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Cuba moves to expand internet access for its citizens

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New Wi-Fi hotspots and lower connection costs are coming to a largely unconnected island

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The Cuban government this week announced plans to expand internet access and lower the per-hour price of Wi-Fi. As the Associated Press reports, the government plans to add Wi-Fi to 35 state-run computer centers across the island, where internet access remains tightly controlled and illegal at home for most Cubans. The state also announced plans to lower the price of Wi-Fi from $4.50 to $2 per hour, in what marks the most significant expansion of web access since President Barack Obama moved to normalize US relations with Cuba late last year.

Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the Western hemisphere. The government says about 25 percent of its population has access to the internet, but most of those users are limited to government-approved websites and a handful of services. The pro-democracy group Freedom House says only about 5 percent of Cubans have access to the full web. The $2 Wi-Fi price point would still be prohibitive for most Cubans, who earn an average of $20 per month, but experts say it's an important step in the right direction.

Baby steps?

"Their model was, 'Nobody gets Internet,'" Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College, told The New York Times. “Now their model is, ‘We're going to bring prices down and expand access, but we are going to do it as a sovereign decision and at our own speed.'"

Cuba's communist government has signaled its intent to expand web access in the past. A fiber-optic cable to Venezuela went online in 2013, and the country's first public Wi-Fi center opened earlier this year, offering free internet. A government report that leaked this month outlined plans to bring broadband connections to half of Cuban homes by 2020.

Opening the internet has also been a major part of the Obama administration's new approach to Cuba, as the White House moves to loosen export restrictions on services and equipment that could facilitate an expansion. Some American technology companies have shown interest in expanding to the island, as well. A Google executive reportedly visited Cuba this month to meet with government officials, while companies like Netflix and Airbnb have launched services there.