Barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones. There is no prow that can cut through a cloudbank of ideas. A powerful idea, waved before the world at the proper time, can stop a squadron of iron-clad ships, like the mystical flag of the Last Judgement.José Marti, Our America (1881)
After years of thinking about a trip to Cuba, I finally booked a ticket in February 2016 to see the fabled island ‘before the Americans arrive’. I was not the only one with this plan. I found the island thronged with tourists from all over the world, eager to see the place before the forces of capitalism return.
Cuba is a fascinating country. It forces you to think about big issues such as wealth and its creation and distribution, free speech, poverty, health care provision and education – and how to pay for it all. If you are interested in economics or capitalism, then Cuba is like a vast experiment.
Cuba is also a blank slate when it comes to the internet. With a government-controlled media and poor infrastructure, Cuba is one of the last countries on earth with a largely offline population. Internet access is very limited and rationed. Outside hotels in the capital, small crowds gather to pick up weak Wi-Fi signals. In other parts, locals purchase government-issued cards to access Wi-Fi in public parks.
11 million fresh online citizens
Cuba has little or no print or billboard advertising – most adverts are government information campaigns or propaganda. Despite all of this, Cuba is slowly opening up to the world and US sanctions are likely to be lifted soon. The main causes for the poor state of the Cuban Internet are the US trade embargo, infrastructure poverty and the government’s fear of information. With its 11 million citizens slowly getting internet access over the next few years, the country is in a unique position – how to invest effectively in the collective interest to provide internet access?
Should Cuba tender for foreign companies to install infrastructure? Or should it look at models such as Stockholm’s Stokab – a highly successful municipally-owned and competition-neutral infrastructure.
In some ways we can look at Cuba as a thought experiment. If we were to design an open and sustainable internet from scratch, how would we do things differently? Is there an inherent status quo that should be challenged?
In regions of the world coming online en masse this is already happening and what happens in countries such as Cuba and elsewhere is instructive as to how the next billion will come online over the next decade.
In the context of web publishing, is the current type of advertising-driven web experience desirable in a bandwidth-starved country like Cuba?
Ingenious low-tech solutions
Relentlessly innovative, Cuban entrepreneurs have been finding solutions to poor connectivity. Apretaste is a platform that enables web search via email. Users email search terms in the email subject line to [email protected], and the results are immediately returned.
Video streaming would seem a far-off dream in low bandwidth Cuba, but that has not stopped the collators and distributors of El Paquete – a $2 weekly analogue bulk download of movies, music and magazines.1 Distributed on flash drives, this network has fostered local startups. Some drives include Revolico, a sort of Cuban listings board. The digital mag Vistar Magazine is distributed locally almost entirely on these drives. The paquete even contain local text ads, spliced into video where foreign ads would have originally appeared. Some even speculate that El Paquete may be Cuba’s largest private employer.2
Cuba by its very existence as a nation does show that other models are possible. Without access to the internet it has been able to attain a high level for human development3, while being hobbled by an inefficient and centrally-planned government, a decades-long trade embargo and scant resources. Cuba, while materially poor, does not have slums and gang violence like many Latin American and Caribbean nations.
It is too early to predict how Cuba’s internet will develop. Chinese companies – some already well-established in Cuba, such as Huawei – are providing infrastructure and have helped finance an undersea communications cable. There remains a mistrust of US companies but there may be a more practical reason for the lack of transactions with US companies: Cuba is a hard place to do business and to get paid and only the most risk tolerant are ready to do business there. Numerous companies and countries are still waiting to collect debts from many years ago.
In terms of online advertising, it is fair to speculate that Cubans, like other internet users, are likely to use ad blockers where download speeds are an issue. The government does not seem to mind mass media consumption with some advertising interspersed – for the moment. Given that there is still a very small consumer market, little advertising spend will be directed at Cubans for the time being. But that will undoubtedly change, and that is when our Cuban thought experiment will start to get really interesting. Could an adblocked Cuban internet really support the emergence of an independent, homegrown media? If not, the people of Cuba may find themselves losing out on one of the most vital aspects of the online experience and dependent on external, not necessarily benevolent, influences.
Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them.José Marti
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