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Obama: Google to Improve Cubans' Internet Access


People surf the Internet at a public Wi-Fi hotspot in downtown Havana, Cuba, March 16, 2016.

People surf the Internet at a public Wi-Fi hotspot in downtown Havana, Cuba, March 16, 2016.

Cuba’s notoriously restrictive Internet climate may be warming to more access, based on comments made by U.S. President Barack Obama and a Google scientist in recent days. Currently, as few as 5 percent of Cubans have access, according to an international watchdog group.

"One of the things that we’ll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island," Obama, who’s in the midst of a historic three-day trip to the island nation, said in interview Sunday with ABC News.

A Google vice president last Wednesday addressed Cuban communications officials and recent computer science graduates at a science and technology symposium.

FILE - U.S. computer scientist Vint Cerf addresses a conference on the future of Internet governance in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 23, 2014. Cerf recently addressed Cuban communications officials at a science and technology symposium.

FILE - U.S. computer scientist Vint Cerf addresses a conference on the future of Internet governance in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 23, 2014. Cerf recently addressed Cuban communications officials at a science and technology symposium.

In his talk, Vint Cerf focused on the history of the Internet, which he's credited with helping develop, the Associated Press reported. He did not directly address a Google agreement with Cuba.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt first led a small team of company officials to Cuba in June 2014 to promote open Internet access. That same year, the company got a foothold in the country’s marketplace, launching Google’s Chrome browser and analytics programs.

Google announcement

On Monday, Google announced in a blog post that it is partnering with Havana’s Museo Orgánico Romerillo in featuring the work of Cuban artist Kcho. The installation will include Google products Cardboard and Chromebooks, as well as virtual-reality goggles.

“We hope this installation will enable people for whom Internet access is scarce to browse the Web and find information,” the Google post said. “… New technologies and improved Internet access can help people in their daily lives, provide new information and experiences, and help harness a country’s creativity and ingenuity. We hope to have the chance to offer more services to the Cuban people in the future.”

Obama, in a televised news conference Monday afternoon with Cuban President Fidel Castro, said success would be elusive for Cubans “unless they have access to the Internet.”

Few have access

Washington-based watchdog Freedom House reported that only 5 to 30 percent of the country’s residents currently have online access, which is heavily censored.

In its most recent annual report on Internet freedom, Freedom House rated Cuba as "not free."

It found last year that, despite "notable advances" in access, Cuba’s "draconian restrictions" on online communications are the worst in the Americas.

"Cuba has taken some tentative steps" to improve online communications, according to Freedom House's "Freedom on the Net 2015" report

FILE - People surf the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 25, 2015.

FILE - People surf the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 25, 2015.

From June 2014 through May 2015, "the government opened a number of new Internet access points, which boast somewhat faster speeds and lower prices. After an initial experiment with the first free public Wi-Fi zone, the government opened 35 paid public Wi-Fi hotspots in June and July 2015."

"For Cuba, this progress in increasing access is historic, but it is still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to alleviating the most draconian restrictions on Internet freedom in the hemisphere," the report said. "Home Internet connections are still forbidden, and even with reduced prices, public Internet access points still cost (US) $2 per hour to use, which is equal to one-tenth of the average monthly wages."

Telecommunications options grow

Although smartphones have proliferated in Cuba, they typically can be used only for placing and receiving phone calls, not going online. But Cuba’s government is expanding telecommunications options.

On March 14, an international unit of Verizon Communications announced a deal with Etecsa, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications monopoly, to further develop telephone roaming services.

Reuters reported that Cuba's deal with Verizon Partner Solutions is expected to improve the quality and reduce costs of phone conversations between the two countries, which under the U.S. trade embargo were routed through third-party countries.

New regulations released last year made the change possible.

Verizon in September became the first U.S. firm to establish a roaming agreement with Etesca. In November, its competitor, Sprint Corp., inked a direct roaming agreement with Cuban telecommunications officials, Reuters reported.

Verizon in September became the first U.S. company to establish a roaming agreement with Etesca. In November, its competitor, Sprint Corp., inked a direct roaming agreement with Cuban telecommunications officials, Reuters reported.

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