Tuesday, March 12, 2019

4G mobile trials have begun in Cuba -- what is their 3/4/5G strategy?

Early 4G speed test Source
During the first month of 3G mobile service, Cuban Internet use increased substantially. At the end of January, ETECSA had 5.4 million mobile users, 35% of which use the Internet and they are adding 5,000 new data customers per day. According to Eliecer Samada, head of ETECSA's wireless access group, the company is now at 160% of the expected capacity.

As a result of that unexpected demand and damage due to the tornado that hit Havana in January, both data and phone service have been slow and unreliable.

To alleviate these problems, ETECSA announced last week that they were accelerating 4G mobile trials along the north coast from Mariel through Havana to Varadero. That is a distance of about 100 miles with 44 4G base stations. The trial will be open to about 10,000 high-volume users who have 4G-compatible phones and have been using at least 2.5 GB of 3G mobile data per month in that area. (ETECSA reports that 7% of 3G network users account for 52% of the traffic).

Andy García ran a speed test using his neighbor's account and recorded a download speed of 5.52 Mbps, upload speed of 1.18 Mbps and a 24.17 ms latency, but a few days later, he observed slower rates and Armando Camacho recently recently reported a speed of 3.2 Mbps download and 5.8 Mbps upload and he has posted the locations of 21 base stations in Havana. We can't draw conclusions about the post-trial speeds from a few tests, but they will surely be faster than current 3G speeds and considerably slower than the US LTE speeds reported last month by Tom's Guide.

Current US 4G speeds (source)
ETECSA expects this trial to divert enough traffic to improve 3G and voice service. If that is the case, it seems the current congestion is at the base stations rather than in backhaul from them. Regardless, I expect that backhaul capacity from faster 4G base stations will constrain 4G rollout in this and other regions.

I don't know what ETECSA's mobile deployment strategy is -- what the balance will be between 3 and 4G capacity and pricing -- but I have suggested that they will gain trained, demanding users if they focus on bringing the cost down as quickly as possible. That would argue for cheap or even free 3G service.

The average price of 1 GB of mobile data in Cuba is higher than that in 184 of 230 nations. (The price in ten of the 28 Caribbean nations is higher than in Cuba and India is the lowest-price nation). The source does not indicate the speeds of these services and it would be interesting to see them normalized for per-capita income as an indication of affordability, but there seems to be room for price cutting in Cuba.

Regardless of the deployment and pricing of 3 and 4G mobile Internet access in Cuba, both should be regarded as stopgap measures and plans should be made for 5G deployment.

Update 3/21/2019


ETECSA initially restricted 4G access to those with 2.5 GB per month data plans. 14Ymedio reports that they have now opened 4G up to those with 1.5 GB per month plans in spite of having temporarily run out of the USIM cards that are required for 4G access. (USIM cards obsoleted SIM cards, which were used in 2G phones and could be used, with the loss of some features, in 3G phones).

The article also states that they are adding 50,000 new mobile accounts per month, as opposed to the 5,000 per day reported above. They say that 40% of those users generate some sort of data traffic -- for Nauta email, MMS messages or Web browsing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The first month of Cuban 3G mobile Internet service

Oracle DNS server query rate.
(Plot by Matt Prosser).
ETECSA, Cuba's government monopoly ISP, is offering a number of stopgap Internet services -- navigation rooms, home DSL and public WiFi hotspots, but the recently rolled out 3G mobile service is the most important. The plot to the right shows the normalized rate of Cuban domain name requests to Oracle servers during the first full month of operation -- a surrogate estimate of Internet traffic volume. During the limited 3G rollout period of December 4-6, DNS hits were roughly double the previous level. When the full rollout was complete, Oracle DNS queries doubled again -- roughly 4 times that of the pre-rollout level.

ETECSA released 3G mobile sales data for the first month at the recent National Workshop on Computerization and Territorial Cybersecurity and the results were impressive -- there were nearly 2 million transactions and the revenue was over 13 million CUC.

I have argued that as soon as they have the capacity to handle the traffic, ETECSA should cut 3G mobile prices and eventually make this slow, obsolete service free. Doing so would expand and train their user base and lead to the development of new applications. For example, a month after the service was introduced, Sube, a taxi application similar to Uber, but with cash payment directly to the driver, is available.

