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Silicon Valley Firms Eager to Get Into Cuba, But Face a Slow Road (+AUDIO)

December 11, 2015

After taking students from Santa Clara University to Cuba over the past three years, Gregory Baker thought he’d seen it all. But in September, he saw something in Havana and other towns that made his jaw drop.

“The biggest thing that surprised me this year was walking into a square and seeing Cubans on smartphones — antiquated smartphones but smartphones nonetheless — and accessing the Internet freely,” says Baker, director of Santa Clara University’s Food and Agribusiness Institute and the student immersion program.

...In June, Alana Tummino helped organize a trip to Cuba with Google executives to meet with government officials to discuss how the Mountain View-based tech giant can help close the nation’s digital gap. She says tech companies are going into Cuba with grand plans and ideas for how they want to build out infrastructure for the Internet. The government, she says, wants to take much smaller steps until trust is built.

“It’s [the Cuban government] very much saying, ‘We welcome this investment, we welcome this collaboration, but whatever development that is going to happen is going to be on our terms,'” says Tummino, director of policy for the Council of the Americas, a trade group based in New York.

Tummino says that means work won’t be happening at Silicon Valley’s usual breakneck pace.

“I absolutely don’t think there’s going to be some massive opening where all of a sudden everyone is going to be able to connect to a free and open Internet in Cuba,” she says.

There are seveal major hurdles, says Tummino. Cuba lacks telecommunications infrastructure and the financing to undertake a massive build-out. Just as significant, the government maintains tight control over the entire telecommunications system....

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