Hardware techies benefit from lack of affordable cell phones in Cuba

Self-taught repairman says cell phone revolution is where the money is

CIEGO DE AVILA, Cuba – The 21st century left some parts of Cuba behind, so Vismay Delis Guibert has been in the business of repairing old phones for about six years. 

Cellphones have slowly become an integral part of life in the central city of Ciego de Avila, where sending text messages is cheaper than making a call.

Guibert and a friend work as street-level techies at their Clinica del Celular. Without a storefront, they install apps, update mobile software, and buy and sell second-hand devices.

"The Cell Clinic, Maintenance and Repairs - phones, headsets, chargers, batteries, cases," reads the sign at Guibert's business.

Guibert's business is booming. At Ciego de Avila, according to a government newspaper, there were about 125,000 users this month. And despite the poverty, the numbers were expected to increase.

The Cuban government -- which runs one of the last telecommunication-sector monopolies in the world -- reported earlier this year that the island's mobile phone market has at least 3 million users.



MOBILE WIFI ACCESS: The government's latest promise: 35 WiFi areasNauta, Cuba's e-mail service, will handle the access accounts.




Huawei, a Chinese telecoms equipment company, is moving forward with deals to sell phones in Cuba, according to Brics Post. Meanwhile, the Cuban government's Cubacel sells a French Alcatel cell phone with a touch screen and an Android operational system for about $7, when a government employee makes about $20 a month.

To get a cell when there is "a special," Cubans have to make long lines and they are only allowed to buy one at a time, according to CubaNet, an independent news site. The most popular appears to be the OT-1060x, CubaNet reports, which has a camera, but doesn't have internal memory.

For the few with cash, there are cellphones for sale on Habana.PorLaLivre.com, a free market site that functions much like Craigslist, a classified advertisement site based out of San Francisco. And for the few who get their hands on a reliable device, Cubacel's coverage remains unavailable in areas all over the country.

Telecommunication giants such as AT&T and Verizon want the U.S. embargo lifted. They are interested in both cellphone penetration rate and Internet connectivity. The International Telecommunication Union classified access to mobile phones and the Internet in Cuba last year, as one of the most expensive in the world. The island does maintain some of the cheapest fixed-telephone services in the world.



MEASURING REPORT: The ITU reported that at 18 percent, Cuba "still has a very low mobile-cellular penetration," was "seriously lagging behind" and had a "very low" household Internet access. Lack of international connectivity would be an issue for future broadband adoption.



Verizon was allowed to offer roaming wireless service. Sprint was getting ready to sign an agreement with La Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, ETECSA, the government's telecommunications company.

The announcement was made at EXPOCUBA, an international business fair, in Havana, although they had signed an agreement in September that involved  ALBA-1, a submarine fiber-optic link cable hooked up to Venezuela in 2011.

The Miami Herald's Mimi Whitefield recently reported that savvy developers, who have dreams of owning a start up company, are hopeful. There was one running a Yelp-like application known as Alamesa, which lists about 620 restaurants. But with the limitations on hardware and Internet access they may be ahead of their time.


Without ample access to the Internet, resourceful Cubans have found ways to get access to content. There is a black market in Cuba for content ranging from pornography to soap operas, foreign news and movies.

Some use SIM cards, a portable memory chip used to hold data. Others use Flash USB drives and .Zip files they call "paquetes." They can download enough content to last them for a week or a month. Some Cubans are making money out of renting memory cards, much in the same way teens in South Florida rent video games to their friends.

The memory cards require unlocked cell phones. And while it remains challenging for users to buy new phones and there is a need to unlock the phones they have, Guibert will continue to have good business. Although he is the hardware magician of the poor, his services aren't cheap.

As he was welding an antenna, which he said Ciego de Avila mobile phone owners break off frequently, he said he can afford to keep prices high, because there is always a demand for his services.

The devices "get wet, fall down, get scorched," said the Cuban who is of Jamaican and Haitian descent.

Guibert said he started working at 8 a.m. and was going to close shop at 6 p.m. A handful of people were standing in line waiting for him to troubleshoot their phones. He fixes batteries for about $10 and replaces broken screens for $25. He said he takes $200 to $300 a month.

 But "you have to invest a lot of money as well," he said.


INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: How Cubans stay connected