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Credit Cristiana Couceiro

Millions of Cuban citizens could have affordable access to the Internet in a matter of months. The only thing keeping the island in the digital Dark Ages is a lack of political will. Cuban officials have long blamed the American embargo for their nation’s obsolete telecommunications systems. They no longer have that excuse.

Regulatory changes the Obama administration put in place this year provide Havana with a number of options to expand Internet coverage quickly and sharply. If the government took advantage of that, the island’s anemic economy could get a much-needed jolt, and young Cubans who are determined to emigrate, a powerful reason to reconsider.

Cuba was among the last in the region to go online in the 1990s. Over the years, the authoritarian government has moved haltingly in expanding access to the Internet, which remains tightly controlled and censored. The American government sought to establish clandestine connections, but relatively few people benefited from those initiatives, and those who did risked being branded as traitors. Since 2013, Cuba has been plugged into the global cable network that enables high-speed connections, but the Internet is still largely out of reach and prohibitively expensive for those who don’t have government-sanctioned access through workplaces and universities.

Young Cubans, eager to connect with the world,have built ingenious ways around the government’s controls. In the past two years, a black market data sharing system known as el paquete, or the packet, has enabled Cubans to gain access to a menu of news sites, television shows, movies and snapshots of websites that are bundled weekly and disseminated door to door through hard drives and memory sticks. They also have used wireless routers to create neighborhood networks that are not connected to the Internet but that enable users to chat and share media.

Earlier this year, the government, responding to popular pressure, established 35 wireless centers where Cubans can use smartphones and laptops to go online for about $2 an hour. Although that amounts to roughly 10 percent of the median monthly salary on the island, the centers have been mobbed. Norges Rodríguez, an engineer and prominent blogger in Havana, said that Cuban officials were wrestling with a quandary. “They are aware that for the economy to advance, the economy must be online,” he said in a phone interview. “But our society, by design, is like the one the Soviets had: a closed society.”

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Within Cuba’s opaque power structure there is a split between hard-liners who are worried that broader Internet access could fuel dissent and more progressive leaders who see the embrace of technology as a matter of economic survival. Google, which has recently made it a priority to expand online access in some of the world’s least plugged-in societies, has invigorated that debate in recent months by offering to rapidly upgrade the island’s Internet infrastructure.

Google could help Cuba plug into at least one additional submarine cable, which would vastly improve speeds, and develop a hybrid distribution network that would include fiber-optic cables, cellular data towers and Wi-Fi access points. The company’s Project Link initiative last year greatly improved connectivity in Uganda in a matter of months, and it is now expanding to Ghana. It’s unclear how the financing of a Cuba project would work. Google could easily make an upfront investment that could be paid off over time, and as more users go online it would benefit from demand for Google products, which generates advertising revenue.

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Wi-Fi Center in Havana

The 35 Wi-Fi centers the Cuban government opened this year are constantly packed, which signals how eager Cubans are to get online.

By CHRIS CARMICHAEL on Publish Date November 30, 2015.

Partnering with Google, which has enormous lobbying clout in Washington, could advance Havana’s goal of building enough political support in Congress to repeal the embargo and would make it harder for a future president to dial back the restoration of diplomatic ties that Mr. Obama set in motion last year. Leading Republican candidates, including Marco Rubio, have been critical of broader engagement with the Cuban government.

Cuba could also decide to do business with non-American technology companies, as Myanmar did after it began opening its political system in 2013. Industry experts say there would be no shortage of bidders eager to establish a foothold in a populous Caribbean nation with one of the world’s highest literacy rates — despite Havana’s cumbersome foreign investment laws and its inability to obtain credit to purchase American equipment because of sanctions that remain in place.

Cuban officials pledged last December to expand Internet access “without haste, but without pause.” But that hasn’t happened, and Cubans are rightly demanding more. “The government had claimed the problem was the inability to do business with American companies,” Mr. Rodríguez, the blogger, said. “That argument has disappeared.”