The internet, but not as we know it: life online in China, Russia, Cuba and India


In Cuba, internet access is limited. But if you can’t get to the internet, there are ways of bringing it physically to you.

It’s known as “el paquete semanal” or “the weekly packet”, an external drive loaded with thousands of hours of media content that is delivered to customers by enterprising ‘suppliers’ like Alberto Jorge.

“With el paquete you choose what to watch and when to watch it,” says Jorge, 34, as he walks the cracked paving slabs of west Havana delivering the drives.

Dubbed Cuba’s version of Netflix, it’s a form of offline internet that sidesteps censorship in state media, and connectivity issues, that are due in part to the US embargo.

This week’s edition features showbiz news from Spain, Big Brother from the US, and an episode of Celebrity Masterchef broadcast just days earlier on BBC One.

Alberto hands a one-terabyte drive to each household to copy, before returning the next day to collect it. He charges the equivalent of two US dollars a week for the service.

Upon connecting the hard disk, subscribers are presented with more than 50 folders. There are Spanish-language editions of magazines such as Forbes and GQ, scanned in pdf format, apps that users can copy to their phones, and a file giving offline access to “Revolico”, the island’s main classified website which is intermittently blocked online.

While tolerated by the authorities, it is unclear who heads up this hazy enterprise. Rumour has it that a network of entrepreneurs pay database administrators to download content using fast internet connections in their state jobs.

On the other side of Havana, Elena Llera, 52, plugs a memory stick with The Bride of Istanbul, a Turkish soap opera, into her television. El paquete is now her main source of home entertainment, and she only switches to state TV for the evening news.

Despite having a public wifi park just 100 metres from her apartment – one of more than 700 to have opened since 2015 – she connects only twice a week to video call her aunt in Miami. It costs the equivalent of one dollar an hour to use the internet, around the same as a day’s wage.

“If I could, then I’d use the internet for all its functions, to learn about politics and culture. But I can’t. It’s very expensive,” she says.

Alejandro Pol, 28, a dentist visiting Elena’s flatmate, uses el paquete to watch Vice News and reviews of the latest iPhones.

“We know it doesn’t work like this in the capitalist world,” he says, “but it’s a way we have of staying connected.”