WiFi ‘cafes’ in Havana

20151230_175159__720pWhen we plan our trips to Cuba, one of the things we both look forward to and dread in equal measure is the inability to instantly and consistently access Google, Reddit and various other groovy interweb sites. From anywhere else in the world (mostly) and thanks to 3G, we’re typically always connected in one way or another. We may miss our wicked fast home network in Helsinki. But, in Cuba, such luxuries (or banalities) are virtually non-existent (pun intended). Our stopover this year in Amsterdam featured great WiFi access both at Schiphol and in the funkiest hotel ever, CitizenM. Yet, no more than two minutes after sitting in our seats on KLM’s Airbus 330 to Havana, we found ourselves already missing Google and 24 / 7 / 365 connections. (Some random song is now stuck in both of our heads and we are desperate to know the words to the song. Ah…the internet.)

Cuba allows us to reset a bit. She also affords us that most needed opportunity to fully escape the rest of the world and recover from a year of hard work in particular. During our first trip here in 2008, I vividly recall visiting the ‘internet cafe’ at our hotel and feeling completely overwhelmed watching emails flood the screen for several minutes as the inbox’s new message counter climbed into the triple digits. That was the last time I hopped online in Cuba.

After suffering through a decade and a half of cold, dark and snowy winters, we’ve said for years that as soon as the internet arrives in Cuba, we’ll gladly work from here for three months in winter and live the remainder of the year in Finland. This may become reality sooner than we’d imagined.

Shortly after our arrival this year, we learned that WiFi hotspots now exist in various parks throughout Havana. This is huge news. As whacky as sitting in a park to access decent connection speeds may sound, it beats no internet at all. Somehow, this also seems not quite as whacky given the Cuban context.

By way of comparison, The Cuban, called to duty shortly after we arrived, needed to send a bit of work to his colleagues in the United States during out first week on holiday. Using a dial-up connection that harkens back to our early days in Russia, he had to send his file (a whopping 1 MB in size) in five parts. It wasn’t until the next day that he learned all five parts landed in the proper inbox on the other side of the connection, and everything had worked out alright. But, had that option not succeeded, we would have made our way to the nearest WiFi hotspot in Havana.

How is this possible? How does it work? And, what does it mean for the country and, most importantly, her citizens?

Roughly five months ago, the country’s only telecommunications provider, state-owned ETECSA, opened up several WiFi hotspots across Havana, which now exist in other cities as well. (During a brief visit to the city of Artemisa, a farming hub to the west of Havana, we discovered this small hamlet also boasts its own WiFi park, something I certainly never imagined possible!) These WiFi (or, as Cubans refer to them, ‘WeeFee’) hotspots are situated in outdoor parks or squares, surrounded by a series of Chinese-made routers and well-lit areas to allow for 24-hour use. Individuals create an account at an ETECSA office, receive a user ID and password to login, and add money to their account. To create an account, they fork over CUC2.00, and then pay an hourly rate to login and use the service, which is another CUC2.00 / hour. As far as we know, how much bandwidth you use is unimportant; it’s all about how much time you spend there.

(For all of you thinking that this is an easy process, please note that ETECSA is perhaps more loathed than Comcast. The process of setting up an account might appear easy. But, it’s not. At all. Our last run-in with ETECSA was at a Cuban internet cafe in 2009, during which we never actually successfully opened a single page in the 30-minutes of online time for which we paid. This year, we borrowed an account from a relative rather than revisit ETECSA. Never mind the headache this would cause as ‘foreigners’.)

Enterprising Cubans have naturally learned how to make accessing the internet at a WiFi park into a business opportunity of their own. If you don’t have your own account, no problem. You simply find someone at one of these WiFi hotspots who will allow you to connect through their connection / device for CUC3.00 / hour. We’ve seen one enterprising young soul provide the connection as well as electricity to fellow surfers. Undoubtedly, the use of an electrical current costs additional moolah. But, at least you don’t have to worry about running out of battery power!

Before stumbling upon one ourselves, friends and family described scores of Cubans congregating in a WiFi park with various connectible gadgets. Laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc. abound. Families crowd around various devices facetiming or skyping with their families and friends abroad. Individuals also set up ‘desks’ and effectively work in the parks. They may not be granted much privacy for intimate conversations, but this seems to bother Cubans very little if at all.

We finally came across a WiFi park rather surprisingly just outside one of our friend’s flats. When we first visited her during this year’s adventure, the park across from her building was lit up like we’d never seen, featuring sparkling new park benches and lovely new artwork throughout, tell-tale signs that something was afoot. Honestly, it was the best looking park I’d seen in Cuba. Rumours circulated that this particular park, situated in Vedado, was slated to become a WiFi hotspot. Yet, no news or announcements were forthcoming. One afternoon, we left her place to sort out a few other details for our trip, only to return a few hours later to find loads of folks on devices of all sorts happily accessing and using the internet. To understand just how significant this was, our friend danced around for the next 30 minutes gleefully singing the WiFi access song. (Really, she was just delighted to access the internet across from her house as well as from one room in her flat.) And, all who visited her flat that evening were equally enthralled with the prospect of accessing the internet from the comfort of her flat.

Over the next several days, we watched the park fill up at all hours with people accessing the WiFi hotspot, cars parking all around the park to use the internet, and various groups congregating along the sidewalk, in the grass, on the curb, and just about anywhere else they could. My favourite character featured a young woman sat on a bench with an umbrella to shade herself as she worked on her laptop.

The internet has come to Cuba. As with most things, the format may be uniquely odd and sensationally Cuban. These are not bad things at all, although they remain far from perfect or ideal. What this means for Cubans remains to be seen. For us, it means we’re a little less likely to fully disconnect whilst here. We’re not sure if that’s good or bad. But, it is certainly a great thing for Cubans. Happy surfing, Cuba, and, welcome to the interwebs!

(Addendum: Whilst attempting to post this, we had a connection time-out and had to relogin after failing to upload a photo of a 200 kb in size.)