Author Archives: samkelloggmcc

What We Talk About when We Talk About Development

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

On paper, and according to many observers, the Cuban Internet is many years behind the times, behind the curve. In a formal sense, and according to a linear development model in which countries must develop one step after another along a set path, this is true. Infrastructure is certainly lacking, though this is changing—new fiber-optic cables have been laid in Habana Vieja and new public (though not free—see my previous blog post) wifi hotspots and Internet cafes have been opened across the island. The reasons for the lack in infrastructural development are multiple and layered: government hesitance to adopt the Internet is certainly part of it, though the long-term effects of the US economic blockade have inarguably been devastating to Cuba’s ability to build a robust web architecture, particularly because so much of the Internet’s global development (in terms of physical infrastructure but also in terms of intellectual property, patents, and standards) has been dominated by the United States. There isn’t time to go into further detail here, but regardless of the reasons for Cuba’s relatively slow Internet adoption, what I like to call the “back in time” narrative can be summed up well borrowing the words of a friend of mine, a well-respected Cuban. He told me that Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is about “twenty years behind,” pointing out that the public wifi hotspot model is fundamentally the same one used by other Latin American countries like Perú a couple decades ago. Larry Press has written astutely from this perspective, arguing that Cuba might be able to leapfrog development stages in order to catch up with the rest of the world.

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Poster art in Clandestina: “Welcome to Prehistory!”

While this modal developmental model could be useful when comparing countries on a macro scale, it is limited if we want to understand what’s happening on the ground in Cuba. I would argue that the changes that the Internet has already wrought in Cuban society can hardly be appreciated if we stay at a high level, and argue instead for a ‘thicker’ approach of social and cultural change. From a hardware perspective, the antennas that the Cuban telecom company ETECSA is using in public wifi parks, mostly from Chinese technology giant Huawei, are fast and functional, and while the scratch-off, single-use login card system I described in my last blog post might seem antiquated, the system sits within a line of tried and true models for selling pre-paid access time going back to phone cards in the 1970’s. As a Cuban blogger and independent journalist I spoke with put it, “at least it’s something,” and compared with five years ago when access in cities was almost exclusively through expensive tourist hotels, the difference is almost night and day. Beyond that, though, the Internet and technology that Cubans use to connect is unrecognizable from those of 1997, and it is this fact that makes Cuba’s integration into the global internet at this moment so difficult to understand using linear development models.

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App Economies: When Economic Blockades Create New Industries

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU

In my last blog post I addressed some of the nuances and contradictions of Internet adoption for contemporary Cuban sociality and economics, and discussed how these nuances bear on the ways we think about development. In this post, I’d like to unpack some of the unexpected consequences of the US economic blockade against Cuba, and explain how massive demand has created a unique new local industry around the installing and updating of apps.

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Wifi-enabled public parks are sites of shared virtuality.

One of the more curious, and frustrating, consequences of the US economic embargo for Internet users in the island is that the Apple App Store and Google Play Store become unusable. Since Apple and Google are US companies, they’d be breaking the law if they did business with Cuba without explicit permission. To avoid this, these companies have implemented safeguards: if you try to download an app from the Apple App Store in Cuba, Apple’s servers will detect your location and throw an error code (1009—there are only a handful of places in the world you’ll see this error code). If Apple were a Canadian company you’d be able to download apps in Cuba as normal, but Apple must follow US government regulations, making it that much more difficult for Cubans to use the limited access available to them.

Of course, there are always routes around these kinds of restrictions, passageways available to circumnavigate a barrier. The easiest way to get around Apple’s error code is to install and use a VPN service to trick Apple’s servers into thinking you are in another country: there are a wide variety of free and commercial VPN services available; they are relatively easy to use and work well (read this if you want to learn how to choose and use one). If you don’t already have a VPN app on your phone when you enter Cuba, however, (and how would you if you’re Cuban), you’re once again in trouble: the only way to install apps on an iPhone is through the App Store, and that goes for VPN services as well as games or dating apps.

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Connecting to public wifi using a scratch-off card.

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The Underground Economy Supporting Public Internet Use in Cuba

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU

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The Wi-Fi park on 14th and 15th street, Vedado, Havana.

I met *Victor the second or third time I visited my local Wi-Fi park, on the corner of 14th and 15th streets in Vedado. Vedado is a neighborhood in Havana a mile west of the city center known for its tree-lined boulevards and grand houses, many of which were converted into shared living spaces or dedicated to municipal functions following the Cuban Revolution’s triumph in 1959. It’s in one of these converted houses I’ve been living for the past few weeks.

In the mornings, I sometimes pass by the park on 14th and 15th street to check my email, and most mornings until noon Victor is there, lounging on a green park bench beneath the extravagant orange flowers and merciful shade of the Flamboyán trees. His hustle is selling tarjetas to park visitors—single-use cards with scratch-off codes that give buyers access to the Internet for a set amount of time, usually an hour or two.

This is how most Cubans and island visitors get online, check their emails, scroll through Facebook, and listen to the latest music. The process of connecting goes something like this: Visit your local Wi-Fi-enabled park, turn on your device’s Wi-Fi, and connect to the public network. Usually the network will be named “WIFI_ETECSA” (ETECSA is the state telecom company, and the sole Internet provider on the island). Once connected to the network, a pop-up screen with spaces to type in a username and password allows you to log in. If you’re using the scratch-off single-use cards that Victor sells to connect, you’ll type in two twelve-digit numbers printed on the back of the card for your username and password and cross your fingers. Wait a few seconds, and if you typed in the numbers correctly (I often don’t), you’ll see a green check-mark and emails and notifications will start pouring in.

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Front and back of a five-hour single-use login card.

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