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Cuba, the Embargo and the Digital Divide

“You have to figure out how you can reach the informed masses. The solution is not the newspapers… Internet is more accessible.”

–Fidel Castro, November 12, 2010 [1]

There is a lot of discussion about Cuba and Internet access and how many Cubans are not connected to it. Oddly enough, most of the critics assume that having access is merely dependent on political will. A recent report by Nick Miroff for NPR’s “All Things Considered” was titled “In Cuba, Dial-Up Internet Is a Luxury.” The report did not address the issues of infrastructure cost; rather, those matters were disregarded.

Critics like these do not seem to be aware of the actual financial costs of the technology involved. Moreover, technology continues to advance quickly while costs continue to increase. This is not always immediately evident when an advanced piece of technology appears to deliver a far superior product at a relatively cheaper price, compared with preceding technology. However, when the obsolescence – both planned and unplanned – of the interconnecting equipment is considered, the cost pressures are clear. Ultimately, it becomes ever more difficult for the poor within a nation or among nations – to catch up.

Naively, it has been assumed that the same conditions present in the developed industrial countries are also present in the rest of the less wealthy world. Yet, there is a digital divide that is not a function of politics, but of income. And since there is an increasing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of the population throughout the world, this means a functional, not just digital divide, on many levels. Some authors have already acknowledged that besides the worldwide divide, within the digital population of the wealthier countries there is also a divide that has been called the “broadband ghetto.”

The U.S. Census Bureau surveyed 54,000 households in October 2009, and discovered that the digital divide of the 1990s in the United States was persistent. By the time the poor had caught up with a computer and a modem, more up-to-date technology again kept them behind. The study noted that “broadband Internet adoption was higher among White households than among Black and Hispanic households in 2009. Differences in socioeconomic attributes do not entirely explain the gap in broadband Internet adoption associated with race and ethnicity.” [2]

What accounted for the disparity? If you are old, unemployed or underemployed, low income, senior, a minority, less educated, or a non-family household – the gap is from 16 to 34 percentage points behind. When asked, 60% said they did not need or use the Internet. Of course, they were poor and had little education. The rest basically said they could not afford it.

For those who use the Internet, broadband use shot from 9% to 64% between 2001 and 2009. Sixty-four percent of households with an income of less than $25,000 did not connect to the internet via broadband; while for those with incomes of over $100,000, the figure was only 6%. In Florida, in 2009, 33% of households did not connect via broadband, while in New Mexico the figure was 45%. In Mississippi, 58% of the households did not connect via broadband.

There are two separate issues here. One is the existence of broadband “availability.” Like hospital care, broadband may be “available,” but whether one can afford to take advantage of it is another question. But another is telecom deregulation that has allowed commercial infrastructure providers to engage in redlining and price-fixing. Broadband is still not available in certain sparsely populated rural areas where the cost/benefit ratio is unappealing to an infrastructure provider, and in urban areas, price-fixing puts broadband beyond the reach of increasingly large sectors of downwardly mobile consumers.

Most foreign and even domestic commentators on Cuba and the Internet are unaware that the United States government is subsidizing connectivity to numerous sectors of American society. In fact, in 2010 the U.S. government spent no less than $7.2 billion to make broadband* available to a larger number of people in the United States who could not afford it on their own.

Last year the U.S. government funded 120,000 miles of broadband networks, providing 24,000 communities with broadband access who otherwise could not afford it – including 7,000 K-12 schools, 2,000 libraries, 600 community colleges and 700 public universities. It was the U.S. government that made it possible for 40 million households and 4 million businesses to have broadband. [2] And that huge investment was made to try to close the divide.

In other words, the U.S. government paid for a “socialist” entitlement program benefiting all, regardless of merit. Why? To subsidize the commercial aspects of the highway in the same way that it gives away FCC licenses to subsidize radio and television advertising media.

That is the reality in the United States, which happens to have profoundly more resources than the poor island of Cuba, which also happens to have been blockaded since the 1960s.

And YET foreign observers expect that Cuba should offer some equivalent to that which is available to Americans!

In Latin America (2009) only 6.8% of the total population connects through  broadband. [4] Just 3% of all Latin Americans have access to mobile broadband. In all of Latin America it is a costly proposition to enter the world of ADSL. ADSL runs over the fixed-line telecom infrastructure that, in the United States, was installed many decades ago when AT&T was granted a regulated monopoly in order to achieve universal provision of this “essential service.” It was the only way to achieve the economies of scale necessary for such a massive undertaking and insure against the redlining that is commonplace today in a deregulated market.

Latin America had no such thing, and to develop this kind of infrastructure today is so astronomically expensive, that alliances between private telecommunications and energy enterprises along with national, regional and municipal governments are necessary. But even that is not enough. Trans-regional corporations are needed to supply capital as  well. [5]

Perhaps someday Internet access will be cheaper. And perhaps, one day, Cuba will be able to have connectivity at the same price as its Latin American counterparts. At the moment, none of the Latin American countries confront the difficulties imposed by a U.S. economic blockade.

* For the purposes of Government stimulus funding, broadband was defined at the low end of the threshold: 768kbps down and 200kbps up. Commercial providers can offer much higher speed but the federal authorities had neither sufficient financial resources to go to the high end of the threshold for the so-called “highway” nor political capital to expend on a regulatory regime that would have mandated that providers themselves provide broadband subsidies for low income customers, funded through their excess profits.

Sue Ashdown was the director of the Washington DC based American ISP Association from 2000-2004, where she worked to educate reporters, regulatory and legislative agencies about the realities of Internet service provision in a nominally competitive market.

Nelson P Valdés, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of New Mexico and director of the Cuba-L Direct project, where this essay also appeared.

[1] Michel Chossudovsky,  “Conversations with Fidel Castro: the Dangers of Nuclear War,” Global research (Canada), November 13, 2010

[2] NTIA, Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States, November 2010.

[3] Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Federal Communications Bar Association Luncheon Washington, DC October 21, 2010

[4]

http://www.budde.com.au/Research/Latin-American-Broadband-and-Internet-Market.html

 

[5]

https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.eclac.cl%2Fpublicaciones%2Fxml%2F9%2F43289%2FCapitulo_IV_IED_2010_WEB_FINAL.pdf

 

 

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