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Obama administration is letting US carriers bring phone and internet service to Cuba

Wiring Cuba one step at a time

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

US telecom companies are now able to set up shop in Cuba for the first time thanks to loosening trade and travel restrictions between the two countries. Starting Monday, companies like AT&T and Verizon will be able to establish a physical presence in Cuba, partner with Cuban companies, and enter into licensing agreements to provide cell and mobile internet service, the US Treasury Department announced Friday. The Obama administration gave the US telecom industry the green light as part of broader effort starting back in December 2014 to normalize relations with the communist island nation after decades of isolation.

This could have a substantial effect on the number of Cubans able to access the internet. Cuba remains one of the least connected nations in the world, with about 5 percent of the country able to regularly access the web. That's due to the government's strict control over the state-run wireless carrier ETESCA. Still, the Cuban government has been making an effort over the last year to better wire the country. ETESCA began offering Wi-Fi in March and then more than more than halved the price from $4.50 per hour in June. Yet at $2 per hour, Wi-Fi is still prohibitively expensive for most Cubans, many of whom earn an average of $20 a month.

At $2 per hour, Wi-Fi access in Cuba is still out of reach

The likelihood of Cuba giving US telecoms free reign to operate within the country seems low. However, AT&T or Verizon partnering with ETESCA would favor both countries' interests and may be the first of such partnerships and license agreements now permitted by the Treasury Department. Verizon even began making in-roads in Cuba earlier this week when it announced international roaming service for customers traveling to Cuba. Though even then, the cost is extreme by US standards at $2.99 per minute for talk and $2.05 per megabyte of data.