So I´m telecommuting, working from home, teletrabajando. Yeah, I know, I´m not the only one, right? I bet by this time (Pandemic Month Three and counting…) you think you know exactly what I’m talking about, right? Logging on to Zoom meetings while changing diapers? Looking for a background for the Skype call that doesn’t look like you’re at the dining room table adorned with breakfast leftovers and play-dough snakes. Been there? I feel you, but I haven’t been there.
I’m teletrabajando from Havana. If you know a little about Cuba it probably won’t surprise you when I tell you that it is a little different. Today 63% of Cubans have access to the Internet, an exponential increase from even five years ago. About half of those who get online are doing it through cell phone data, but the prices are high, much higher than many salaries.
Cell phone data access became available on smartphones in December 2018. You can pay as you go, but most Cubans purchase a “package” of data. For instance, 10 CUC (about $10 USD) gets you just 1GB, supposedly good for 30 days, but it has never lasted me for more than a week. Things we don’t think about in the US —like whether WhatsApp or Instagram use up more data— are topics of daily conversation, as are hacks for downloading podcasts using less data and workarounds for not sapping your data capacity while you surf the web.
The majority of Cubans are employees of the state, and many state workplaces now provide their employees with dialup access to log on, but modem speed all but rules out the possibility of connecting to the tools that many US workers are using for video calls and chats.
These difficulties accessing large amounts of data was ultimately what led to the ingenious creation of El Paquete Semanal, a weekly USB delivery system which provides Cubans with endless hours of entertainment that has come in very handy during Cuba’s offline quarantine.
The majority of Cubans are employees of the state, and many state workplaces now provide their employees with dialup access to log on, but modem speed all but rules out the possibility of connecting to the tools that many US workers are using for video calls and chats. And then there’s the US embargo…. which makes Zoom and Skype impossible here, even with a good connection. But for email and slowly surfing the web (treading water?) it gets the job done.
Years ago, I had dialup at home in Havana. It was great for learning to multitask. I’d log into my email and do a Google search and open each page that looked interesting in a separate tab on the browser. As the pages loaded, I’d go to the kitchen and get dinner started. After getting the rice going in the rice cooker and marinating the pork I’d go back and read the loaded pages. I’d click on a couple links, open my emails in multiple tabs and back to the kitchen to get the plantains ready for frying tostones. I’d usually prepare, eat and clean up after the meal in the time it took to check and respond to a handful of emails. Of course, you’d have to have a landline for that to work. Many habaneros don’t. My friend Yoel, a network administrator at a large cultural institution in Havana, is now working from home, depending on expensive cell phone data because the apartment he rents with his wife doesn´t have a landline. I’m in the same boat.
When cell data came out, people quickly forgot about sweating in the hot sun at Wi-Fi parks, or trying to explain to a client abroad why they were late turning in a project because it had been raining yesterday.
For Cuban workers in the private sector who depend on internet access to work online, things get more complicated. In our pre-pandemic lives, many of my self-employed friends doing writing, editing, translations, research, and IT gigs also kept a foot in the state sector to guarantee free internet access for these hard-currency paying side jobs. Now if they aren’t among the lucky few to have both a landline and a job that now provides dial up access to facilitate teletrabajo, they must depend on cell phone data. There go the profit margins.
We are supposed to #Quedateencasa, but when I went to ETECSA, Cuba’s main telecommunications provider, last week to try to set up a Nauta Hogar account to use DSL from home, I was told that they were not opening new accounts until, wait for it, the pandemic was over. Ironic? Yes.
In the meantime, if I want to economize on cell phone data and still get my work done, like other entrepreneurs I’ve got to start going to the Internet again. (Here’s one for the linguistics nerds in the room! Umm. Yeah, hopefully I’m not the only one. Awkward pause.) Before cell data became available here, we didn’t connect to the Internet, we went to the Internet. Back in 2015, the Internet was a destination. Sure, some people had access at work or at school, but for the masses, the Internet was only available to anyone with $2.50 to shell out for a one-hour scratch card at certain public parks with Wi-Fi antennas. There are about 1000 of these Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.
When cell data came out, people quickly forgot about sweating in the hot sun at Wi-Fi parks, or trying to explain to a client abroad why they were late turning in a project because it had been raining yesterday. Unless we had to download or upload something big or wanted to watch streaming videos, going to the Internet was a thing of the past, we were all excited to connect to the Internet for the first time.
Now in the middle of the pandemic, with no internet at work, no more salas de navegación run by ETECSA, no way to set up a home DSL contract, it’s back to the Wi-Fi park. Or at least that’s what I thought.
Today, Wi-Fi prices have fallen quickly. Both at Wi-Fi parks and on cell phones there is a separate rate for Cuban sites with the .cu URL that is much cheaper. Also, during the quarantine some sites, like the Cuban education ministry sites, are now free. Hourly Wi-Fi internet rates are much lower (0.70/hour), but there are still lots of apps and programs that don’t work in Cuba, such as G-suite and Zoom.
Now in the middle of the pandemic, with no internet at work, no more salas de navegación run by ETECSA, no way to set up a new Nauta Hogar DSL contract, it’s back to the Wi-Fi park. Or at least that’s what I thought. According to Radio Bemba (now sponsored by WhatsApp) in Marianao some Wi-Fi parks have been closed, the signals shut off to keep people from congregating in the parks.
In Vedado, police passing by asked my friends in Wi-Fi parks by Coppelia and Linea y G to move along. But as abuela says, “Dios aprieta, pero no ahoga.” ETECSA in its infinite monopolistic beneficence has cut data prices in half after 1 a.m. So I will be following the lead of my friends trying to make it work in the private sector and for as long as the pandemic (and my coffee stash) last I will be drinking an extra cortadito to make it through the night, and hope I don’t wake up the baby in the process. Only 15 minutes left ‘til clock-in time! Thanks, ETECSA.