Monday, September 28, 2015

Cuban infrastructure investment -- China won the first round

China won the first round, what about the future?

The US wants to sell Internet equipment and services in Cuba, but we have not succeeded.

In December 2014, the administration announced that we were taking "historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people." The following month, the US International Trade Commission began a study of the economic effects of US restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba. They held hearings on potential exports in several sectors and I testified on potential telecommunication exports.

In March, the US sent a high-level delegation to Cuba to discuss telecommunication and the Internet and no doubt Internet service and equipment companies began analyzing the potential Cuban market. Most visibly, Google visited several times and eventually made a concrete proposal for the installation of some sort of wireless infrastructure, but that offer was rejected, perhaps for lack of trust in the US Government and Google.

Google made several trips to Cuba, but their proposal was rejected.

This month the White House extended our policy, authorizing US companies to establish a business presence in Cuba and provide "certain" telecommunications and Internet-based services or do joint ventures or enter into licensing agreements to market such services.

To date, this effort has led just a few small Internet deals like Netflix offering Cubans accounts, Airbnb renting rooms or Verizon offering cell-phone roaming in Cuba.

Cuba has turned to China, not the US, for Internet connectivity and equipment and is committed to doing so in the short term future.

China played a major role in the financing and construction of the ALBA-1 undersea cable, which connects Cuba to Venezuela and Jamaica. It was reported that China lent Venezuela $70 million to finance the cable, which was installed by a joint venture made up of Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell and Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe (TGC) -- TGC is a joint venture between Telecom Venezuela (60%) and Cuban Transbit SA (40%), both state-owned companies.

The cable landed in Cuba in February 2011, but the first traffic was not transmitted until January 2013. Much of Cuba's international traffic continued to be routed over satellite links until July 2015, when nearly all of it had finally shifted to the cable. Cuba's international traffic continued to be routed over slow, expensive satellite links for over four years because the cable landing point is at the east end of the island and there was little domestic infrastructure to connect it to Havana and other locations.

The ALBA-1 cable traffic has shifted from satellite (blue) to cable.

At the time of the cable installation, we speculated that China might play a role in building the domestic infrastructure needed to reach it and it turns out that Cuba had awarded Huawei a contract to build a national fiber-optic network in the year 2000. Today there is a backbone network connecting the Cuban provinces to the cable landing point. The current load is light compared to expected future traffic from homes, schools, universities and public access locations, so Cuba must be planning a faster, more comprehensive backbone and I imagine Huawei is involved.

ETECSA backbone diagram, date/status unknown, source: Nearshore America

Huawei equipment was also used in the recent installation of 35 WiFi hotspots across the island. Since they claim the access points will support 50-100 simultaneous users at 1 Mb/s speed, these 35 locations must connect to the national backbone network. While 35 access points are a drop in the bucket, Cuba is committed to adding more. Counting WiFi, "navigation rooms," Youth Clubs and hotels, there are now 683 public access points in Cuba, all of which reach the backbone.

Huawei WiFi antennae

In addition to expanding public access and the backbone, they plan to make DSL connectivity available to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. (Note that that is not to say 50% of Cuban homes will be online). Doing so will require new equipment in the telephone central offices serving those homes and Huawei will supply that equipment. Two other Chinese companies, ZTE and TP Link are providing DSL modems for network users. (ZTE has an office in Havana and may also be involved in the backbone network).

Home Internet: Huawei central office equipment and ZTE and TP Link modems

Cuba also has plans to connect all schools and make fiber connections to the backbone available to all universities. I don't know whose equipment will be used for those upgrades, but, if Huawei is the backbone vendor, I suspect that they would have the inside track on customer premises equipment (CPE). A recent market research report shows that Chinese CPE sales are growing rapidly, fueled by a large domestic market.

Lina Pedraza Rodríguez, Minister of Finance and Prices, said that Cuba is in
"very advanced" negotiations with Huawei, May 2015.

In spite of China's success in Cuba, all has not been perfect. As this Wikileaks memo from the US Interests Section in Havana shows, the Chinese have had some difficulty collecting Cuban debt. Cuba remains a tricky place to do business.

Finally, note that all of these sales are for equipment, not network operation. While Huawei has sold Cuba equipment, the backbone installation has been supervised by a Cuban engineer who has worked for Huawei since 2002 and Huawei does not seem to have an office in Cuba. Cuba bought Telecom Italia's share of ETECSA, Cuba's monopoly telecommunication company, in 2011 and remains independent. That may turn out to be a good or bad thing for the Cuban people, depending upon ETECSA's policy and goals.

It looks like China has won the first round. That's the bad news for US companies. The good news is that very little infrastructure has been sold so far and much of what has been sold and is planned for the near future is already obsolete by today's standards. That says there will be a much larger second round -- will the US be a player?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Roundtable discussion: A society on the (long) road to informatization

The CUBA search engine is part of an effort to reduce dependence on foreign applications.

Wilfredo Gonzalez Vidal, Vice Minister of Communication is speaking. Can readers
identify the others?

A round table panel presentation on "A society on the road to informatization" was held on September 18. The following are a few of the more concrete points that were made.

