New U.S. rules aim to open lines of communication in Cuba
BY JOHN DORSCHNER
The Obama administration removed Monday many of the embargo constraints on American companies concerning communication services to Cuba or within the island.
The new policy allows U.S. companies to establish fiber-optic and satellite links to Cuba as well as letting them license roaming agreements for cellphones on the island. Radio and TV satellite companies can also provide services directly to Cuban citizens.
Americans will now be able to send Cubans cellphones, computers, software and satellite receivers, the White House reported. Last year, the Bush administration authorized Cuban Americans to send cellphones to family members, but the Obama announcement doesn’t restrict the gifts to relatives.
Under the new provisions, Americans will also be able to pay Cubans’ telecommunications’ charges if service is provided by U.S. or third-country companies.
The White House said the idea was to remove any U.S. limits to free expression on the island. ”There are steps that . . . that the Cuban government can and must take,” said presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs at an afternoon press conference.
American companies responded cautiously to the policy change, and an expert was skeptical about how much the new policy could do.
”We will look at any change in U.S. policy very closely, and should a new market opportunity arise in Cuba, carefully consider our options,” said DirecTV senior vice president Jon Gieselman.
AT&T, Verizon and Sirius Radio had no immediate comments. Enrique Lopez, who runs AKL Group, an international telecommunications company in Coral Gables, doubted that the Cuban government would allow much in the way of more open communications.
”Anything that attempts to bypass government control will be politely rejected,” he said.
Eight U.S. companies are licensed by the Federal Communication Commission to provide long-distance service to Cuba through cable or satellite, including AT&T and Verizon. It’s not clear how many actually provide the service, however.
Communications within the island have long been limited. The Cuba Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency reports that in 2007 the 11.4 million citizens had one million phones. The International Telecommunications Union reports that 11.5 percent of citizens had access to the Internet in 2008, although the CIA says many of those have quasi-illegal status by obtaining stolen passwords intended for hotel guests.
The CIA reported that Cubans owned 198,000 cellphones in 2007. In March 2008, Cuba lifted its ban on private citizens owning cellphones, but it’s unclear how much that change has increased usage.
Miami Herald business writer Monica Hatcher contributed to this report.