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Getting cell phones into Cuban hands

On an island with little internet, more Cubans are turning to cell phones — using them not to talk but to text and page.

A woman take pictures with her cell phone during a protest march in Havana, March 20, 2010. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — A cell phone is a handy device on this under-wired island. Just not for making phone calls.

Cuba’s state-run wireless monopoly, Cubacel, has some of the steepest rates in the world, charging the equivalent of 50 cents per minute for outgoing and incoming calls. In a country where the average salary is less than $20 a month, half a day’s wages can disappear with the first “Hola.”

And yet, with internet access on the island so limited, Cubans are increasingly connecting to the world through their cell phones, instead of the web. When friends or family members dial from abroad, the calls are free to receive. Ditto for international text messages.

Opponents of the Castro government sense an opportunity in this trend. The U.S. government, Cuban exile groups and dissidents on the island say cell phones can be a conduit of unfiltered information to ordinary Cubans. And the role of cell phone communication via Twitter in organizing protests in Iran and elsewhere has not gone unnoticed.

Only the Cuban government is not clamping down its network, but opening it up. Since Raul Castro lifted a ban on Cubans owning cell phones in 2008, the number of wireless accounts in the country has soared by 600,000 to more than 838,000 today, according to Cuban telecom officials.

Activation fees have been slashed from $150 two years ago to roughly $25. International calling rates are also being cut, and the number of wireless users in the country (pop. 11 million) is expected to grow to 2.4 million by 2015. The island’s GSM network already covers 70 percent of Cuba’s territory and further expansions are planned.

“We’re going to keep working to provide the benefits of telecommunications to a greater number of Cubans,” said Cuban telecom official Maximo Lafuente at a recent press conference in Havana. “There’s no doubt that cell phones are an important foundation to the country’s development.”

The U.S. government wouldn’t disagree, even if it has a differing type of “development” in mind. It views cell phones as direct channels of information to an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less than 2 percent of Cuban households have an internet connection. Popular voice-over-internet-protocol services like Skype are also blocked by the Cuban government.

Last year, the Obama administration exempted U.S. wireless providers from longstanding trade sanctions against Cuba, calling increased communications with Cuba “our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island.”

"This will increase the means through which Cubans on the island can communicate with each other and with persons outside of Cuba," the administration said.