HAVANA — Cuban authorities have launched public Wi-Fi hotspots along a main avenue that is the heart of Havana's cultural and social life, the first step in government promises to gradually roll out such connectivity options on an island that the Internet revolution has largely passed by.
Authorities have been installing the boxy white routers on buildings along 23rd Street in the Vedado theater, nightclub and business district in recent weeks, and they apparently went live Wednesday night.
Dozens of people, many of them young, sat on stairs and stoops tapping away at smartphones, tablets and laptops Thursday on the street known locally as "The Ramp" for its gentle uphill slope from the sea.
Angel Padron, a 16-year-old who lives a few steps off 23rd Street, called the signal speed "acceptable," robust enough to load videos on YouTube.
"Before I used to have to go to the hotels," Padron said, referring to one of the few sources of wireless in the country, and where an hour online can cost a third of what most Cubans make in a month. "It's like they've put this in my living room, given me wings to fly around the Internet."
"I got here early and spent about 40 minutes" online, he added.
State telecom monopoly Etecsa announced in mid-June that it would open 35 such hotspots around the island.
Users need to have an account registered with Etecsa, and the service costs $2 an hour — accessible for some Cubans who have relatively higher-paying private-sector jobs or relatives overseas who send remittances. But it's still a high barrier of entry for many people who make around $20 a month from state salaries.
Wilmer Cruz, a 31-year-old beauty salon owner, called the price "a little expensive" but gave positive reviews.
"You can communicate with the whole world. You can know what's going on around the planet," Cruz said. "It's magnificent, just what all of Cuba was waiting for."
Cuba remains one of the last places in the world in Internet connectivity rates.
Home dial-up connections are tightly restricted and generally not available to the public. Home broadband is costly and limited to a minuscule percentage of people, including foreigners.
Most Cubans who are able to go online do so from their schools or workplaces, or from the hundreds of Etecsa Internet centers around the country. Often it's just to access email and hook into the island's intranet, and falls short of the worldwide web.
Authorities recently lowered prices in the Internet centers to $2 per hour.
Earlier this year a famous Cuban artist known as Kcho began offering free Wi-Fi at his workshop in the poor western neighborhood of Romerillo. There's no sign that free Wi-Fi has been installed anywhere else for the public.
Outside an artisan market on 23rd Street, Jose Antonio Leyva, a 34-year-old souvenir vendor, took selfies to send to family in the United States, Spain and Italy.
"Online you see lots of interesting things if you know how to use it well, and it keeps you in touch with relatives or lets you meet new friends," Leyva said.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP