HAVANA (Reuters) - A Venezuelan fiber optic cable should plug Cuba into high-speed Internet within months, but it may not immediately bring an explosion in connectivity to inhabitants of the communist-ruled Caribbean island.
Virtual highways in Cuba, known for its 1950s autos and low car ownership, are also dated and the small number of individuals logged on makes it one of Latin America's least wired nations.
This weekend, a unit of the French company Alcatel-Lucent is due to start laying a 1,000-mile, $70 million submarine fiber optic cable from Venezuela, and it is due to reach Cuba's southeast coast in February.
Havana says the connection should come online in June, but Cuban officials warn that technological and financial constraints will still not allow them to grant massive public access to the Internet.
"Deploying connectivity is not something you do overnight because it costs a lot of money and you need other investments," Deputy Communications Minister Ramon Linares recently told the local media, in apparent reference to servers, routers and other network gear.
The limitations on Web usage have become a new front in Cuba's long-running conflict with the United States, which, along with human rights groups, says tight Cuban regulations on Web access restrict citizens' freedoms.
In turn, President Raul Castro's government says the five decades under a U.S. trade embargo have blocked Cuba off from technology and mean it cannot yet afford to expand full Web linkups much beyond workplaces, education sites and hotels.
Socialist allies Cuba and Venezuela are united by their opposition to U.S. power. They see the fiber optic line, which also extends to Jamaica, as a way of emphasizing independence from Washington.
Cuba plans to use the 640 gigabit-per-second link, which is 3,000 times faster than the current system and financed by oil-rich Venezuela, to improve already existing access points such as those at information technology clubs, post offices and research centers.
Cuba reported 1.6 million Internet users in 2009, or 14.2 per 100 inhabitants, one of the lowest ratios in the hemisphere according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Like most of those users, the 40 people leaning over computers in a fluorescent-lit national post office in downtown Havana only have access to an intranet of government-approved sites and email services.
"There is not Internet here. Just email. You should go to a hotel," said the supervisor while dozens more waited outside to check emails at $1.50 an hour. Full Internet for an hour at a four-star hotel costs $10, half an average monthly wage.
Cuba blames such high fees on the U.S. embargo which it says has for decades barred the island from hooking up to commercial fiber optic cables crisscrossing the Caribbean. For decades Cuba had no alternative but to route all communications via a costly and slow satellite link.
Soon after taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized U.S. telecom companies to take steps to connect Cuba to the Internet via fiber optics, arguing that increased information flows would better support U.S. goals of promoting democratic change in the country.
Experts say the regulations are ambiguous, and it is not clear whether Cuba would now be allowed to use existing fiber optics links passing close to its coast.
Little progress has been reported so far by U.S. telecom companies as a result of the 2009 measures.
A small Miami-based company called TeleCuba says it has been granted a license by the U.S. Treasury Department for a project to lay a cable to the island.
Many U.S. companies are nervous about dealings with Cuba, which nationalized all private enterprise in the 1960s and is only slowly opening up a limited private sector.
"Foreign investors are still kind of shy about investing in Cuba because of the freezes in assets and the fact they're dealing with a opaque regime," said Heather Berkman of political risk analysts Eurasia Group.
Cuba has largely ignored Obama's telecom advances and insisted in seeking more Internet access through its friend Venezuela, more than 10 times more distant from its coast than the United States.
The Venezuelan cable, dubbed as "strategic" by both governments and first planned several years ago, should reach Cuba by February 8.
For Cuba, it means not only better access to the Internet but a much greater capacity for simultaneous long-distance calls.
Cuba's arrival into the broadband-era comes as Castro introduces economic reforms aiming at modernizing the Cuba's socialist system and allowing more small private businesses.
"The government will have to decide what it will use this greater bandwidth for," said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based group promoting better relations between the two countries.
"My hope is that it will enable more and more Cubans to take advantage of the benefits of this technology and it should be a helpful addition to the private sector activities that the government is trying to promote," she added.
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Mohammad Zargham