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U.S. Promotes Telecom Expansion Into Cuba

The Obama administration announced several policy changes aimed at loosening the flow of information between the United States and Cuba which could have a significant impact for U.S. telecom and Internet providers.

In addition to easing restrictions for U.S. residents looking to visit or send money to relatives on the island, the administration is moving to enable network providers to set up shop in Cuba to expand the communication pipeline with the communist country.

"Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island," the White House said in a statement.

"Measures that decrease dependency of the Cuban people on the Castro regime and that promote contacts between Cuban-Americans and their relatives in Cuba are means to encourage positive change in Cuba."

In a memo to the secretaries of commerce, state and treasury, Obama said that telecom providers would be permitted to build infrastructure for fiber-optic and satellite networks to link Cuba's communications systems with the United States.

Additionally, the administration said U.S. satellite television and radio operators would be permitted to obtain licenses to beam programming onto the island.

The policy changes would also allow U.S. carriers to enter into roaming-service agreements with Cuban cellular providers. U.S. residents would also be able to obtain licenses to send money to individuals in Cuba to activate and pay for their cell phone, Internet and other communications services from providers operating on the island. That provision would prohibit sending money to senior Communist and Cuban government officials.

The International Telecommunications Union has estimated that 11.5 percent of Cuba's 11.4 million residents used the Internet in 2008.

Obama's Cuban thaw would also continue and expand a policy enacted by the Bush administration last year, where U.S. residents were allowed to send cell phones to relatives on the island. Obama's memo called for a licensing exception that would also people to send computers, software, satellite receivers and other communications equipment to friends or relatives in Cuba.

Of course, for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba to have a meaningful impact on the island, the Castro regime would have to play ball. At Monday's White House press briefing, Daniel Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, described the policy changes as a way of putting pressure on the Cuban government to free the flow of information between Cubans and Americans.

"Allowing U.S. persons to pay for cell coverage and ongoing services on the island today is something that the Cuban government would have a very hard time getting in the middle of," he said. "In terms of allowing or disallowing U.S. companies to provide services on the island is something that would clearly require participation of those entities that control information on the island."

Ailing former Cuban President Fidel Castro has shot back that Obama's policy changes do not go far enough, calling for an end to the 47-year-old trade embargo in its entirety.

The news comes on the eve of the Summit of the Americas, which is set to kick off in Trinidad and Tobago this week. Restrepo said that Cuba would not be represented at the summit.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said there were no immediate plans to establish a U.S. envoy to Cuba. The United States is the only nation in the region without diplomatic relations with Cuba.

As to the impact of the policy changes on the telecom industry, the providers are staying mum for the time being.

"We'll certainly study the Administration's proposal," AT&T spokesman Michel Coe told InternetNews.com. "Beyond that, we have no comment."

CTIA, the trade association representing the wireless industry, also declined to comment.