Wilfredo Gonzalez Vidal, Vice Minister of Communication:
  • There are about 746 ATMs nationwide, in 53 of the 168 municipalities.
Mayra Arevich Marin, chief executive of ETECSA:
  • Connection speed to institutions of higher education has increased from 10-34 mbps. (Also see this post on university connectivity).
  • Counting navigation rooms, Youth Clubs and hotels, there are now 683 public access points in Cuba.
  • They will add more WiFi access points this year. She did not say how many, but did say they would be in nicer locations.
Reynaldo Rosado, vice president of the University of Information Science:
  • Students are working on the development of 128 software and service projects.
  • 13,500 young people have graduated from UCI.
Anamaris Solórzano Chacón, national director of institutional communication for the Youth Computer Club:
  • Cuban search engine CUBA (Contenidos Unificados de Búsqueda Avanzada) was launched in July this year.
  • Ecured, which was launched in December 2010, has more than 140,000 items and 200,000 hits daily. (It is also distributed on DVD and flash.
  • The Reflejos blog platform now has 6,500 blogs and over 5,000 visits a day.
For me, the most interesting statement was by Anamaris Solórzano Chacón. When speaking of the CUBA search engine, she said it was part of an effort to reduce dependence on foreign applications.

As long as very few Cubans have access to the international Internet, it makes sense to offer their own services on the domestic intranet. But, if Cuba opens to the international Internet, as they say they will, their local services will be redundant and unable to scale and compete. Ecured will never be Wikipedia, Reflejos will never be Blogger and CUBA will never even be Bing, let alone Google Search.

China is large enough that, for political and economic reasons, they can sustain domestic versions of popular Internet services, but Cuba is not. I understand and admire the desire to be self-sufficient, but it really isn't feasible in this case. As the saying goes -- "do what you do best and link to the rest." They should invest in uniquely Cuban services.

Verizon roaming in Cuba -- much ado about not much

While Verizon customers may be able to make $2.99 per minute 2G calls, it seems their $2.05 per megabyte data service will be limited to few locations.

President Obama is continuing to use executive powers to nibble away at the embargo. Some US companies will be allowed to establish Cuban offices and Verizon has announced that they will offer roaming in Cuba.

Verizon's roaming rates will be steep -- $2.99 per minute for calls and $2.05 per megabyte for data. Most of Verizon's roving customers will be non-Cubans, so we should not read to much into the prices, but one wonders what Verizon's split with ETECSA is and whether this foreshadows ETECSA's strategy.

ETECSA's policy is a key unknown in predicting the future of the Internet in Cuba. If their goal is to maximize profit, their monopoly position will inevitably lead to high prices, conservative infrastructure investment and poor service. A goal of maximizing government revenue would do the same.

Reader Ray Rodriquez has raised another interesting question -- how does ETECSA plan to handle the data? At those prices and with relatively few users, I doubt that the volume of data will be a problem, but what about connectivity and coverage?

We have been speculating on the Cuban backbone, and have concluded that there must be connectivity from each city with a WiFi access point to the cable landing at the east end of the island since almost 100% of Cuba's international traffic is now routed over the cable.

But how many of ETECSA's cell towers are able to reach the backbone? How many are able to handle even 3G data? Looking at Cuba's annual ICT statistical report, we see that the percent of the population with (predominantly 2G) cell phone coverage has barely increased since 2010 and it has been flat at 85.3 percent since 2012.

While Verizon customers may be able to make $2.99 per minute 2G calls, it seems their $2.05 per megabyte data service will be limited to few locations.

Like the Netflix offering, this is a symbolic start, but, as we have seen -- in a nation with nearly no Internet access, a little bit gets a lot of hype.

Update 9/19/2015

More on the executive easing of embargo restrictions.

Monday, September 14, 2015

El paquete update -- Cuba's largest private employer?

For several years, I've been tracking Cuba's "paquete semenal," a weekly distribution of entertainment, software, games, news, etc. on portable hard disks and flash drives.

I've noted that the compilation and distribution of the material is well organized and complete, leading to speculation that it is run by the Cuban government. (There is precedent for that -- there used to be a government storefront in Havana where one could bring floppy disks and get copies of the latest software releases).

Even if the government does not run el paquete, they turn a blind eye to its very visible advertising and distribution. In return, the package (like the illegal local area networks) does not include any politically sensitive material.

ABC News reports that el paquete is Cuba's number one private employer, bringing in $4 million a month.

They do not cite their sources, but it is not an outlandish claim. I don't know how many people are employed in the private sector, but, considering the goofy list of jobs that are eligible for self employment, it is believable that this popular, ubiquitous service could be the leading private employer.

And $4 million a month does not sound like a lot of revenue for such a widespread operation. According to the ABC report, terabyte hard drives with the week's material are delivered to customer's homes for 5 CUC (about $6.50). The subscriber copies as much as he or she wants and the drive is picked up the next day. That subscriber may in turn distribute material to others on flash drives or their own portable hard disks.

Elio Hector Lopez, who claims to be the head of el paquete, described a different price structure in a Forbes interview:
Most customers get the drive at home, where they exchange it for last week’s drive and the equivalent of $1.10 to $2.20. (Distributors selling to other distributors charge ten times as much.)
Regardless, $4 million seems plausible. Lopez went on to say that the original founding group had broken up, but evaded the interviewer's questions about operational details.