While free 3G would cut into ETECSA revenue in the short run, Cuban Internet policy should be determined by social and economic goals, not ETECSA profit.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Cuba censors SMS messages ... for now

What could the Cuban government do with Russia-style access to Facebook data? What sorts of fake news could they create and circulate on YouTube and Pinterest? What can be done to control the dark side of the Cuban Internet?

Cuba is about to hold a referendum on a proposed constitution that the government supports and Eduardo Sanchez posted a test showing that SMS messages with anti-referendum terms like #YoVotoNo, #YoNoVoto or abstención are being blocked.

This form of censorship is not new. In 2016, 14Ymedio posted a story documenting the blocking of SMS messages containing terms like "human rights" or the names of certain dissidents.

While this blocking appears to occur only on SMS messages, as opposed to Internet texting, one can imagine similar screening of Internet traffic. The 3G mobile connectivity that Cuba began deploying last month appears to have significantly increased Internet activity, making this rudimentary censorship more significant.

But screening texts for key words could be just a start. As shown here, Cubans are already users of Facebook, YouTube and other social media services.

Cuban social media market shares, January 2018-19 (source)

I have long advocated improved Internet access in Cuba -- most recently suggesting several reasons for making 3G mobile access free as soon as capacity would allow, but what might the Cuban government do with Russia-style access to Facebook data? What sorts of fake news could they create and circulate on YouTube or Pinterest?

In the early days of the Internet, we naivly saw it a force for Good, but China, which came online in 1993, showed us (& Cuba) the dark side. Like China in the 1990s, Cuba is a near "green field." What can be done to control the dark side of the Cuban Internet?



Thursday, December 20, 2018

Cuban 3G speeds in context


I have seen mobile speed tests in Havana ranging from .5 to 1 Mbps and want to put that in context.

In the 1990s, the ITU specified a minimum speed of 2Mbit/s for stationary or walking users and 348 kbit/s in a moving vehicle. Commercial service began rolling out in the early 2000s.

I have seen anecdotal reports putting 3G speed in Havana as being between .5 and 1 Mbps.

I had a hard time finding any actual 3G performance data since service providers have nearly all converted to 4G LTE, but I found two sources.

One, from 2014, reported 3G speeds ranging from 384Kbps to 2Mbps, but they gave no explanation of how they gathered their data.

The other is recent and better documented. Professor Peter Heinzmann the University of Applied Sciences, Rapperswil Switzerland sent a report on 3G speeds in Switzerland for the year between December 16 2017 and December 16 2018. They took 16,942 download measurements from 1,762 devices and 16,766 upload measurements from 1,757 devices. The median download speed was 4 Mbps and the mean was 6 Mbps. The median and mean upload speeds were 1 Mbps.

Here are the cumulative upload (green) and download (blue) speed distributions:


These speeds are well above those reported so far in Cuba. Since the Cuban towers were installed recently and some in Switzerland might be quite old, I suspect that the difference is due to congestion at the towers or in backhaul. Only ETECSA really knows what is going on.

#Internet #Cuba #mobile #ICT4D

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The case for making 3G mobile Internet access free in Cuba

The economic and social benefits of free 3G Internet connectivity would easily outweigh the cost.

Last week ETECSA began offering 3G mobile access to Cuba's national intranet and the global Internet and President Diaz-Canal tweeted the news:


His tweet has received 216 comments so far and reading through them, many are effusively positive, like:

"This is without a doubt a breakthrough that will benefit millions of Cuban families!! Congratulations!!" and "Excellent news comrade!"

Others were critical, noting that the prices are high relative to Cuban incomes (one said "absurd") and the technology is obsolete -- "Congratulations, but they're 20 years late."

I cannot agree with the de rigueur/obligatory congratulations -- third generation mobile is over 15 years old, only 66% of the population is covered, the price is very high relative to Cuban salaries (access to the national intranet is cheaper than global Internet access) and performance is unknown -- but this is a faltering first step and, like WiFi hotspots, street nets, El Paquete Semanal, navigation rooms and home DSL, it should be seen as an interim, stopgap measure. Hopefully, the Cuban Internet will eventually leapfrog over current technology to next-generation technology -- in the meantime stopgaps are better than nothing.

The next stopgap goal should be to make ubiquitous 3G mobile Internet access free -- like free streets, sidewalks, education, etc. Doing so would create a nation of trained, demanding users leading to the development of innovative, practical applications.

