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Monday, August 10, 2015

Trip report: a tale of mobile/WiFi in two developing countries, Haiti & Cuba

I've been away for the past 3 weeks in two very different, but very close countries: Haiti & Cuba, separated by less than 100km. While it was a vacation and I was mostly "off-grid", there were still a few interesting things I noticed about local use of communications and the Internet in each place.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, and has some of the worse conditions of poverty and restricted infrastructure I've seen anywhere. Outside the Petionville district of the capital Port-au-Prince, there are still many signs of 2010's devastating earthquake, and often severe poverty. It's a beautiful country, with some fascinating places - but it's also one of the hardest places to travel that I've visited.

However, cellphones are pretty ubiquitous, with growing use of low-end smartphones, but still a lot of basic voice/SMS devices around. There are two mobile networks - Digicel, which is prominent throughout the Carribean and various other island nations, plus fixed/mobile Natcom which is majority owned by Vietnamese telco Viettel, but apparently holds a small market share. Most users (except roamers and wealthly UN/NGO/government types) use prepaid SIM cards, with top-ups available from many locations, often street-side or even sold through bus windows during stops. Adverts for mobile networks are everywhere, often permanently painted onto walls of houses or shops.

3G coverage is present across a fair amount of the larger Haitian cities and by major roads - I visited Jacmel and Cap Haitien as well as the capital. (By coincidence, one of the press releases in my post-holiday inbox is from Astellia, talking about a contract with Digicel for 3G network optimisation in the country).

Data charges are reasonable to external eyes (eg 20c/day for 90MB, or bizarrely at an anti-discount $8/mo for 2GB - see here) but still pretty expensive for many of the inhabitants (my guide used a BlackBerry because of its compression abilities, primarily for email & Whatsapp), but seem to be of growing importance to many. I noticed various Facebook-centric per-app or zero-rating plans being advertised.

The few good hotels in the country typically had decent fixed broadband and WiFi, but I saw very little of this in other locations, fairly unsurprisingly. Interestingly, Haiti is included in Vodafone's £5/day WorldTraveller programme, so I could use my iPhone in most places at relatively reasonable cost, rather than getting a local SIM for my spare phone - although had I known the 20c/day rate and been staying more than a few days, I would still have taken that approach.

My overall sense was that Haitian use of mobile and the Internet is broadly on a par with other developing nations at a comparable level of GDP, and apart from patchy competition it seems to have similar business and deployment models. I noticed various schools offering IT and Internet lessons, although some of the poverty I saw suggests that adoption across the whole population will be slow - there are more important problems to fix first.

Cuba, by contrast, could not have been more different.

Firstly, I switched off data roaming as it's not covered by a decent plan, but would have cost me £3/US$5 per MB. Roaming for phone calls & SMS seemed to work OK in some places but not others - I had three days of "No Service" in the middle of the country. One SMS I sent to a local Cuban took 4 days to arrive. Apparently there is 3G data available in some places, but it's aimed at tourists rather than local inhabitants. Relatively few Cubans seem to have phones anyway - although that is changing (see below). It's the only country I've visited recently that has payphones everywhere on the street - and people using them.

It seemed to be possible for tourists to get local SIM cards (eg to call hotels or the small number of private restaurants), but I didn't bother as I suspected it would mean navigating assorted bureaucracy in Spanish. I did, however, get a calling card for the payphones - the first time I've used one in about a decade. There is one state monopoly provider of fixed and mobile communications, ETECSA, and I didn't see the proliferation of mobile-related advertising you get in almost any other nation.There's quite a few places that are agents for top-up cards or payphone cards, but they're not the "phone shops" you'd get elsewhere.

I'd already told all my friends and clients to expect me to be offline, as I knew Internet access was near-impossible to find except on PCs in hotel lobbies, or telecom operator offices where I'd likely have to stand in a queue in the heat outside for ages. I'd heard that prices were $4.50-$10 per hour - well outside the reach of most Cubans, for many of whom (under the dual-currency system there) that would be a sizeable % of their monthly wage packet. Looking at some guides & reports online, I found that a few locations had WiFi, but they were mostly in Havana rather than country-wide (I visited about 7 different places). There are very few URLs displayed anywhere.

But that has changed, and very recently.

On July 1, ETECSA cut access rates by 60%, to $2/hour (bought via scratch-cards from their booths and offices, or some hotel lobby desks). They also fired up WiFi access points in various public squares and parks - often the social hubs where hundreds gather in the cooler evenings anyway.

As a result, when I visited 3 weeks later, I saw small clusters of both tourists and Cubans sitting in the shadier bits of the squares, clutching phones and tablets, wherever was closest to the telecom office or WiFi AP. I saw mostly cheaper Android phones and no-brand tablets, but quite a lot of Samsungs and a few Apples. Amusingly, some devices sported US carrier branding, suggesting recycling/unlocking of old phones. 

The WiFi (still expensive by local standards, but about the price of 2 cans of beer), was actually pretty speedy. None of the services I normally used seemed to be blocked, either.

But the most amazing thing was the realtime behavioural change I could witness. There were huge queues outside all the ETECSA offices. Out of hours (or alongside the queue) some enterprising folk re-sold the scratch-cards at a markup for the impatient. Some hotels ran out of stock of the cards, which could be used at the (ETECSA-run) indoor WiFi as well as the public venues. Online access had very quickly become the teenagers' entertainment of choice.

And then I started seeing cross-generational groups standing on the street in the evenings, using video-calls (Skype or Viber?) to connect kids and grandparents to relatives elsewhere in the world (presumably many in the US, to which numerous Cubans had emigrated during the last decades).

It will be very interesting to see what other societal shifts occur in coming months in Cuba. The Internet genie is very much "out of the bottle" - unlike a lot of countries, the low pre-existing use of the web means that the first use for many is on a smartphone or tablet. And, interestingly, via public outdoor WiFi, rather than cellular or a fixed PC. 

Ironically, the only city where I couldn't easily find any public WiFi was Varadero, the package-tourist capital of the country. And in Havana, I couldn't find a square with "vanilla" ETECSA WiFi access, so I instead ended up using the networks at hotels or Hemingway's favourite daiquiri bar, Floridita.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

(Skype or Viber?) Neither, cuban teenager use imo. I was there at the same time, saw it everywhere