The following video gives a view of the distribution of el paquete:

It includes an interview of "Dany Paquete" (shown above), a 26-year old "who looks more like a lazy college sophomore than a kingpin of a national blackmarket of pirated media." He is one of two competing national distributors in Havana.

The documentary does not disclose details on the gathering of information, but suggests that editors in Miami and Havana select movies, music, etc. each week.

Dany sounds more like an MBA business man than a drug dealer and is unafraid to appear on camera. The Cuban government clearly tolerates el paquete. Even if officials are not being paid off, it satisfies many consumers, making them less likely to press for open Internet access. Had he been writing today, Karl Marx would have said "el paquete is the opium of the masses."

I recently had an opportunity to ask a senior State Department spokesman whether el paquete copyright violation had come up during discussions with the Cubans and he said "no," but the agenda of Bilateral Commission includes discussion of claims for damages. The focus will no doubt be on Cuban claims for damages resulting from the embargo and US claims for nationalized property -- might that be stretched to include "Orange is the New Black?"

Friday, September 4, 2015

In a nation with nearly no Internet access, a little bit gets a lot of hype.

In mid June, Cuba announced a plan to provide public access at 35 WiFi hotspots. As we noted, 35 WiFi hotspots is a drop in the bucket for a nation with over 11 million people, yet they have received a lot of press coverage.

A Google search found 651 articles with all of the words Cuba, WiFi and 35 in the title since mid June when we reported the story. Google finds over a million hits for stories with those words anywhere in the post and virtually all major news outlets -- from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal and Fox News covered the WiFi roll-out.

The same thing happened when ETECSA began offering public access to the Internet in "navigation rooms," when they announced a plan to make outdated DSL service available to half of the Cuban homes and when a Cuban artist called Kcho opened a single WiFi access point at his studio.

Cuban artist Kcho received world-wide attention for a single WiFi hotspot.

In a recent Havana Times post, Irina Echarry paints a realistic picture of the "Many Unsolved Problems of Cuba’s Wi-Fi Hot Zones" -- the overcrowding, long lines, discomfort, lack of privacy, cost, danger, etc. I am happy to see Cuba take a few halting steps toward a modern, open Internet, but, as Echarry shows us, the reality does not justify the hype.

Update 9/14/2015

The hype continues as Raúl Casto and Panama's president Juan Carlos Varela visit Kcho's studio. I wonder if President Obama would stop by for a photo op if I were to open my home WiFi router for use by people in my front yard? After all, I have a much faster connection to the Net than Kcho.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The short and long term future of the Cuban Internet

I gave a talk on the short and long term future of the Cuban Internet at the Conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

For the short run, I talked about things that are announced and underway -- expansion of public access and connecting schools, universities and homes as well as the possibility of satellite as an unlikely, but feasible means of interim connectivity.

I pointed out several characteristics of these short run projects -- they rely on a backbone network, China has been the preferred vendor nation so far and the quantity and quality of connectivity are far short of what we experience in developed nations. Even with the currently planned expansion, the Cuban Internet will remain in the 1990s.

For the long term, I pointed out that Cuba has the opportunity to skip technology generations and consider things like low-earth orbiting satellite, 5G wireless and advances in short range wireless.

That being said, long run policies regarding infrastructure ownership and regulation are more important than long run technology options. I suggested several ownership/regulation paradigms found around the world today and I encourage Cuba to consider them carefully.

In the middle of the talk, I took a brief digression to point out that two of the presenters in my session had been instrumental in bringing the Internet to Cuba and a third pioneer was in the audience.

When does the "long term" begin? It's a vague term, but by 2020 we will have a new Cuban government, the US embargo may be history and the Cuban economy will hopefully have improved significantly. Cuba should be in a better position to build a modern Internet by then.

The presentation consists of 26 slides in the style I prefer -- an image with a few words, accompanied by notes and annotation. The annotation both explains the point the slide is making and provides links to sources and more information. You can download the PowerPoint presentation here.

Here are a couple of the slides:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cuban ICT statistics report for 2014

Cuba's National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) has released their annual report of selected information and communication technology (ICT) indicators, including the following table of physical indicators:

They report that the number of Internet users is over 3 million, but must be including people who access the domestic intranet in that total. There are only 533,900 connected computers, so each one is shared by around 5.6 people. Not only are the users sharing computers, the connections are much slower than we are used to in developing nations. (I don't know how they count smart phone access).

It's also interesting to look at percent changes over time:

We see that the percent of the population with cell coverage has been nearly unchanged since 2010 and completely unchanged since 2012. Evidently, they are no longer expanding the 2G cell network. Presumably, the next deployment will be 4 or 5G. The number of cell phones is growing, but they do not differentiate between modern smart phone/computers and 2G flip and candy-bar phones. Growth in the number of .cu domain names has slowed compared to last year, but it is still substantial, indicating increasing organizational use.

Growth in the number of computers and the number of phone minutes has slowed relative to last year:

Both may be related to the Internet -- people are buying smart phones instead of computers and using Internet applications to make voice over IP calls.

Finally, ONEI reported that there are 1,264,817 fixed phone lines, of which 967,963 are residential. That puts the goal of having DSL service available to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020 in perspective. In addition to installing DSL equipment in central offices, many of these phone lines may have to be upgraded. The number of central offices increased from to 688 to 740 -- perhaps the new ones are already equipped for DSL service.