ETECSA, Cuba's government monopoly ISP and phone company, may complain that they do not have the infrastructure to support the traffic that free 3G would generate and can not afford to build the capacity. I have no information on the specifications of the 3G base stations they are installing, but it is probably safe to assume that there is spare capacity since 3G data rates are far below those of today's LTE technology. (A friend just told me that he was seeing 1 Mbps in Havana).

The traffic from free 3G would also require backhaul capacity from the base stations and that can be provided by satellite as well as terrestrial fiber and wireless infrastructure. Cuba currently uses SES's O3b (other three billion) medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellites for international connectivity and they could also use the O3b network for mobile backhaul. (Note that O3b capacity will increase dramatically in 2021).

O3b is operating MEO satellites today, and they will be joined in the early 2020s by low-Earth orbit satellite constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, which are also potential mobile backhaul providers.

Both ETECSA and the Cuban society can justify the investment needed to provide free 3G Internet access. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, coined "Metcalfe's Law" saying that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. While not a precise mathematical statement, there can be no doubt that the effect of a network on society and its value to whoever owns it increases rapidly as it grows.

As noted, 3G technology is obsolete and one day Cuba will be rolling out modern technology. When they do, people who have been using 3G will understand its value and the value of the applications they have been using and many will be willing to migrate to and pay for faster service.

In addition to trained users, free 3G would generate application developers and Internet entrepreneurs. They would develop 3G applications and content for Cuba and other Spanish speakers around the world and would transition to modern infrastructure when it becomes available.

I've been talking about free 3G from the standpoint of ETECSA and application developers and Internet entrepreneurs, but consider the social benefit of reducing the digital divide and improving government, education, health care, entertainment, tourism, finance, and other businesses, etc.

This has been a back-of-the-envelope case, but it seems clear that the economic and social benefits of free 3G Internet connectivity would easily outweigh the cost. Let's flesh the proposal out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Cuba rolls out 3G mobile access

What if it were free?

After several months of trials, ETECSA announced the availablity of third-generation mobile access to their national intranet and the global Internet in a televised "round table."

As shown below, they have upgraded 789 mobile base stations to 3G reaching 66% of the population:


Pricing can be by the megabyte (1 CUC≈$1):


or in monthly packages:


The prices are quite steep for a typical Cuban and I suspect there would be relatively few subscribers among the 34% of the population that is not yet covered. Furthermore, many users will have to buy new phones to use the service. (There are still 1,084 second-generation mobile base stations in Cuba).

Network performance during the trials mentioned above was poor -- connections were unreliable and slow. Part of that may have been due to the fact that access was free, but it remains to be seen how fast and reliable the mobile access will be. That will be determined by demand and infrastructure -- the capacity of the base stations and backhaul.

Access to the national intranet costs less than access to the global Internet. While local access saves some congestion on Cuba's international links, it also encourages a Cuban "walled-garden." Cuba is developing local content and services, but they cannot compete with what is available globally. Cuba should open to the world and also aim to be a provider of Spanish-language content and services.

There is also a political dimension. Cuba's president, Miguel Díaz-Canel hinted at a walled-garden strategy when he addressed the Parliament saying "We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online," adding that Cubans could thus "counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content." I can't argue about banal and vulgar content (and worse), but the cure of a walled-garden in a nation with a government-monopoly Internet service provider is worse than the disease.

(Access to the national intranet portal has been blocked in the US -- I'd be curious to hear from others who can access it).

If performance is good enough, mobile access will be more convenient and comfortable than the current WiFi hotspots or navigation rooms so it will become the way most Cubans go online. That would be an improvement, but far from ideal. As I have said many times, 3G mobile, WiFi hotspots, home DSL, public navigation rooms, street nets, and El Paquete Semanal are stopgap measures and Cuba should be planning to leapfrog current technology in the future.

We should not forget that 3G mobile technology is around 15-years old. Another interim step could be to augment Cuba's current O3b satellite and terrestrial connectivity to significantly increase backhaul capacity and offer free 3G mobile access. Doing so would lead to a population of trained, demanding users and enable many innovative, practical applications. That may sound crazy at first, but we take free sidewalks, roads, firefighting, etc. for granted and a few cities offer free public transport -- why not ubiquitous, free 3G connectivity?

Coming back to Earth — ETECSA promised to make 3G mobile access widely available by the end of the year and they did it. You can watch the video of the televised announcement here:


=====
Update 1/10/2019

Oracle reported a significant increase in Cuban DNS queries immediately following the 3G rollout and, in spite of high prices, the increase persisted through mid-December. It would be interesting to know what portion of Cuban's new 3G access is paid for by ex-pat families and friends as opposed to Cuban nationals.



