After half a century of failed US attempts to starve the Castro regime of goods and cash, the Obama administration’s move to allow US telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba is a welcome change. Those eager to gain a foothold in the Caribbean’s biggest country should take care, however. While promising, the measures amount to an olive branch, not a breakthrough.
Assuming the Cuban authorities go along – a big if – the new rules will let US telecoms groups lay underwater cable to Cuba, enter roaming agreements with Cuban mobile operators, and offer satellite radio and television service to customers on the island.
The attraction is Cuba’s position as the region’s last big untapped market. Just one in 11 Cubans has telephone service. Internet access is almost nonexistent; Telecom Italia, which owns a 27 per cent stake in Etecsa, Cuba’s state-controlled telecoms operator, reported just 25,000 internet users at the end of last year, out of a population of more than 11m. Mobile phone users number just 332,000 in spite of a government move to open mobile phone ownership to ordinary Cubans last year.
Capitalising on that will be difficult. The average Cuban’s monthly take-home wage is a meagre $20, excluding earnings from the black market or remittances. Even with those, owning a mobile phone – much less a computer – remains out of reach for most.
Bandwidth is another problem. In 1921, Cuba became the first country to be connected to the US by underwater cable. Today it has no underwater connection to speak of. The result is an appalling lack of broadband capacity. A connection to the US would help. So will an underwater cable from Venezuela, due to come online next year. Progress will be limited, however, if Washington’s overtures are met with more of Tuesday’s bluster and posturing from Havana. Over to you, Mr Castro.
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