You can see coverage of previous ONEI ICT reports here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Leaked documents

Carlos Alberto Pérez publishes leaks -- "Chirileaks" -- on his blog La Chringa de Cuba. Two leaks pertaining to the Internet were one on Cuba's national broadband plan and another on ETECSA's plan for home connectivity.

Cuba is not known for kindness to dissidents, so one wonders why Pérez still has his job, not to mention his freedom. The answer might be that these are intentional leaks -- letting the world and the Cuban people know that Cuba is paying attention to the Internet and plans to improve things. Cuba has declared the Internet a priority and these leaks lend credence to that claim.

Anonymous quotes, "trial balloons" and government leaks are common in the US and Cuba may be doing the same. Regardless, Pérez is giving us interesting information and I hope the Chirileaks keep coming.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Speculation on the Cuban Internet backbone

Since the earliest days of the Internet, Cuba has stressed geographically distributed connectivity, unlike most developing nations, which focused on one or a few large cities. That policy is still in effect. There are plans to connect universities, schools and homes and there are already public WiFi hotspots and and Internet-access rooms in every province. (Of the original 118 public access rooms, only 12 were in Havana).

A backbone network covering the length of the island is necessary to achieve such geographically dispersed connectivity and, since essentially all of Cuba's international traffic is now routed over the undersea cable connection at the east end of the island, there must already be a backbone network connecting the provinces. The provision of 1 mbps international connectivity at the new WiFi hotspots is further evidence of a backbone.

I know nothing of the architecture or technology (fiber and wireless?) of today's backbone, but the load is very light compared to a future with planned traffic from homes, schools, universities and public access locations, so Cuba must be planning a high speed backbone.

We got a very hazy view of that plan in a Cuban market research study, which was just published by Nearshore America. The report includes diagrams of the three-phase backbone plan shown below:

These diagrams are attributed to ETECSA, but they have been substantially redrawn to protect the identity of the person who supplied them. While the legend on each slide shows 2 fixed and 9 reconfigurable multiplexers, I suspect that refers to the final phase. Similarly, I am guessing that "12 OLA" refers to optical wavelengths in each network link, but that is just a guess. The author of the Nearshore report was not told the time schedule for the phases.

I'd be curious to know a lot more, like who is designing and installing the backbone and who is supplying the equipment -- for example, are those Huawei multiplexers?

The one thing these images show us is that ETECSA is indeed planning a fiber backbone network.

Uodate 8/20/2015

@yawnboy sent me a link to material releasesd by Edward Snowden showing that the NSA was thinking of installing back doors in Huawei routers in 2010.

An NSA presentation included this slide:

The text note accompanying the slide reads in part:
Many of our targets communicate over Huawei produced products, we want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products - we also want to ensure that we retain access to these communication lines, etc.
I'm offering this in jest, but it would have been ironic if Cuba had installed Chinese routers with NSA backdoors.

Update 8/28/2015

Reader Ed Francis sent me a link to a 2005 post on Chinese companies in Cuba. The author visited the offices of several Chinese companies, including that of Huawei. The following is a Google Translate version of his observation:
Huawei to enter the Cuban market in 2000, when the company won the bid in an international tender Huawei Cuban government for the construction of a national fiber transmission network are conducted. Although the company is currently in Cuba only two market development officer and six engineers responsible for technical support, but Huawei's products have entered the all Cuban existing telecommunications.

Huawei's office, Interim Head of Cuban Mr. Humberto said Cuba telecom market competition is very fierce, before the market is mainly occupied by Alcatel, Ericsson and other large companies in Europe, I would like to win the market from their hands share of easier said than done. However, with a strong technical strength and highly competitive prices, Huawei has basically heard from a Cuban company became a pivotal role in the market. Cuba Telekom AG is the only company operating fixed telephone service, the total investment in 2004 to purchase 30% of Huawei's products.
It sounds like he is saying that Huawei won a bid for the construction of a fiber backbone in 2000. No details are given, but I wonder if that may be referring to the network pictured above.

The article also says Huawei has an office with two market development officers (salesmen?) and six engineers, headed by a Cuban, Mr. Humberto. (It is my understanding that Chinese infrastructure projects are typically run and staffed by Chinese, which would make this an exception).

I checked on the Huawei and Cuban Chamber of Commerce Web sites, and there is no listing for a Huawei office in Cuba today; however, ZTE does have an office in Havana. (ZTE sold ETECSA 5,000 home modems for the planned DSL rollout and may also be seeking to sell backbone equipment).

Update 8/31/2015

Ed Francis has continued his detective work. On LinkedIn, he found that Jorge Rivero Loo has, since 2008, supervised the implementation and technical support of the optical backbone network outlined above. The network uses Huawei equipment and Mr. Rivero has worked for them since 2002. Before that, he worked for ETECSA and studied at Jarcov University (in Russia?) and CUJAE.

Have US firms missed the boat?

Update 9/8/2015

Ed Francis has turned up more evidence of Huawei equipment -- a Cubatel photo gallery from 2008. Here is one of the photos, along with its caption:

A second photo refers to speeds of 2 and 34 Mb/s:

This facility is referred to as a "node on the national fiber optic network," and, given the year and speeds, I suspect this equipment may have served a metropolitan area network -- perhaps in Havana?