=====
Update 1/12/2019

The DNS query rate reported by Oracle continued through the end of the year. It dropped off on December 13th and again on Christmas day, but remained much higher than during the limited activation period which was double the pre-rollout rate. (What happened on Thursday, December 13th)?


Oracle reports DNS queries and other statistics here and you can view a plot for the previous week for a nation. (Click here for Cuba last week).

DNS queries last week in Cuba are shown here:


There was a dip last Thursday as well -- coincidence?

=====
Update 1/17/2019

There may be some confusion about 3G accounts -- ETECSA posted a tweet stressing the fact that charges are per amount of data rather than time online as at the WiFi hotspots and their Web site warns users that they need phones with 900 Mhz radios. I bet ETECSA is selling a lot of new phones, many of which are purchased with remittances from abroad.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Rural home connectivity in Cuba

Last month Cuba's government monopoly ISP ETECSA announced special home connectivity rates for some of the poorest towns in rural Cuba. The monthly charge for 30 hours of 512/256 Kbps DSL access in those towns will be 5 CUC. In other areas where home connectivity is available, the minimum monthly charge is 15 CUC for 30 hours of 1,024/256 kbps service and faster, more expensive, plans are available.

(The setup fee of 10 CUC was also dropped for the rural areas, but users are still required to purchase a modem).

This is better than nothing, but it seems more like a business decision than a universal-service policy.
  • The condition of the wires and the distances of homes from central offices may explain the rural speed limit of 512/256 kbps.
  • The demand curve for connectivity in poor, rural areas is different than in urban areas.
  • The slow speed means users will accomplish less during their 30 hours online. (Surfing modern Web sites at 512 kbps would be tedious at best).
  • The lower speed will enable ETECSA to get by with less backhaul capacity.
  • The number of users who are able to get the service will depend upon the number of central offices ETECSA upgrades. There was a sharp increase in the number of digital central offices in Cuba during 2017, but we don't know how many will be upgraded to provide DSL connectivity to homes where this low-cost service will be available:

In 1998 I noted that by the standards of the developing nations at that time, Cuban networks and telecommunication infrastructure were atypically dispersed. I attributed that to their revolutionary history and values, but this offer seems like a small drop in the bucket -- more PR than substance.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Google -- kill Google Plus but save G+ Communities.

Last March, Google discovered a bug that exposed around 500,000 Google Plus profiles. Only static, optional profile fields like name, email address, occupation, gender, and age were exposed -- no other information like post content, Community memberships, viewing history, etc.

They discovered and immediately patched the bug last March and spent six months investigating it before going public yesterday. They say their investigation found "no evidence that any developer was aware of the bug or abusing it" and "no evidence that any profile data was misused." In spite of their assurance that no harm was done, Google stock dropped 2.6% last Thursday morning, when the news may have leaked out, and it is down about 4% for the last five days.

In the same post as they announced the bug, they announced they would "sunsetting" the consumer (free) version of Google Plus (but not the paid, enterprise version). Google or any other company has the right to discontinue an unprofitable product or service and, as they point out in their post, the "social network" portion of Google Plus was a failure, but there is more to Google Plus than social networking.

I quit reading my Google Plus feed long ago -- it was filled with spam and fake news based on my (faked) political interests, but I have found Google Plus Communities to be valuable and useful. While Google could not compete with Facebook's social networking feed, the features and interface of their Communities are superior to Facebook Groups. (Even if you like Facebook Groups, there is no way to transfer the members and history of a Google Plus Community to a Facebook Group).

Google should save Google Plus communities. There is a precedent for such a move. When it was launched, Google Plus included a service called Hangouts on Air (HoA). HoA enables video "chats" among up to ten people. That is not unique, but the chats can optionally be broadcast online and archived on YouTube. HoA was and remains a unique, valuable service that I and many others use. In 2016, Google removed HoA from Google Plus and integrated it into YouTube so it will not be affected by the elimination of Google Plus.

The decision to zap Google Plus provides a good example of the danger of dependency. There is an Internet saying -- "do what you do best and link to the rest." That makes sense and it has facilitated the rapid proliferation of Internet-based services, but it also leaves one vulnerable. The cost of using a service you depend upon may rise or one day or, like Google Plus, it may disappear.

