World

Softening U.S.-Cuba Relations Could Result In More Internet Access For Cubans

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama meets with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.

In his first address from Cuba, President Barack Obama announced Monday that it was a “new day” for American-Cuban relations, emphasizing that increased internet access would be big part of the change.

The president repeatedly mentioned internet access as a vitality for Cuba’s economic success in general terms during his address Monday. But in a separate interview, revealed that Google is expected to play a primary role in bringing widespread internet connectivity to Cuba.

“We’ve already administratively loosened some of the embargo so that not only financial services and tourism but also information companies can start coming here,” Obama told ABC News in an interview released Sunday. “And one of the things we’ll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more WiFi access and broadband access on the island.”

Details on the project are scant, but Google is expected to lay infrastructure for WiFi and broadband internet access throughout the island.

On Monday, Obama also said in his address that Google’s deal is a part of a larger plan to increase Cuba’s internet access. U.S. broadband companies are no longer barred from increasing Cuba’s internet access, he announced.

Google’s partnership with Cuba is one of several major announcements to come out of Obama’s historic meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro this week. On Sunday, the Obama administration authorized Airbnb as the first American company officially to operate in Cuba.

Before the White House’s authorization, Airbnb could only allow American travelers to use the service under certain conditions — such as for family visits, journalistic trips, or humanitarian projects — according to the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo.

Travelers can now use the San Francisco-based home-sharing site to book stays at private residences instead of government-owned hotels, which are known for dilapidated building conditions and poor customer service.

In the rush to take advantage of softening U.S.-Cuba relations, Starwood Hotels inked a deal to run three hotels ahead of the White House expanding Airbnb’s Cuban operations. The deal is the first of its kind since the government began running all the country’s hotels in 1959, the Associated Press reported.

Western Union also announced plans to expand its business in Cuba.

Obama’s trip to Cuba as the first sitting president to visit the island nation is notable on its own. But the trip also signifies a seismic shift for Cuban tourism and economics — one that will be contingent on internet access.

Cubans have limited internet access with incredibly slow connection speeds. Only 5 percent of citizens have household access and those who don’t heavily rely on internet cafes which can be costly.

App-based services such as Airbnb require fast and reliable internet access to function. Without it, hosts and hotels won’t be able to handle incoming requests.

Because Cuba’s economy depends on tourism dollars, U.S. tech companies increasing their presence will likely bring in more revenue as relations with the United States continue to thaw. That influx of revenue will likely help spur job growth and fund educational efforts, but could potentially have unpleasant social side effects.

For example, Airbnb has a reputation for contributing to economic and housing disparities. The company regularly boasts about how the service gives the middle class households the ability to earn extra cash. The most successful Airbnb hosts, however, tend to be more affluent because they can afford to rent out their entire home for days at a time.

If that trend transfers to Cuba, the country could find itself struggling with its first tech-based economic problem.