Update 9/21/2015

Jon Williams, @WilliamsJon, and Michael Weissenstein, @mweissenstein, demonstrated the existence of the high-speed backbone between Havana and the undersea cable landing when they discovered that extra bandwidth had been allocated to access points used by journalists during the Pope's visit:

64 Mb/s from a mobile connection

100 Mb/s from a wired PC

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Secretary of State Kerry's Trip to Cuba

US embassy in 1961

A senior State Department official held a press conference on Secretary Kerry's trip to Cuba to raise the flag over our new embassy. He said that due to space limitations, attendance at the embassy-opening ceremony will limited -- it will be "government-to-government event."

But, later in the day, there will be
a large event at the chief of mission’s residence, which is also a diplomatic installation, in which a broad range of groups will be invited, including the Cuban Government, Cuban Americans, Cuban artists and cultural leaders, the Diplomatic Corps, entrepreneurs, and Cuban political human rights and media activists ... nothing in the Secretary’s events on Friday will change our support for dissidents on the island, for political actors, for human rights activists, for independent media. Nothing has changed in that regard, and nothing will, and we will always stand with peaceful political activists who are looking for opening and space and human rights in Cuba.

You can read the full press conference transcript here and this Washington Post/Reuters video says that Cubans were enthusiastic about the new embassy:

Update 8/17/2015

Press availabiliity (video and transcript) with US Secretary of State Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Rodriguez.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

China's CCTV focuses its rosy lens on Cuba

I've not watched a ton of CCTV, but everything I have seen paints a positive picture of China. That is not to say you cannot learn from CCTV, just don't expect a well-rounded presentation.

CCTV America has posted short interviews of six Cuban Experts on reinventing Cuba. The first, by Ted Henken, directly addresses the Cuban Internet and the social media:

The others are indirectly relevant to the Cuban Internet because Chinese companies have played and are playing a major role in its development.

The ALBA-1 undersea cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela and Jamaica was installed by a joint venture made up of Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell and Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe and it has been reported that the project was fincanced by a loan from China. Cuba’s WiFi and home connectivity projects are also using Chinese equipment.

The six videos are:

  • There are challenges in accessing the Internet in Cuba but there is progress. For more on this, CCTV’s Elaine Reyes spoke to Ted Henken in Miami. He’s a professor at Baruch College who has studied the Internet and social media in Cuba.
  • Healthcare coverage starts at birth for Cubans. So how does the country pay for it? And what exactly is covered? CCTV America’s Elaine Reyes spoke to Robert Huish, assistant professor at Dalhousie University.
  • Carlos Alzugaray, former Cuba Ambassador to Belgium talks to CCTV about the current business climate in Cuba.
  • For more on Cuba’s healthcare industry and medical innovations, CCTV America’s Phillip Yin spoke to Steve Wilkerson. He is the chairman of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba.
  • The Cuban Revolution proved to be a transformative time not just for the political system in Cuba, but also for the arts as well. CCTV America’s Elaine Reyes spoke to Abigail McEwen. She’s an Assistant Professor of Latin American Art at the University of Maryland.
  • Gerry Hadden has done several stories in Cuba. He sat down with Elaine Reyes and talked about the changes he’s seeing there, and what the future holds.

CCTV has also produced Reinventing Cuba, a documentary, which will air Sunday August 16th at 7pm EST 11pm GMT & Monday 8/17 7am Beijing. You can watch it live online and it will probably be archived. Here's a (rosy) trailer for the documentary:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cuba is using WiFi for short run portable connectivity

I've been in Scandinavia and Vietnam this year and have not bothered to get a SIM card for my phone -- WiFi was available wherever I went.

Let me start with a look at today's Cuban WiFi, then turn to the question of portable and mobile connectivity in the long run.

Nick Miroff has published a Washington Post article on the activity at one of the 35 new WiFi hotspots in Cuba. Here are a few observations from that and other articles reporting on the new hotspots:
  • The users are young people.
  • They are often communicating with family and friends outside of Cuba. My guess is that a lot of that communication is paid for by those outsiders.
  • The content, like that of the weekly paquete, is apolitical.
  • IMO seems to be a popular program for audio and video chat.
  • People are using the hotspots a lot at night when it is cool.
  • There are long lines for 2 CUC (a little less than $2) scratch-off cards that enable one to log on for one hour and Miroff says sidewalk entrepreneurs are hoarding and re-selling them for 3 CUC with impunity.
  • Yoandy Sánchez has an even better idea -- send an SMS message that costs 2 CUC to an ETECSA phone number that responds with a 1-hour passcode. (A hidden cost of obsolete technology is that it "blinds" developers).
  • Miroff also says people are using Connectify Hotspot to share access to a single connection, at reduced speed, for 1 CUC per hour.
  • He also says ever-resourceful Cuban hackers are tapping into street lamp electrical wires to create charging stations.
  • The hotspots are supposed to provide 1 mbps connectivity to all users who are logged in, but that is not always the case. Still, people are doing video chats and streaming lo-res video. (Miroff was able to watch ESPN highligts).
  • Even at 2 CUC per hour, there is a lot of pent-up demand for Internet access. People are willing to wait to get online.
  • Getting online at one of these hotspots is something of a party/social event.
  • Cuba also has conventional Internet access rooms with PCs, but these WiFi spots allow people to bring their own devices so the cost to ETECSA is much less and they do not have to worry about equipment becoming obsolete.
  • They are using Huawei WiFi equipment (and are also using Huawei gear for home DSL).
  • Let's keep this WiFi rollout in perspective -- 35 oversubscribed hotspots for 11 million people is a drop in the bucket.
And, of course, I've got a few unanswered questions, like:
  • What are they doing for backhaul at the 35 hotspots?
  • How are they managing bandwidth to give each user 1 mbps?
  • Are Huawei engineers building the network or is Huawei merely a vendor, with Cubans doing the engineering and installation? (I hope it is the latter).
  • Are the talents of Cuba's homegrown WiFi connectivity experts being used?
  • Are the Chinese financing the rollout and, if so, what are the terms?
  • Is the Cuban government surveilling the users?
  • Which IP addresses are blocked?
  • Are the Chinese supplying equipment, software or expertise for surveillance and content filtering?
  • How fast are they planning to extend WiFi access?
OK -- that is today, but what about the future?