I use HoA and Communities in my teaching and other professional work. Google saved me when they moved HoA out of Google Plus and I hope they do the same with Communities.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Google signs memoranda of understanding with four Cuban organizations

What might those memoranda call for?

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel addressed the first annual meeting of Cuba's IT professional society, the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba.

In his talk, Díaz-Canel announced that four Cuban organizations -- the Havana City Historian’s Office, the University of Computer Sciences (UCI), Infomed, Cuba's medical network, and the Ministry of Culture had signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Google.

The Granma article on the talk (English, Spanish) did not say what the topics of those memoranda were, but Lorena Cantó of Agencia EFE told me she thinks the MOU with the Havana Historian's Office will have something to do with Havana's 500th anniversary and she reminded me of Google's previous multimedia tribute to José Martí.

Canto also suggested that Google might be giving UCI access to Google Code and other tools. That would be cool, but involving them in an undersea cable project would be even better. Last June Senator Jeff Flake said Google was close to reaching an agreement with the Cuban government on a submarine cable, presumably from Havana to Florida. That would be of significant benefit to Cuba since their current fiber backbone connects to a cable landing point at the east end of the island, far from Havana and other populated areas. A second cable would improve performance today and reduce the future need for backbone infrastructure.

What about the MOU with Infomed? Cuba has focused on medical research, training, and practice since the time of the revolution and Infomed, their medical network, predates Cuba's connection to the Internet. Could Google be offering hosting service or high-speed connectivity to Infomed? That would not only benefit Cubans but would facilitate access to Infomed's research, databases, and community from all Spanish-speaking and developing nations. An augmented Infomed could also be a valuable medical education resource.

Infomed, 2013 (source)

Finally, might the MOU with the Ministry of Culture call for Google to establish a YouTube production space in Havana? It would be close to the US and a natural place for Cuban artists, filmmakers and musicians to produce content for the Spanish speaking world. (They currently have YouTube Spaces in ten cities, none of which is in a Spanish-speaking country).

Here is a look inside Google's Los Angeles production studio:


This post has been 100% speculative -- we'll have to wait to see what these four MOUs call for.

=====
10/17/2018

For a Spanish translation of this post, click here.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel's meeting with tech company executives

Who was at the meeting, who wasn't at the meeting and who else should the Cubans meet with?

While Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel was in New York to address the United Nations, he met with members of Congress and executives from the agriculture, travel and information and communication technology (ICT) industries. The ICT meeting was at Google's New York office and ten other companies attended. In addition to Díaz-Canel the Cuban ministers of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment and Communications were at the meeting.

Since the only report I have seen of the meeting was a short article in Granma (Spanish), I don't know what was discussed or decided -- I can only guess.

The following is a list of the companies at the meeting with a little speculation.

Google: Perhaps they talked about their latest, rumored, unspecified deal to expand Internet access in Cuba. Another possibility would be bringing their African broadband infrastructure company CSquared (begun as Google Project Link) to Cuba.

VaynerMedia: I'd not heard of them, but they seem to be an Internet-savvy PR agency that has done work for many companies, including Google. Perhaps they would like to promote Cuban tourism, ICT or biotech companies or Cuban offshore development services. Or, they might be interested in a Cuban production facility. (Google has production spaces in ten cities -- how about Havana)?

Connectify: They are already in Cuba -- their software is widely used by Cubans who share connections at WiFi hotspots.

Mapbox: I bet this map of Cuba uses their geographic information system tools. Perhaps they will develop something for the Cuban tourism industry?

McKinsey and Company: They might be looking for a strategic ICT planning engagement. (Others will work for less -- see below).

Virgin Group: This is a capital investment company with experience in travel, telecommunication, media and other areas where Cuba has both needs and assets -- might they invest in Cuba, S. A.?

AirBnB: They are already doing a robust business in Cuba by providing a good deal for both Cuban renters and tourists. (I wonder whether Trump's clamp-down on tourism has hurt them).

Revolution: I assume this is Revolution Ventures. If so, they may be interested in investing in Cuban startups.

Twitter: Cubans already use Twitter -- what more can they be thinking of?

Microsoft: Pirated Microsoft software is common in Cuba -- might they be talking about some sort of licensing or royalty agreement in return for support? (I recall long ago visiting a government-run storefront where you could bring floppy disks and order copies of all major US software, including Microsoft's). Microsoft might also be looking for tech employees, offshoring or opening a Cuban development center.

