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Google, Cuba agree to work towards improving island's connectivity

HAVANA, March 28 (Reuters) - Alphabet Inc’s Google signed a deal with Cuban telecoms monopoly ETECSA on Thursday to negotiate an agreement to improve internet traffic exchange between their two networks and connectivity on the Communist-run island.

Internet laggard Cuba has sought to increase web access in recent years, introducing cybercafes, Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile internet, but users still complain of the cost, sluggish connection and spotty coverage.

The partnership would create a cost-free and direct connection between the Google and Cuban networks in a process known as “peering” in the industry. It would enable faster access to content hosted on the tech giant’s servers.

“The implementation of this internet traffic exchange service is part of the strategy of ETECSA for the development and computerization of the country,” Google and ETECSA said in a joint news release, read out at a news conference in Havana.

The peering would be implemented “when technical conditions allow it,” they said, without specifying what they would be. Neither party took questions.

The memorandum of understanding creates a working group of engineers focused on figuring out how to carry out the peering.

Google has been working to expand its business in Cuba for years although analysts say it will have to work hard to gain the government’s trust.

Cuban-U.S. relations have nosedived since Republican Donald Trump became U.S. President promising to roll back a detente agreed by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama and tightening once more a decades-old U.S. trade embargo on the island.

Still, the administration has maintained a loophole created by Obama for U.S. telecommunications companies to provide certain services to Cuba as they would open up the country further.

“The signing of this memorandum evidences that the interest of U.S companies in developing businesses with ETECSA remains,” the Google, ETECSA news release read.

Google set up a small pilot display center in Havana and signed a deal in 2016 granting internet users quicker access to its branded content.

Former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt met Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel twice last year, in June in Havana and in Google’s New York office in September.

Google’s attempts to enter the Cuban market come as it faces blowback over attempts to expand in another Communist-run state, China, amid concerns it could comply with that country’s internet censorship and surveillance policies.

Whether due to the U.S. embargo, lack of cash or concerns over the free flow of information, the internet was largely available to the public in Cuba only at tourist hotels until 2013 when a fibre-optic cable to Venezuela went live. (Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Paresh Dave in San Francisco Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)