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    Cubans are using simple hacks to get around limited and expensive internet
    Ed Augustin

    Havana, Cuba
    Cuba remains one of the world’s least connected countries, but that’s
    slowly changing. In July last year, Etecsa, the state-owned telecoms
    company, launched the country’s first wifi hotspots. A year on, and over
    100 hotspots have been rolled out across the island.
    Cubans are now accessing Gmail, Facebook and Twitter to connect with
    friends and family for the first time. While data on the number of
    smartphone owners is limited, according to Etecsa, around 150,000 of the
    island’s 11 million people now connect to the web daily.
    But internet access remains expensive, with plenty of barriers. The
    average monthly salary in Cuba is $25, yet a one-hour wifi card costs $2
    and an internet-enabled phone costs over $200 in state stores. And while
    Cubans can see social media pages and major news websites, government
    censors block dissident blogs.
    It’s not only Cuba’s policies that thwart accessibility. Despite the
    thaw in relations, the US embargo on Cuba remains in place, prohibiting
    US-based firms from doing business there. Apple’s and Google’s app
    stores don’t allow downloads, blocking access to common apps like Skype
    and WhatsApp. (Facebook and others can be used via their websites.) The
    US, Cuba’s staunchest critic of the state’s grip on information, is
    effectively putting brakes on the liberatory power of the web.
    But Cubans are used to finding solutions to seemingly impossible
    problems, and many are applying the same ingenuity that life in Cuba
    demands to life online.
    Sacrifice, then connect

    On a recent Saturday, Estrella Rodríguez, a retired Havana doctor, stood
    in the shade near a wifi hotspot. She was using IMO, a Skype-like
    video-calling app, to reach her daughter, who emigrated to New Zealand
    five years ago. Even if Cubans can find a way of installing Skype
    without going through the app store, it won’t let them connect from
    Cuba. IMO, however, does.

    “It’s the first time I’ve seen my daughter since she left. I’m over the
    moon!” Rodríguez said, tearful and jumping with excitement in front of
    the pixelated stream of her daughter. “Until now we kept in touch by
    email, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen her.” Rodríguez
    said the family decided to forgo milk for a few weeks to save up the
    money for the wifi.
    Nearby, teenager Miladis Llanes was also online. “The Internet is mostly
    for middle-class people. Poor people can’t connect,” Llanes said, in
    between checking Facebook. “Most people who connect here have family who
    top up their accounts abroad.”
    But necessity breeds ingenuity. Close by, two kids lean against a
    building and whisper “Psssst – Connectify” to passersby. Connectify
    allows them to divide up and share the limited bandwidth that Etecsa
    wifi provides by creating personal wifi hotspots from their laptops.
    Users buy one-hour cards at $2, create three new password-protected wifi
    connections, and sell these connections on for a dollar each, pocketing
    a dollar profit in the process. The kids had no shortage of clients
    willing to connect at a lower speed for half the price.

    Another innovation is the classified ads site Revolico. In a country
    where state supermarkets sometimes go weeks without toilet paper, and
    the state sells electronic goods at a beefy 240% markup, Revolico has
    become a household name. To keep up with demand, droves of Cubans are
    taking cheap flights to Panama to stock up on smartphones, laptops and
    clothes, before bringing them back to Cuba to post online. Though
    working as a mule is illegal and Revolico is blocked, people easily
    access the site through mirror websites. The state, unable to satiate
    the yearning for consumer goods, has so far turned a blind eye.
    Limited connectivity has also led Cubans to develop apps that are fully
    functional offline. Alamesa, the island’s leading source of gastronomic
    information, is a case in point. The app, which is updated every
    fortnight, downloads descriptions, reviews, and photos of over 800
    restaurants on to your phone. You can search them offline, and there are
    even maps to help you reach your eatery of choice. You can’t reserve via
    the app, but Alamesa’s creators have found a revenue stream: 30% of the
    restaurants pay, in cash, to get promoted.

    Also popular is Zapya, an offline file-transfer app, which allows Cubans
    to skirt around the embargo to share popular apps such as Facebook and
    the offline version of Wikipedia. Any two people with Zapya installed on
    their phones can exchange files, apps, photos or videos at 2Mb per
    second, so long as they are within around 20 meters (66 feet) of each other.
    Zapya also allows for group chat, making it Cuba’s answer to Tinder.
    Anyone in the vicinity can enter, and teenagers hanging out in parks,
    petrol stations, and even nightclubs browse the chats to see who’s around.
    “You find all sorts on there. From weirdos to people you might have
    something in common with,” says Mayelin, who met her boyfriend through
    Zapya while at a concert.
    Other low-tech apps have helped Cubans navigate the restrictions of
    daily life. Flashlight, which turns not just the phone’s camera
    flashlight but also its screen brightness up to the max, is handy in a
    country where power cuts are never far away. The app has become even
    more popular this summer as the government has introduced fuel rationing
    to manage power shortages on a scale not seen in decades.
    3G Cuba

    Chinese telecom firm Huawei is currently laying the fiber-optic cable
    for Cuba’s first broadband home internet services, which Etecsa plans to
    launch in Old Havana later this year. Prices are yet to be announced,
    but nobody expects them to be within reach of regular Cubans. The
    project is likely aimed more at the internet-hungry holidaymakers now
    flooding the historic quarter’s hostels and private homes.
    Expensive as it is, though, the internet is making a difference to the
    lives of less well-off Cubans too. A record 43,000 people emigrated to
    the US (pdf) from the island last year. Traditionally, when a loved one
    left, the goodbye at the airport was often the last farewell. Now,
    Cubans abroad can pay for their family at home to have an internet
    connection and stay in touch—and that already has Cubans feeling much
    less isolated.

    Source: Connectify, zapya, Revolico: Cubans are using simple hacks and
    apps to get around limited and expensive internet — Quartz –

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