Google to bring Internet to unconnected Cuba

If Google can work around government roadblocks, information could flood into the communist country

Google has set a deal to bring Wi-Fi and broadband connectivity to Cuba, but some are already wondering how much information and access will freely flow to the Cuban people.

President Obama and his family are in Cuba this week. It's the first time a U.S. president has visited Cuba in 88 years.

In an interview with ABC News anchor David Muir that aired on Monday, the president addressed the fact that only 5% of homes in Cuba have access to the Internet, one of the lowest rates in the world.

"Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Ei access and broadband access on the island," Obama said. "Change is going to happen here. I think [Cuban President] Raul Castro understands that."

The White House said on its website that telecom providers will now be allowed to set up the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services.

"This is a pretty big deal for the Cuban people, assuming that enough of them get to use it to make a difference," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "The government has a pretty solid record of doing whatever they can to stifle anything internal or external that contradicts their views. I would be surprised if the government gives their public the chance to find that information."

Obama also noted in the interview that he has significant differences with the Cuban government on human rights and individual liberties. "There's no doubt that the Cuban government is still a one-party state that is exerting control and is stifling dissent, " the president said.

However, he also said he's hoping that opening relations with Cuba, and enabling the Cuban people more access to receive and share information, will prompt more change in the country.

Brett Perlmutter, Google's Cuba Lead, wrote in a blog post today that the company is working with ETECSA, a government-owned Internet service provider in Cuba, to showcase some of its products, including Cardboard and Chromebooks.

"We hope this installation will enable people for whom Internet access is scarce to browse the web and find information," wrote Perlmutter. "These efforts, which are all led by our Access team, are just a start, but an important one. They demonstrate what might be possible in the future."

Other U.S. companies, like Verizon and Sprint are also working to bring Internet service to the island nation.

In 2014, Google launched Chrome, Google Play for Free Apps, and Google Analytics in Cuba. When steps were taken to strengthen relations between Cuba and the U.S., the company launched Toolbar in Cuba early in 2015 to facilitate searches.

"We know, from the experience of many countries around the world, that new technologies and improved Internet access can help people in their daily lives, provide new information and experiences, and help harness a country's creativity and ingenuity," Permutter wrote. "We hope to have the chance to offer more services to the Cuban people in the future."

He did not give any specifics on how Google will be setting up Wi-Fi and broadband services in Cuba.

Analysts, though, are wondering how this will work out.

"It is a huge deal for Cuba but you wonder how long it will be before the Cuban government wants to control content and this relationship goes south like it did in China," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "I have my doubts this will end well because I don't know if Cuba is ready for full Internet access yet."

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, also is holding off on making an initial judgment on the news.

"On the surface, historically this is a great announcement," he told Computerworld. "I just don't think we should get all excited until we know the details. On one hand, Google doesn't like to be told what they can and can't show users. On the other hand, I can't imagine the Cuban government would open the floodgates of information to their people without controlling every bit and byte. It just won't happen that way. Not for a long time anyway, if ever."

However, Olds noted that if the Cuban government doesn't get in the way of this deal, it could be a great thing.

"This is a big step when it comes to bringing the Net to isolated communities of people around the world," he said. "Cuba, along with North Korea, is one of the few remaining holdouts from the Internet. Wiring them up is a big step in the right direction and should help bring Cuba into the 21st century."

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