HAVANA, Cuba Feb. 8, 2011 -- The Caribbean Basin teams with underwater fiber optic cables, but not a one touched the largest island until today when the Ile de Batz, a cable ship flying the French flag, arrived in eastern Cuba with a line laid from Venezuela.
It was a truly historic event sure to greatly improve the efficiency of the government and state-run economy, while provoking great expectations among Cuba's Internet starved population.
"From what I understand this will improve communications and lower the cost. I think there will be many more options to have Internet, which is almost impossible right now," teacher Pedro Estrada said.
The Cuban revolution has missed out on the digital revolution, according to the International Telecommunications Union, earning last place in the Western Hemisphere year after year for telephone, computer and Internet density.
Cuba blames U.S. sanctions for its digital backwardness, while its critics charge it is due to government efforts to control the population.
"There won't be general access for the population to the Internet. Limits are more ideological than economic, so we will have to keep connecting through the black market," said Alberto, who asked his last name not be used.
Cuba legalized mobile phones in 2008, perhaps the last country in the world to do so, and the cost is by far the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Internet, even with blocked access to some pages, is available only with special government permission.
According to the government there were 1.6 million Internet users in 2009, or one in every 14.2 residents, but most only had access to a local intranet
Cubans and visitors who do have Internet confront an agonizingly slow and unstable connection via an expensive satellite transmission. Viewing videos is just about impossible and opening a web page can be a hair-pulling experience.
President Obama authorized U.S. companies in 2009 to negotiate direct links with Cuba, but both the companies and Havana reported the Commerce Department stalled any agreements over payment issues.
Fiber Optics Finally Reach Cuba
The cable, owned by a Cuban-Venezuelan state venture, Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, is scheduled to be fully operational by July, increasing data transmission velocity 3,000 times and capable of carrying 10 million international calls simultaneously.
A Chinese subsidiary of French company Alcatel-Lucent provided the $63.4 million connection, which contains less than 10 percent U.S. product to meet U.S. embargo specifications, and leaves in the dust a U.S. measure adopted in 1992 to deprive the Communist-led land of a direct hook-up to telecommunications networks..
"This is very, very important in terms of connectivity. It will be a change like night and day," telecommunications engineer Antonio, involved in the sector since the 1980s, said.
"Now using videos, photos, teleconferencing and other facilities will work, without a doubt it will be magnificent," he added, like others asking his last name not be used.
Magnificent for some that is, but perhaps not for others.
Priority will go to improved government, business and social service networks in health and education, according to a computer engineer who is part of a special government group pulled together by the government to build infrastructure and manage the country's new digital wealth.
The cable is expected to vastly improve government and state company efficiency and open the way for a relative boom in online business.
"The company is going to benefit a lot. It will represent a huge savings in time and money and make our work much easier," Moraime Rodriguez, chief accountant at a state firm, said.
Young Cubans looking to leave the island often cite poor communications and isolation from modernity as a reason.
"At last we will have a good and less expensive connection to the world," 30-year-old computer technician Yurislaidi gushed in an interview from Chile, where she moved a few years ago to learn more about her profession after becoming frustrated with the technology and limited Internet access available in Cuba.
Broadband Won't Get Broad Use in Cuba
"If only this will allow Internet to arrive in Cuban homes as I think it is the only place in the world without this service," she said.
According to local officials Yurislaidi's wish will not be fulfilled any time soon.
Deputy Communications Minister Jorge Luis Perdomo warned this week the cable was not a "magic solution" and to get most Cubans online would involve large investments in infrastructure.
Perdomo insisted there were no "political obstacles" to Internet use, just economic, but implied for most Cubans getting connected was still a long way off.
His was just the latest of a series of official statements aimed at dampening public expectations.
"The underwater cable will provide higher quality communications, but not necessarily mean a broader extension of the same," the Communist party daily Granma warned late last year.
Granma pined that priority would go to those already with access. In other words, broad band will debut for the government, state and foreign companies, tourists, some Cuban professionals and those who buy time at hotels or account numbers and passwords on the black market.