Bloomberg: Did they attend as financially-oriented journalists?

Cresta AI: might they be looking for developers or to build intelligent applications?

Those were the attendees. Who not there?

I was relieved to notice that none of the large US wireless or wireline ISPs were at the meeting. I would not want to wish my experience with Verizon and Spectrum on Cubans.

I was surprised that Cisco did not participate. Cisco supplied Cuban networking infrastructure in the early days of the Internet, but Huawei has replaced them today. Still, Cisco is the only US ICT company I can think of besides Google that has made the effort to build relationships in today's Cuba, enabling them to begin offering their Cisco Networking Academy training at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas. Cisco-trained students may be willing to purchase their equipment once in the workforce.

I was also surprised that no one from ETECSA was there, although there may have been ETECSA representatives seated in the periphery of the room behind the conference table as is often the case in such meetings.


Finally, who was not there that I would advise Díaz-Canel and Cuban ICT decision makers meet with?

I would urge the Cubans to consider a broad set of advisers and collaborators as they plan the future of their Internet, for example:
  • Organizations like the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations Development Program and the Internet Society, which have expertise in networking in developing nations, national broadband planning, regulation, and policy. Cuba needs to consider next-generation infrastructure ownership and regulatory alternatives as well as next-generation technology.
  • ICT ministries of nations like Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information, which has been an ICT planning leader for many years.
  • Municipal networking experts like The Baller Group and a representative of Stockholm's successful municipal network AB Stokab.
  • Representatives of citizen networks like Havana's SNET and Spain's Guifi.net. Cubans are well educated and have a culture and tradition of innovation and self-sufficiency (thanks in part to the US embargo). SNET (and El Paquete Semanal) are providing much of what people use the Internet for. Might ETECSA look upon these organizations as collaborators (or customers) rather than extra-legal competitors?
  • Consultants and consulting firms with deep expertise in networking in developing nations like the Network Startup Resource Center, the Association for Progressive Communication (which provided UUCP connectivity to Cuba in the pre-Internet days) or Steve Song in Africa.
  • People from companies working on future technologies which will not be available for a number of years, for example, representatives of low-Earth satellite companies like OneWeb and SpaceX or engineers working on Ericsson's long-run 5G mobile products.
  • To keep the technology and policy experts honest, I would also include some people concerned with the social impact of the Internet, for example, Yuval Noah Harari, Zeynep Tufekci and Elon Musk.
Don't get me wrong -- I think meeting and establishing relationships with companies from the US and other nations is a positive step for the Cubans, but I hope they broaden their contacts and meet with an eclectic group of people and organizations thinking about long-range planning for leapfrogging to future technologies as well as stopgap interim measures like WiFi hotspots, home DSL and 3 and 4G mobile connectivity. One can imagine a most interesting Cuban Internet-advisory committee.

=====
Update 10/12/2018

For a Spanish language translation of this post, click here.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Cuba's 3G mobile access trial -- is the glass half full or half empty?

On August 14 at 11 AM ETECSA, Cuba's monopoly ISP, began a 9-hour, nationwide test of 3G mobile Internet access -- anyone near a 3G-equipped cell tower with a compatible phone and a prepaid mobile telephony account could get free access until 8 PM

As far as I know, the only notification was this post on the ETECSA Facebook page, but word of the test and instructions for getting online spread by word of mouth.

Instructions for joining the free trial (source)

The word spread rapidly. Oracle-Dyn continuously monitors the Internet and Doug Madory, their director of Internet analysis, noted a two-peak spike in Cuban DNS server queries during the test period:

Oracle DNS query rate

(Note that the service became unavailable for half an hour around 2:30).

Paul Calvano, a Web performance architect at Akamai, also observed a roughly 25% increase in their HTTP traffic to Cuba during the trial period:

Source

The rapid spread of the news of this unannounced test and the existence of a Cuban hacker culture born of years of keeping old cars and everything else running in spite of poverty and the trade embargo attest to a pent-up demand for connectivity.

My friend Huxley enthusiastically noted that
The news ran like incendiary gunpowder on the Island. Hundreds of thousands of ETECSA customers trying to get access to IMO, to Facebook to Google while walking down Calle 23, the Malecón or from P2.
However, he went on to describe slow (.5 Mbps) unreliable service.

Is the cup half full or half empty?

