An internet desert where pirates rule the routers

“Hey, you. Looking for Wifi?”

A man in the shadows makes handcuff motions, pointing at his wrists, then nods towards the police standing on the corner. He then waves for me to follow him into the cover of darkness. Safely out of sight, I hand him $3 and he hands me what looks like a scratch-off lottery ticket. In the middle of bustling Central Havana, this is what it takes to get online.

Cuba has some of the most limited internet access in the world — by design. While people just thirty miles north in Miami are gorging themselves on unlimited LTE data plans, Cubans are just beginning to see a trickle of the internet.

Technically, the internet came to Cuba in September of 1996, but most Cubans didn’t have access until the government brought 35 public wifi hotspots online in 2015. These are scattered around the country in public squares called telepuntos. Anyone can buy a scratch off internet ticket from ETECSA, the government-run telephone company for $2, granting them one hour of online access. The result is that otherwise dilapidated corners of Havana are being transformed into a digital portal to the rest of the world. But, only for a few.

Cuba is a poor country, where the average official state salary is just $25 a month and even relatively wealthy city dwellers earn under $2,000 a year. The average American spends over 20 hours a week online, a habit that would cost $2,080 a year if internet access was purchased at the official ETECSA rates. 

But, like many things in Cuba, the official way isn’t necessarily the way things are actually done.

The Work Around

Early in the morning, entrepreneuring Cubans wait in lines to purchase ETECSA cards directly from the telephone company. Once they’re all gone, the cards are resold on the street for a profit. The resulting black market price for an hour’s worth of internet access runs upwards of $3 an hour. As high as those prices are, they’re still significantly cheaper than buying internet access from government run hotels, where prices can reach $6.50 an hour.

But, Cubans are adept at adapting.

One of the first things you’ll notice at a telepunto is that your device picks up an impressive amount of wifi signals. That’s because hackers have figured out how to purchase a full day’s worth of internet access and create their own personal wifi network. For $48 a day, a single wifi connection can be turned into a signal that can be split and used by thousands, pushing the price down. A series of repeaters and surreptitiously placed wires extends this network for blocks from the official telepunto.

As the night cools the humid, tropical air, it’s not uncommon to see entire blocks lined by Cubans checking Facebook or having video calls with family abroad.

Of course, the obvious downside to such an arrangement is that you’re trusting black market hackers with your personal data. But, for Cubans unaccustomed to privacy rights anywhere, for now the pros outweigh the cons — especially since the arrangement can mean using the internet in the comfort of the home. 

This sort of access may be a far cry from what the rest of the world has grown to expect, but it’s revolutionized life for many Cubans. While most still rely on ‘the packet’ for the bulk of their digital media, it has made communication with the rest of the world much easier. As such, entire new economies are being built, and that has a very real impact on the everyday lives of millions.