Cuban Market Intrigues AT&T as Obama Prepares Havana Visit

The phone carrier is among several U.S. companies that want to begin doing business in Cuba on the heels of the president's visit.

Cuba, Cuban trade embargo, AT&T, Marriott International, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, mobile carriers

AT&T is among three large U.S. companies that are apparently champing at the bit to begin doing business in Cuba as President Obama prepares to visit the island nation March 20-22 for continued talks on normalizing relations between the two countries.

AT&T, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Marriott International are "seeking to complete deals in Cuba" as the president's visit approaches, based on a source who is familiar with the talks, according to a March 12 story by Reuters.

"The flurry of deal-making could help Obama use his historic March 20-22 trip to showcase what he sees as the benefits of Washington's diplomatic opening with the former Cold War foe after decades of hostility," the story reported. "But even as Obama prepares to unveil further measures next week to chip away at decades-old restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba, the longstanding U.S. economic embargo strictly limits efforts by American companies to do business on the communist-ruled island."

Communications between the United States and Cuba have been improving in the last 18 months as the long U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, which began in 1962, has been slowly thawing. The United States and Cuba dropped diplomatic relations in 1961 during the Cold War after Fidel Castro came to power.

"AT&T is trying to complete a mobile communications agreement with Cuba's state telecoms monopoly Etecsa, while Starwood is also weighing an announcement," the source, who was briefed by administration and company officials, told Reuters. AT&T is still in talks and no agreement has been reached, the report continued.

In response to a March 14 email inquiry from eWEEK, AT&T declined to comment on the situation.

Starwood is seeking authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to operate hotels in Cuba, while Marriott is seeking similar permission, the story reported. Many other businesses, including Major League Baseball, are considering their own announcements as the president prepares to visit Cuba, the story continued.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba remains, but it has been getting lots of new attention as Obama has called for it to end. Critics oppose the move because they say the nation's communist government has not done enough to enact economic and social reforms to benefit the Cuban people.

Other U.S. companies have been making small inroads on their own since Obama first began talking about Cuban-U.S. relations in December 2014.

In September 2015, Verizon Wireless announced that it would begin offering cellular roaming services in Cuba as the thaw in relations between the two nations had begun. The new roaming capabilities arrived about a month after the United States officially reopened its embassy in Havana, according to an earlier eWEEK story. Under the Pay-As-You-Go plan, Verizon customers can add the service to their accounts and make voice calls in Cuba for $2.99 per minute. Data use is billed at $2.05 per megabyte, and standard international text messaging rates will apply.

In June 2015, competitor Sprint added a "Sprint Cuba 20 Plus" calling plan to allow customers to make direct calls to Cuba. The Sprint Cuba 20 Plus plans offer 20 minutes of international calling to Cuba per month for $10 (50 cents per minute), while additional minutes can be purchased for 70 cents per minute.

In March 2015, Cuba's state telecom service, Etecsa, approved the startup of Cuba's first public, open WiFi services, which began recently in Havana's central cultural center building. That means that, for the first time, Cubans can now have a place where they can have free, open use of the Internet, even though it will sometimes be slow and spotty, depending on user load and other conditions, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The service is being provided due to famed artist Kcho, who organized the effort at his own expense to benefit his local community.

In August 2014, Google made its Chrome Web browser available for use in Cuba, bringing it to the residents of an island where Internet access can be difficult to find and afford, and where free communications is not guaranteed by their government. Censorship on the Internet by the government is a fact of life in Cuba.

Cuba, which is approximately 90 miles off the southeastern coast of Florida, has a patchwork of old and beautiful cities and towns, throwback American vehicles that date back to the 1950s, a proud and rugged population, and a long legacy of government control, communism and economic stagnation.