HAVANA – Cuba’s government said it provided free internet to the communist-run island’s more than 5 million cellphone users on Tuesday, in an eight-hour test before it launches sales of the service.
Cuba is one of the Western Hemisphere’s least connected countries. State-run telecommunications monopoly ETECSA announced the trial, with Tuesday marking the first time internet services were available nationwide.
There are hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba but virtually no home penetration.
Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, considered the country’s social media pioneer, raved that she had directly sent a tweet from her mobile. In another tweet, she called the test a “citizen’s victory.”
On the streets of Havana, mobile users said they were happy about the day of free internet, even as some complained that connectivity was notably slower than usual.
“This is marvelous news because we can talk with family abroad without going to specific Wi-Fi spots, there is more intimacy,” said taxi driver Andres Peraza.
Forty percent of Cubans have relatives living abroad.
Leinier Valdez, one of a group of young people trying to connect, said, “this is great. Its better and more so when you can connect for free.”
Hotspots currently charge about $1 an hour although monthly wages in Cuba average just $30.
The government has not yet said how much most Cubans would pay for mobile internet, or when exactly sales of the service will begin. But ETECSA is already charging companies and embassies $45 a month for four gigabytes.
Analysts have said broader Web access will ultimately weaken government control over what information reaches people in a country where the state has a monopoly on the media.
Whether because of a lack of cash, a long-running U.S. trade embargo or concerns about the flow of information, Cuba has lagged far behind most countries in Web access. Until 2013, internet was largely only available to the public at tourist hotels on the island.
But the government has since made boosting connectivity a priority, introducing cybercafes and outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots and slowly starting to hook up homes to the Web.
Long before he took office from Raul Castro in April, 58-year-old President Miguel Diaz-Canel championed the cause.
“We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online,” he told parliament in July, adding that Cubans could thus “counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content” on the internet. (Reporting by Marc Frank; additional reporting by Nelson Acosta Editing by Tom Brown)