I've been in Scandinavia and Vietnam this year and have not bothered to get a SIM card for my phone -- WiFi was available wherever I went. In the US, WiFi access is providing competition for the cellular network, cable companies are creating public hotspots using home and commercial routers for backhaul and Fon is doing the same in Europe.

The US and Europe have robust fourth generation cellular networks with near ubiquitous backhaul and radio coverage, but nearly all Cuban cellular connectivity is second generation. In an earlier post, I suggested that Cuba forgo short term cellular connectivity. Can they substitute WiFi in the interim? Speaking at the 10th Congress of the Young Communist League of Cuba, Deputy Minister of Communications Jose Luis Perdomo hinted that that might be their strategy.

The following graph from Akami's State of the Internet report shows total (upload and download) global monthly mobile voice and data as measured by Ericsson (PetaBytes per month).

Voice calls are rapidly diminishing as a percentage of mobile data. By 2020, applications like IMO, Skype, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts will have rendered the distinction between voice and data meaningless -- it's all bits.

In five years, the Cuban economy will probably be stronger, the embargo will probably be history and we will know the cost and performance of 5G cellular, 2020 WiFi and other wireless equipment. Can Cuba get by with 2G phone service and expanded WiFi access until that time?

Internet geeks have a saying: "IP everywhere" (even over carrier pigeon). Cuba might become the first "IPv6 everywhere" nation.

Update 8/27/2015

The market research firm IHS reports that Voice over IP (VoIP) and IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) equipment sales to carriers are up by 46% over the second quarter of 2014 and Huawei is the leading supplier of the equipment.

Calls using VoIP, like Skype or Google Voice, have been competing with circuit switched calls for many years -- making their "best effort" to deliver high quality. At times, the quality was not as good as circuit switched calls, but IMS calls use more complex protocols to deliver superior quality.

The fact that sales of VoIP and IMS equipment to "cell phone" operators are growing rapidly foreshadows the increased substitution of "data" for "voice" suggests that Cuba may forget about circuit-switched calling going forward.

I spoke with IHS analyst Stephane Teral about the future of the cellular network in Cuba, and, while he does think they could move to an all IP network, he does not feel they can afford to wait for 5G technology, saying:
They need LTE to bring their economy up to speed. It's proven that there is a direct positive correlation between broadband infrastructure and economic growth. I'm sure some investors will pop up; someone will raise the money to build the network.
Regardless, Cuba is no longer expanding the current 2G network -- the covered population has remained constant for two years.

Update 9/7/2015

Reader Hédel Nuñez Bolívar shared the news that connectify is happy to give their software to Cubans sharing WiFi links. They are sharing 1 mbps links, so it will be slow, but better than nothing.

Good for them!

Update 10/1/2015

Several blogs and Web sites, for example Cubanet, have published the following during the last few days:
La avidez de los cubanos por navegar por la red ha hecho que se produzcan unas 55 000 conexiones en cada uno de los 35 puntos de wifi repartidos por la isla, y de ellas 8.000 de forma simultánea, según datos oficiales.
I've searched the ETECSA and Granma Web sites and cannot find the "official source" of these figures; furthermore, I cannot figure our what they are claiming.

Are they saying that an average of 55,000 2 CUC ticket sales have been made at each hotspot around the island since they began service? Are they saying a single hotspot can support 8,000 simultaneous connections per day???

Does anyone know what the official source of this data is and what they are actually claiming? The hype continues.

Update 10/4/2015

People living outside of Cuba can now purchase WiFi access for Cubans using the "top off" service, The recipient must have a Nauta account and the cost is 10 CUC for five hours of WiFi access. If it is possible to receive mulitple five-hour contributions, Cuban "bisneros" may use them to stock up on hours.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

CUCs, Pesos and now Bitcoin

Below are screenshots from a video of someone making a bitcoin transaction at one of Cuba's new WiFi hotspots.

You will find the video and an article on Cuban bitcoin here.

For more on the introduction of bitcoin, see this TV Marti report, which features an inteview of bitcoincuba founder Fernando Villar.

I've never used bitcoin, but it seems like a way for Cubans to be paid for outsourced work or sales without the governments of Cuba or the US knowing.

