Obama bigs up His Man in Havana: Google

Unannounced Wi-Fi deal trailed in historic trip by US president

President Obama has promised to bring internet access to Cuba – by pre-announcing a deal best-pal Google has struck with the island.

On the first day of an historic trip – the last US president to visit the nearby state of Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928 – Obama flagged up the Wi-Fi and broadband deal, seemingly catching the search giant unawares.

"One of the things that we'll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island," he said in an interview with ABC News.

Google was clearly not prepared for the news, and questions about it have led the company to point people to a very carefully worded blog post in Spanish (and English) that talks about a small-scale rollout in a museum in Havana, with hopes of expanding internet access further.

In what looks like a rapid piece of firefighting, an unnamed senior US official then told The Wall Street Journal: "Google has been in talks with Cuba about a range of ways that it can operate on the island and contribute to Cuba's efforts to upgrade its connectivity. Those discussions have made good progress but aren't yet complete."

Opening up

Things are shifting fast in Cuba after Obama announced last year that he would use what powers he has to normalize relations with the island. A US embassy has opened up in Havana and more direct flights between the US and Cuba have started as the restrictions are relaxed. But a full lifting of the long-standing embargo still requires Congress to act.

The tight control that the Castro brothers have held over Cuba for decades has also been relaxed with their declining health. Last year, the first public Wi-Fi hotspots were introduced – but they were too expensive for most people to use ($4.50 an hour). The state-owned ISP has also said it will start providing broadband connections to houses (rather than cyber cafes) in Havana. Although, the internet remains closely observed and partly censored.

Google is likely to be able to bring the cost of that access down. But even with the relaxing of rules, those in power remain very cautious about giving too much leeway to outside companies – especially US companies with very close links to the US Administration.

Toe in the water

It is for that reason that Google has been very careful with how it talks about its Cuba plans.

"We are excited to be partnering with the Museo Orgánico Romerillo Museum in Havana, Cuba, which is currently exhibiting the work of local artist Kcho," said its blog post posted on Monday – a far cry from a broader internet access deal for the island.

"We hope this installation will enable people for whom Internet access is scarce to browse the web and find information. We are especially happy that Cuban children can experience virtual reality and explore places around the world, from Stonehenge to Port Hercule."

The post, written by Google's Man in Havana, Brett Perlmutter, notes that these efforts are "only a beginning" and they "demonstrate what can be possible in the future." It goes on: "We are also exploring additional possibilities around increasing and improving internet access," and then quickly adds, "but they're at early stages."

The sign-off offers the same balancing act: "We know, from the experience of many countries around the world, that new technologies and improved internet access can help people in their daily lives, provide new information and experiences, and help harness a country's creativity and ingenuity. We hope to have the chance to offer more services to the Cuban people in the future."

It's probably fair to say that Google was not too excited then to hear President Obama announce their careful maneuverings on live TV and for it to be one of the main stories from the first day of his trip. ®

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