Sprint announced Monday that it signed a wireless roaming agreement with the Telecommunications Company of Cuba, known as ETECSA, to take advantage of future business from U.S. travelers to that nation.
Sprint said it is the first U.S. wireless carrier to sign a direct agreement with ETECSA, although Verizon Wireless launched roaming services in Cuba in September. The difference is that Verizon's roaming is achieved by piggybacking on to Vodafone's roaming agreement with ETECSA, while Spring struck a deal with ETECSA directly, a Sprint spokeswoman said.
These roaming deals should allow customers of Verizon and Sprint to easily make wireless connections when in Cuba.
Details of the cost and availability of Sprint's roaming capability were not announced. Verizon is charging $2.99 a minute for voice and $2.05 per megabyte for data over a 2G network in Cuba. Other carriers are expected to follow suit.
The U.S. restored diplomatic relations with the communist country on July 20, re-establishing ties that had been severed since 1961 as a result of the Cold War. The future of general U.S. commerce with Cuba is still somewhat unclear: A partial trade embargo is still in place, but President Obama wants to see it lifted.
However, telecommunications and Internet-based services are not subject to that embargo. On Sept. 18, the U.S. government announced that U.S. businesses could set up shop and joint ventures in Cuba for telecommunications and Internet-based services, as part of recent initiatives to liberalize trade.
Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure announced the deal at a signing ceremony in Havana as part of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council delegation. In addition to the direct roaming agreement, Sprint had already forged an interconnection agreement with ETECSA.
Claure, who was born in Bolivia, speaks Spanish and has talked several times about business opportunities for Sprint in Latin America. In August, Sprint launched Sprint Open World, which offers Sprint customers free unlimited calling and text when they travel in Canada, Mexico and most countries in Latin America.
T-Mobile had beaten Sprint to the punch in July, offering calls, text and data at no extra charge for its U.S.-based Simple Choice customers when they travel to Mexico and Canada or make wireless connections to those countries.
All U.S. wireless carriers are interested in offering services in Latin America, including Cuba, to increase revenues, said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. However, he called Sprint's roaming announcement "a symbolic gesture more than anything else" because it's likely that very few Americans using Sprint services are traveling there so far.
Cuba's government has reported that about 1 million Americans visited Cuba in the past year and projects that 10 million Americans will visit annually as travel restrictions are loosened. In all, Cuba gets 3 million foreign visitors a year, mostly from Canada and Western Europe.