HAVANA – Cuba recently opened its first free public Wi-Fi hotspot, a “gift” to his people from artist Alexis Leyva that offers many young people the chance to surf the Web for the first time in their lives.
At a time when babies in other parts of the world are seemingly born with a smartphone or tablet under their arm, Pedro, a 17-year-old student, checked out the Internet for the first time on Wednesday at the El Romerillo arts studio, a program that Leyva, better known as “Kcho,” started in a Havana neighborhood.
“I am discovering it right now,” Pedro told Efe as he tried to open a Facebook page with his cell phone. “I want to connect, I want to make friends and access information.”
The hotspot is the first free link to the Web for many young people in Cuba since home connections on the island are restricted to a few professionals and users browsing state-run sites at a cost of $4.50 per hour, an exorbitant price in a country where monthly salaries are in the range of $20 to $30.
Over the past few months, through word of mouth, the Kcho Estudio Romerillo has become a gathering place for more than 100 people each day, most of them young people eager to have a chance to surf the Web for free.
The experiment demonstrates the extent of interest on the island in connecting to the Internet, and some users have spent up to 16 hours online, often exploring the Web in the wee hours since the cultural center decided to stay open 24-7, the studio’s operators told Efe.
“It is very moving to see how people take advantage of this new space in a healthy way,” Kcho told Efe. “I see many young people here, students. I am very happy that, with this free service, we have been able to connect families that had been separated, siblings who hadn’t talked to each other in a long time.”
When long lines started forming to use one of the three computers in the cultural center’s library for free, the artist decided to share his 2-Mbps connection with everyone, a real luxury in a country where less than 1 percent of people have access to broadband.
Many young people hope that the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States will improve telecommunications on the island as part of the process announced Dec. 17 and that has already included several bilateral meetings between officials from Havana and Washington.