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Google Signs Internet Deal with Cuba

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet Inc. (L) and Mayra Arevich Marin, president of state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, shake hands after signing documents in Havana, Cuba

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet Inc. (C-L) and Mayra Arevich Marin (C-R), president of state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, shake hands after signing documents in Havana, Cuba, December 12, 2016. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI / Reuters

Google signed an agreement with the Cuban government granting internet users on quicker and expanded access to its branded content.

The deal grants Cubans fast access to the Google Global Cache network, which stores content like Gmail and YouTube on servers that are closer to users.

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., signed the deal with Mayra Arevich Marin, president of state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA on Monday.

In a country where public internet access is limited to slow and expensive Wi-Fi hot spots, it was not clear how the deal would actually impact service in the short term.

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“Telecoms and greater internet connectivity have been key pillars of the new U.S. policy toward Cuba, and Cuba has developed its own national development strategy to bring greater internet access to its people," said Alana Tummino, senior director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and head of their Cuba Working Group.

Tummino said that while there is still a tremendous amount of trust building Google — and other companies — must build with Cuban officials, the deal shows a path to more potential telecoms deals down the line.

Image: Eric Schmidt, Mayra Arevich Marin
Mayra Arevich Marin, president of Cuba state telecom monopoly Etecsa, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt, wait for the start of a signing ceremony, in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. Ramon Espinosa / AP

"Google has been able to successfully build these relationships over time through many visits to the island, while gaining a better understanding of the market," Tummino said. "To be clear, we are not going to see all Cuban’s walking around glued to their smartphones tomorrow. There is a long way to go to truly develop Cuba’s telecom market, but this is a step in the direction to create greater connectivity and access which is positive.”

“This deal allows ETECSA to use our technology to reduce latency by caching some of our most popular high bandwidth content like YouTube videos at a local level," a Google statement said.

"This may improve reception of cached materials, but not for example email which depends on local bandwidth,” a local telecommunications technician said, requesting anonymity for fear of losing his job.

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Google and ETECSA were not immediately available for comment.

President Barack Obama has made improved internet access a central part of his efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, first announced two years ago.

However, Cuba to date has balked at allowing U.S. companies to participate in wiring the country, citing national security concerns.

Whether because of a lack of investment or concerns about the flow of information in a Communist state that monopolizes the media, Cuba has lagged behind in internet usage. Only 3.4 percent of Cuban homes had either intranet or internet access last year, according to a U.N. agency.

The Google deal comes as officials in Havana and Washington are working to wrap up pending commercial accords before President Barack Obama leaves office next month.

President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to scrap detente between the Cold War foes unless Cuba makes political and other concessions.

Improved bilateral relations have been accomplished through executive orders circumventing trade embargo laws and can easily be reversed by Trump.

The Obama administration has said it hopes increased commercial links between the two countries will make it difficult for future administrations to undo the recent warming in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Reuters' Marc Frank and Tom Brown contributed to this report.

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