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Verizon Is Using the Cuban Government's Cell Phone Network

Verizon is going to Cuba, but the move will only benefit American travelers in the short term.
Image: David Osit for Motherboard

Thursday, Verizon Wireless announced that it would become the first American company to offer cell phone roaming in Cuba—a sign that American telecom is finally entering an industry dominated by outdated technology controlled by an authoritarian government.

The news doesn't mean that Cuba is getting new cell phone towers or that Verizon is going to start investing in new infrastructure in the country, however. Instead, Verizon will offer service as a partnership through ETECSA, a telecom company owned by the Cuban government that has a monopoly on all telecom services.

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The service will be extremely expensive at first: voice calls will cost $2.99 per minute. Data will cost $2.05 per megabyte served over a 2G network, making it all but unusable except for emergencies.

"Right now it's for US-based Verizon customers who travel to Cuba," Chuck Hamby, a Verizon Wireless spokesperson, told me. "We're using [Cuba's] entire network, which is a 2G network, for clarity's sake."

Still, it's an important move. ETECSA has not partnered directly with an American company before, and Verizon says that when it's started offering international roaming in other developing countries, infrastructure has improved quickly.

"History has shown us that the evolution of wireless networks comes pretty darn quickly when you start," Hamby said. "I don't know what international relations will hold for the future of this, but it's certainly a great first step."

As more Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba, they will likely demand better cell phone connectivity. Right now, mobile data essentially doesn't exist in the country, and voice networks are spotty. Internet access of any kind is rare, expensive, and controlled by the Cuban government. The Obama administration has made it clear that it hopes American telecom companies will bring new services to Cubans. The question at the moment is whether the Cuban government, which has deliberately kept its people offline, is going to allow them to enter and operate with autonomy.

The Verizon move will only help Americans traveling to Cuba for now, but at least it's progress.