Meet the unofficial U.S. Ambassador to Cuba: The internet

President Obama has instructed U.S. Secretary of State of John Kerry to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba after more than 50 years, but Obama will be sending something else to Cuba that could have a far greater impact on relieving the tensions between the two countries. He’s sending communications infrastructure.

Despite the fact that Havana is only 228 miles away from Miami, no fiber-optic cable connects the two cities, and the island country’s mobile infrastructure is a throwback to the 2G age. Cuba relies primarily on satellite connections to link to the internet. And even then, only a quarter of its population has a internet link, which is narrowband at best and more likely only connected to Cuba’s own internet, not the global web at large. The Washington Post cited data from pro-democracy group FreedomHouse estimates that only 5 percent of the population can get beyond the government’s internet blockade.

While you can chalk some of this up to the trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, which effectively prevents two countries just 90 miles apart from cooperating, much of it has to do with the Castro regime’s determination to isolate its population. A submarine optical cable connected Cuba to Venezuela in 2011, but it was either never activated or its use was severely limited. And it’s likely no coincidence that the American prisoner Cuba returned to the U.S. on Wednesday — Alan Gross — was initially accused of espionage for bringing satellite communications devices into Cuba that could provide a backdoor to the global internet.

Telegeograhy's map of undersea internet arteries show an almost completely isolated Cuba

Telegeograhy’s map of undersea internet arteries show an almost completely isolated Cuba

The U.S. government isn’t yet lifting the full trade embargo to Cuba, but the two countries will now allow communications devices, services and infrastructure to move more freely between them. That means U.S. companies banned from selling or exporting everything from smartphones, servers and networking gear will be free to bring their hardware and software into the country. Telecom carriers and ISPs banned from doing in business in Cuba can now set up shop in the country, building the internal wireless and wired infrastructure necessary to connect Cubans with one another as well as the high-speed links that could potentially connect them to the outside world.

While the Cuban government didn’t say it would lift all internet restrictions, and Obama’s announcement didn’t go into specifics, the pact made it clear that the internet would become more accessible in Cuba and the communications between the people of the U.S. would improve.

That’s a step forward in U.S.-Cuban relations that shouldn’t be underestimated. Today the two countries are practically black boxes to one another. Travel between them is in most cases prohibited and the information we share comes largely from big media outlets. The internet certainly can’t cure all ills – and it’s caused a few ills of its own — but it’s become the key tool of global discourse.

Diplomacy is great, but opening up the internet lanes between the U.S. and Cuba would create links between politicians, businesses, organizations, media outlets and even ordinary people. That’s a truly amazing thing.