BUSINESS

Cuba allows rare free public Wi-Fi at Havana cultural center

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba has allowed the launch of the island's first known free, public and officially sanctioned Internet service at a Havana cultural center that quietly began offering open Wi-Fi in recent weeks.

Dozens of youths have been flocking each day to the center run by famed artist Kcho, whose spokeswoman said state telecom Etecsa approved the move in a small but unprecedented loosening of Cuba's strict Internet regulations.

The service is slow compared with what Internet users are accustomed to in most parts of the world. But connectivity-starved islanders said it's a boon that lets them access Facebook, read news of the world and communicate with friends and family elsewhere.

"I come as often as I can," said Adonis Ortiz, a 20-year-old sporting a gold chain and an American-flag bandanna around his neck. He was video-chatting with his father in the United States, whom he last saw in person nine years ago.

"Thanks to this service I can talk to (him)," Ortiz said.

In the courtyard of the cultural center in western Havana, tech-savvy Millennials lounged in wicker chairs beneath a white canopy, tapping away on laptops and tablets. More were glued to smartphones as they sat on the sidewalk outside.

A sign on the exterior wall announces the password to any and all comers: the well-known defiant cry from 1956 by revolutionary figure Juan Almeida that translates as, "Here, nobody surrenders!"

It's a scene that wouldn't turn heads most anywhere else, but it's a bit revolutionary for Cuba where Internet access is rare, costly and precious.

Cuba has some of the lowest connectivity rates on the planet, with dial-up accounts closely restricted and at-home broadband almost unheard of except in the case of foreigners who pay hundreds of dollars a month for the service.

Authorities regularly justified those restrictions by saying the Caribbean nation must prioritize its limited bandwidth for uses that are deemed to benefit society, such as schools and workplaces.

However the government gradually has been unclenching its tight control, including the opening of hundreds of Internet rooms where an hour of access costs $4.50, though last month authorities announced a temporary 50 percent discount.

That's still prohibitively expensive for most islanders, representing about a quarter of the average monthly government wage.

So Kcho's Wi-Fi is a rare gift.

Spokeswoman Leysi Rubio said the center started hosting the signal about two months ago.

"It began as an experiment that this could be a place from which art emits energy for rejuvenation and consolidation," Rubio said, "not only from our socialist project but also the neighborhood and the Cuban people."

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP