Part of our ongoing series about the internet in Cuba, we look at one way many Cubans and tourists get their internet: Wifi hotspots. A relatively new phenomenon in Cuba, these hotspots are completely unlike anything in the United States. The program started in the summer of 2015, when the Cuban government opened up hotspots in 35 locations throughout the country, mostly located in Havana and other major cities.
Operated by the government-owned ETECSA telecommunications group, these hotspots aren’t located where you might expect, like a coffee shop, school, or national landmark. Instead, they’re placed in otherwise unassuming public parks scattered throughout the city. A year ago, you would have easily walked right past them without a second glance. Now, they’re impossible to miss, with the crowds of young Cubans crouched in front of their phones and computers.
Which is the second reason they’re so unique. Unlike the United States, Cubans lack reliable internet access, with no connections in their home and no cellular data. Which means the hotspots, which provide (relatively) fast internet access without many restrictions or censorship, are popular. Most Cubans use the connection to chat with their family in other cities or in the United States. It’s a bit slow for skype, but perfect for apps designed for tricky internet connections, like IMO.
Despite their popularity, these hotspots are impractical for most Cubans, who live on a government salary of $25 per month. A internet card, which usually give one hour’s worth of access, costs $2–or two day’s pay. At these prices, the vast majority of Cubans are unable to afford even an hour of internet a week. And in a country where internet access is not required to do your job or keep in touch with friends, many Cuban’s simply feel it isn’t worth the exorbitant cost.
To make matters worse, the internet cards themselves aren’t easy to acquire, at least for visitors. To purchase them the legitimate way, a user would have to go to an ETECSA shop, wait in line for a while, hope that the cards don’t run out, show their passport, and buy no more than 3 cards at a time.
An ETECSA WiFi card, often seen strewn about the streets of Havana. ©ifCuba
The faster and less-than-legal method is to show up to a wifi park, sit at a bench, and wait a few minutes for a card reseller to come up to you whispering “tarjeta.” They upcharge you around a dollar a card, which is a price well worth the work you’re saving. Oftentimes they’ll even help you log in if it’s your first time. They’ll find you quickly, and they could be anyone–the old woman selling chips, the high school student with the backpack, the man on the bench next to you.
Most Cuban internet users get a nauta internet account through, which forgoes the cards and gives users a permanent user id and password. These can be “topped up” online, via sites like Ding, which some Cubans also use to pay their phone bills. Of course, these sites require a credit card, which most Cubans don’t have. If they don’t have friends or family with a card, they can also recharge their accounts via kiosks or at an ETECSA shop.