Verizon becomes first US carrier to offer international roaming in Cuba

Subscribers can get 2G voice, text and data service starting next week

Verizon Wireless will let subscribers connect to a cell service in Cuba starting next week as the communications veil between the U.S. and its communist neighbor continues to lift after half a century of isolation.

Subscribers will be able to get international roaming service in Cuba for anything that qualifies as a World Device at Verizon. Service is strictly 2G, and rates are at the carrier's highest tier for international roaming: US$2.99 per minute for voice and $2.05 per megabyte for data, all on a pay-as-you-go basis. International messaging rates apply.

But just being able to land in Cuba and have mobile service when you turn on your U.S. phone is a pretty big deal. Carriers in other countries, like O2 in the U.K. and Telefonica's Movistar in Mexico, already offer some roaming in Cuba. Verizon says it's the first U.S. operator to make it available. Sprint says it will follow soon.

The economic sanctions the U.S. imposed for decades to put pressure on Cuba's communist government included laws that kept U.S. companies from offering communications equipment and services. But those restrictions are gradually being lifted as part of a normalization of relations between the two countries. 

On Friday, the U.S. government announced more steps to liberalize trade, including allowing people in the U.S. to set up businesses and joint ventures in Cuba for certain telecommunications and Internet-based services. The new rules, going into effect on Monday, also allow people in the U.S. to import mobile apps from Cuba and hire Cuban nationals to write apps. Companies serving the large Cuban-American population could benefit from those changes.

Cuba, a nation of 11 million, had 2.3 million mobile subscribers as of 2013, according to research company TeleGeography. Users rely on relatively slow 2G infrastructure, and the country has just 1.275Gbps (bits per second) of bandwidth to Internet, most of it from a single submarine cable from Venezuela, TeleGeography said late last year. 

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