I am not an economist, but understand that the current two-currency situation distorts the economy and converting to a single currency will be problematical and cause some unfairness. How does bitcoin figure into all this?

Update 9/22/2015

The Huffington Post has an interesting interveiw of BitcoinCuba founder Fernando Villar. Here are a couple of quotes:

"Cubans are not using credit or debit cards and most do not have a bank account. Bitcoin and blockchain can serve the needs of the unbanked, including entrepreneurs and individuals on the island. For instance, an entrepreneur in Cuba can offer their goods or services and get paid for it by a customer any where in the world instantly. A family wanting to send money to relatives in Cuba, using Bitcoin, would now have a method that is faster and cheaper than ever. This will take some time to be a reality but it's already happening around the world."

"BitcoinCuba's (short run) mission is to inform average Cubans and the small tech community about the use of digital currencies like Bitcoin."

"In the long term, BitcoinCuba wants to help facilitate a marketplace for digital currencies so that Cubans can start using and developing Bitcoin technologies."

Fernando Villar

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Cuban Internet -- a look back and looking forward

Does Raúl Castro still fear the Internet? Does he have reason to do so?

I recently attended the 2015 Conference of the Association for the study of the Cuban Economy, where I was on a panel on the future of the Internet in Cuba with two friends who played significant roles in Cuban networking history. A third colleague, Juan Blanco, was in the audience.

Jesus Martinez, Juan Blanco and Óscar Visiedo

Óscar and later Jesus were the directors of CENIAI, the National Center for Automatic Interchange of Information, and were responsible for Cuba's first computer network activity. Juan ran political interference for them -- using his social-political contacts to argue for the adoption of email. (Juan says the debate focused purely on email, ignoring the Usenet News grou

CENIAI staff, 1990. Photo by Óscar Visiedo, Jesus Martinez second from left in the back row

CENIAI began networking in 1982 with connections to Soviet and European databases and limited email. By 1992, CENIAI had 62 staff members, and was part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.

They were not on the Internet, but connected by phone several times a day to exchange batches of email and discussion forum posts. The discussion groups, known collectively as Usenet News, covered a wide variety technical, cultural and political discussion. They were part of an asynchronous global network that used the Unix to Unix copy protocol (UUCP):

UUCP connections, 1988

By 1995, Cuba was among the networking leaders in the Caribbean. CENIAI and three other networks with international UUCP links were transferring over 60 Mbytes of international email and had nearly 2,600 users:

Monthly international email traffic in 1995

Cuba's UUCP connection was to the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in Canada. APC provided connections for many non-governmental organzations (NGOs) and that attracted the attention of politicians, who saw NGOs as subversive. There was debate and the Interior Ministry argued that material sent to and received from APC should be blocked since it could not be controlled.

Juan Blanco argued that the Ministry of the Interior was only concerned with control of communication at the expense of arresting national development, saying that had their view prevailed when Lenin was around there would be no phone system in the USSR. His argument was effective and the UUCP traffic to APC was allowed to continue.

Óscar Visiedo left for the United States and Jesus Martinez took over as director. Under his leadership, CENIAI established their first Internet connection, a 64 kbps IP link to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) backbone. The cost was born by the NSF International connections program, which connected academic and research networks from 28 nations.

Martinez and his colleagues were proud and happy to be on the Internet, but the Internet was no longer under the radar. In June, 1996, the Executive Committee of the Cuban Council of Ministers issued Decree 209 regulating the use and development of information networks and Internet services within Cuba. The decree established an inter-ministerial commission with responsibility for all matters relating to access to and the information on computer networks of global reach. The commission was to be chaired by the Minister of Metallurgical Industry and Electronics and include Ministries of Science, Technology and Environment, Communications, Interior, Revolutionary Armed Forces and Justice. Many interests were represented.

It appears that power was consolidated in January 2000, when Decree Law 204 created the current Ministry of Informatics and Communications (MIC) with control over Information technology, the electronics industry, telecommunications, broadcasting, radio spectrum and the postal service – traditional media and computer networks.

Today, the Cuban Internet is far less developed than would be expected in a nation with Cuba's level of education and development. This is due to the embargo, the poor economy at the time of Cuba's connection to the Internet and government fear. All three must change for the Cuban Internet to thrive.

The fear was based in part on the collapse of the Soviet Union. In October 1997, Raúl Castro said:
Glasnost, which undermined the USSR and other socialist countries, consisted in handing over the mass media, one by one, to the enemies of socialism.
In a 1995 interview, Cuban researcher Gillian Gunn noted that since the spring of 1993, there had been Cuban government memos calling for increased audit and control of NGOs and Raúl Castro commented on her report, noting that NGOs were a threat.

The Cubans may also have been aware of the role of the global UUCP network in thwarting the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt against Gorbachev.

