the exterior wall announces the password: a famous 1956 shout by revolutionary figure Juan Almeida that translates as, “Here, nobody surrenders!”
Cuba has some of the lowest connectivity rates on the planet, with dial-up accounts closely restricted and at-home broadband almost unheard of except in the case of foreigners who pay hundreds of dollars a month for the service in a country where the average salary is around $US20 a month.