Netflix announced today that it is expanding its streaming service to Cuba: a country where internet access is restricted to a tiny portion of the population and the company's $7.99 subscription fee would claim a big chunk of the typical worker's salary of about $20 a month.
"I'm not sure who is going to subscribe to this service," said Ellery Biddle, an editor of Global Voices who has studied the Cuban internet for a decade. High speed internet in Cuba, such as it is, largely comes through a single fiber-optic cable from Venezuela.
"We are delighted to finally be able to offer Netflix to the people of Cuba, connecting them with stories they will love from all over the world," Netflix chief executive officer Reed Hastings said in a statement. Netflix said it has over 5 million customers in Latin America and over 57 million worldwide.
The Obama administration announced an opening of relations with Cuba in December of last year, but connections between the island and American businesses are still slim.
Before the installation of the cable from Venezuela, only slower satellite internet was available in Cuba. The only service provider is the state telecom company ETECSA, and a small portion of Cubans who apply to get internet service actually receive it, Biddle said. They're mostly academics, high-status foreigners, and state journalists.
"It's going to be really expensive relative to most people's ability to pay, it will be an elite group or people who have money coming in from abroad, people in the monied sectors," said Ted Henken, a professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College. Internet access to international websites in a Cuban public kiosk costs about $4.50 an hour.
Freedom House estimates that about a quarter of the population has some internet access, but the majority of that is to a "tightly controlled government-filtered intranet" which has email, an encyclopedia, some educational materials and websites. About 5% of Cuba's 11 million people has true access to the world wide web.
The White House described the cost of internet access in Cuba as "exorbitantly high" and said that telecommunications companies would be allowed to "establish the necessary...infrastructure" to expand telecom and internet services.
"What Netflix is doing it is making something completely legal and possible before it's practically possible from a technical standpoint, which then puts the pressure on the Cuban government and the U.S. government to make this stuff happen technically," Henken said.
But while few Cubans will be binge watching Orange Is The New Black via online streaming anytime soon, more are likely to access it the old-fashioned way - via downloaded copies, passed around between friends. "Cubans are extremely creative and inventive," Henken said, "I'm sure there are some people who are able to get access to this very quickly in Cuba, who will be able to rig something out and figure it out."
And Netflix already has an old-school competitor in Havana: A bundle of the latest TV shows and movies is distributed through an informal network known as the "Weekly Packet," where USB drives are distributed and sold throughout the country packed with video for offline watching.
"You can get almost anything now, except porn or politics," one purchaser told The Guardian last year. "You won't find the Miami Herald in the Weekly Packet. But if you want to be informed about the world, then you can be. There are no mysteries anymore."