In spite of these reservations, there was debate within Cuba. Óscar Visiedo demonstrated the network for Fidel Castro, who he says was positive. (Fidel inaugurated the Youth Computer Clubs). At the same time as Raúl Castro spoke out against the Internet, pragmatic Finance Minister (?) Carlos Lage reiterated Juan Blanco's view, saying:
One telex can cost twelve dollars [whereas] the same message costs 75 cents in the form of a fax and 3 cents via the Internet ... in spite of our blockaded circumstances, we are in a relatively good position [to face the challenges of such scientific and technological changes], due to the educational and scientific work developed by the revolution.
This time the hard liners prevailed, deciding to limit access to the Internet, but today US support for the embargo is declining, the Cuban economy is in better shape than it was in 1996 and it will improve further post December 17. One issue remains -- does Raúl Castro still fear the Internet? Does he have reason to do so?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Video showing a neighborhood LAN in Cuba

I've written posts about the wired and wireless neighborhood local area networks that have sprung up around Cuba. They are used for file exchange, game playing and discussion -- but no political discussion.

I came a across a Voice of America video (below) with interviews of a couple of the users (perhaps system administrators -- they did not say). Here are a couple of stills from the video:

Building junction point

Cables run across roof tops and between buildings

Does anyone recognize this switch?

Everybody knows that we are being watched ...

The video reminded me of the way people in rural India used to share cable TV:

It also reminded me of Cuba's necessity-driven hacker/maker culture:

Computer programmer is one of the jobs the Cuban government has designated as eligible for self-employment -- let's hope for innovation from these hackers and I hope ETECSA is hiring them for their networking skills.

Here's the video:

Also see:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Instructions/tutorial for connecting to an ETECSA WiFi hot spot

Might the style of this help page say something about Cuba's improvising, do-it-yourself culture?

Instructions for connecting to an ETECSA hotpsot are posted in (Google Translate) English here and in the original Spanish here. The instructions are clear and they don't simply say what to do -- they teach a new user a little about the Internet. For example, they explain what DHCP and cookies are as well as showing how to enable them.

The tutorial also points out that your position and distance from the access point will affect signal strength and promises that the next tutorial will include plans for home-made antennae.

The instructions say all users will be able to download at a rate of 1mb/s regardless of the number sharing the access point. I imagine that that implies only a fixed number of users are able to connect at the same time and they only allow people with relatively strong signals to connect. (Can any reader verify that claim)?

Finally, they show how a user can check his/her download speed using Wget:

While not a computer science textbook, this user guide goes beyond rote "click this then click that" instructions -- it attempts to teach a little. The difference may be subtle, but people who have some understanding of the technology they are using will be more self-sufficient and less alienated. This is one tenuous example, but might the style of this help page say something about Cuba's improvising, do-it-yourself culture?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Does Cuba trust the US (and Google)?

Will mistrust stop Google and other US Internet companies in Cuba?


I've written posts speculating on what Google might do in Cuba and on the possibility of their providing Internet access, but have received consistent "no comment" from Google, so a recent Havana Times report that Cuba had turned down an offer of WiFi connectivity from Google caught my eye.

The Havana Times post was based on an interview of the second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, but he does not mention Google or an offer of connectivity from them in the interview. He speaks instead of the intent of imperialists to use the Internet as a way to destroy the Revolution.

That has been the party line for years. Left trolls say the fear is realistic, citing the Helms-Burton Act, which has been used to justify various covert Internet initiatives to assist "the Cuban people in regaining their freedom." Right trolls answer that the Cuban government is only interested in enriching the Castros and their friends.

I've no idea what Google has offered Cuba, but it seems that trust is central to this discussion -- does the Cuban government trust Google or see them as a tool of the US government?

Google's advances toward Cuba have been made by their in-house "think/do tank" Google Ideas, which "builds products to support free expression and access to information for people who need it most — those facing violence and harassment."

Google Ideas is headed by Jared Cohen who, before coming to Google, was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and served as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton. A couple years ago, Julian Assange of Wikileaks published documentation of Cohen's activity, branding him "Google’s director of regime change." A Cuban pro-government blog publicized Assange's work saying Google was doing what the CIA and NSA could not and channeling the State Department in Silicon Valley.

(Note the irony of the Cuban government pointing to documents uncovered by Wikileaks)!

Will mistrust stop Google and other US Internet companies in Cuba? Has the mistrust begun to thaw? Diplomatic relations are resuming and Raúl Castro, who opposed the Internet at its beginning, says Cuba and the United States are entering a new era.

Mr. Machado's remarks suggest that we may have to wait till regime change occurs (without Google's help) in 2018.

Update 7/17/2015

President Obama has stated that "On Cuba, we are not in the business of regime change."

In spite of that, Gustavo Machin, deputy director for U.S. affairs in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, told reporters that he saw no evidence of practical change, citing the multimillion-dollar 2016 US budged request for Cuban democracy programs.

Tracey Eaton has analyzed the State Department request for Cuba funds for the 2016 fiscal year in a thorough blog post with links to the actual budget appendices. For example, he highlighted the following $20 million request for Cuba:

Regardless of one's opinion of the stated goals and the innefectiveness of such programs, the government of Cuba sees democracy promotion programs as regime change efforts. I don't know whether their expressed fear of such projects is genuine or propaganda, but either way, they undermine trust in US Internet companies.

Update 7/27/2015

In a recent blog post, Circles Robinson askes whether the Cuban people (as oppossed to the government) trust the United States, condluding that "In asking around for opinions we found that in general there appears to be little mistrust of ulterior motives and most people are happy with the change. Likewise Obama seems quite popular."

This is of course annecdotal and probably limited to Havana, but it does not seem unreasonable.