If you walk through Havana, you’ll usually see groups of people huddled around certain plazas, parks and side streets with their cellphones held up to their faces. These people are online.
In order to post a picture to Facebook, send an email or read the news, Cubans must buy an internet access card for about a dollar from Etecsa, the state-run telecommunications company, and then find a public hot spot — but that all seems set to change.
On Tuesday, the Cuban government tested wireless internet directly on mobile phones nationwide for nine hours. The internet was free for the duration of the test, but Etecsa plans to sell mobile phone plans that include internet service.
Etecsa customers were not alerted about the trial, according to Yoani Sánchez, director of the local news site 14ymedio.com. They found out through word of mouth and social media.
For a short period, Cubans could use the internet from their bedrooms, kitchens, porches or wherever they wished.
“You guys won’t believe me,” Ms. Sánchez tweeted from Havana. “I am sending this tweet from my mobile phone.”
The test started at 11 a.m. and concluded at 8 p.m., according to Ms. Sánchez.
“The connection was very slow, with a lot of problems for stretches of time,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “At one point the connection was dropped, but even so, it felt like a tiny window had been opened.”
Cubans could use only chat services, and it was very difficult to connect to Facebook, she said.
Her site reported that privileged users, including official journalists, businessmen and diplomats, have been enjoying free internet navigation from their cellphones for the last couple of weeks.
For now, Ms. Sánchez said, normal people “stand around in the sun, in blazing heat, at risk of getting their phones stolen.”
“They cannot work from home,” she added. “The government has delayed this for us as long as possible.”
There are more than four million internet-ready mobile phones in the Caribbean country, according to the independent Cuban news site Diario de Cuba, and Etecsa is ramping up to provide internet service to all of them.
“Besides all of its stumbles, this is a citizen’s victory,” Ms. Sánchez tweeted.
Etecsa said on its Facebook page that it would release more details later. The company did not respond to a message seeking comment on Wednesday.
In January, the United States government created the Cuba Internet Task Force to “promote the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba.” It was unclear if the latest test or the aim to provide internet service to mobile phone users in Cuba were products of the task force.
In July, President Miguel Díaz-Canel told Parliament that “we need to be able to put the content of the revolution online” and added that Cubans could “counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content” on the internet, suggesting that the government would manage the content.
It would not be unexpected for Cuba to do so, as the state already has a monopoly on the news media.
Cuba has some of the poorest internet service in the Caribbean, but that doesn’t stop its more than 11 million citizens from posting on Facebook and using WhatsApp to communicate with family members outside the country.
Cuban dissidents also use social media to amplify their voices. Many post on Twitter using text messaging, but more are on Facebook.
Etecsa currently has 630 public internet hot spots around the country, but it doesn’t beat going online from the comfort of home, a reality that could be close for Cubans.
Tania Velázquez Rodríguez, an executive at Etecsa, asked customers last month to prepare for a technological leap.
“Everything is designed so that people can self-manage the configuration of the service,” she said. “We are nearly ready.”
Ms. Sánchez said: “Yesterday was the first time Cubans had internet access in their pockets. Even though it was pretty frustrating because the connection wasn’t great, it was a very hopeful moment for us Cubans.”