The signs are not promising. Tourists and some officials and journalists have had 3G Internet access for some time, but the speed and reliability have been underwhelming. Now ETECSA says they will provide nationwide service to anyone with a compatible phone by the end of the year. Have they the capacity to handle the volume?

They say the service will be available "nationwide," but mobile coverage is not available throughout the nation.

Crowd-sourced 2-3G availability map, November 2017 (source)

As of June 1, 2018, there were over 1,400 cellular base stations and over 520 of them were 3G compatible. For example, there are only 19 3G base stations in Las Tunas and 10 of those are in the capital.

Upgrading a base station from 2 to 3G requires both new equipment and a faster link between the base station and the Internet -- a large investment will be needed to upgrade all 1,400 base stations.

They say there are over 5 million mobile customers in Cuba, but how many of them have 3G-compatible phones? ETECSA will sell a lot of new phones when 3G service becomes available.

Okay -- enough with the half-empty news. Let's assume that ETECSA eventually installs the infrastructure to provide 3G mobile connectivity at an affordable price in the most populated areas in Cuba and they have the capacity to meet the 1-3 Mbps speed alluded to on their Web site.

Would that constitute a half-full glass?

Not really. Mobile connectivity at speeds of 1-3 Mbps is obsolete -- too slow for today's modern Web sites, which are designed with faster speeds in mind. The speed mismatch is exacerbated by the relatively low speed of the phones that are affordable in Cuba. A slow phone with a slow connection is useful for consuming and sharing content, but not for creating it.

I've discussed the possibility of differential pricing and government policy encouraging Cubans to use their national intranet rather than the global Internet in previous posts and that plus the inability to run modern Web applications will encourage the formation of a Cuban walled garden.

Before he became Cuba's president, Miguel Díaz-Canel hinted at a walled garden strategy when he addressed the Parliament saying "We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online," adding that Cubans could thus "counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content." I can't argue about banal and vulgar content (and worse), but the cure of a walled garden in a nation with a government-monopoly Internet service provider is worse than the disease.

I'm willing to credit the forthcoming 3G rollout as a half-full glass if the Cubans regard it as a temporary stopgap while they plan for a truly modern Internet with the goal of providing affordable, next-generation connectivity to the Global Internet. I'd call it 3/4-full if they'd commit to making 3G mobile connectivity free in the long run.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Cuba is testing 3G Internet access.

ETECSA, Cuba's monopoly ISP, has been running free tests of their forthcoming mobile access. It seems that the latest test is over for now, but Andy Garcia (@Dancuba96) ran a speed test before it ended:


ETECSA has not announced when commercial 3G service will commence, where it will be available at first and what it will cost, but the following image at the start of the @ETECSA_Cuba Twitter page suggests that service will begin soon and they are serious about mobile Internet access.


This history of Cuban mobile connectivity puts the current 3G expansion in context of earlier mobile offerings.

The following image from the ETECSA_Cuba Facebook page shows three speed tiers -- 1, 2 and 3 Mbps.


One to three Mbps connectivity using a mobile device is fine for consuming and sharing content, but not for content creation. I hope Cuba regards 3G as an interim, stopgap measure and they are planning to leapfrog over today's technology to roll out next-generation technology when it and they are ready. For example, one can imagine Cuba jumping from 3G to 5G community networks.

Cuban 3G access is a positive step -- it will scale better than their current WiFi hotspots and navigation rooms -- and be more convenient, but the prices may favor access to the Cuban national intranet over access to the global Internet, creating a "walled garden" with all of its shortcomings.





Monday, July 2, 2018

Cuban "technological sovereignty" -- a walled garden strategy?

Cubans should focus on things in which they have a comparative advantage -- as the saying goes, "do what you do best and link to the rest."

ToDus can be downloaded at Apklis
ToDus, a messaging application described as a "Cuban WhatsApp" and Apklis, a distribution site for Android mobile apps, were featured at the First Computerization Workshop held recently at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas (UCI).

One might ask, why do we need a Cuban WhatsApp and Apklis when we already have WhatsApp itself and the Google Play Store?

ToDus seems to duplicate WhatsApp's features. Users can send messages, photos and other files to individuals or groups of up to 250 members and, like WhatsApp, it is secure -- messages are encrypted and stored on users phones, not toDus servers. (ToDus users cannot speak with each other using this version of the program, but that feature will be added). Since toDus is a free app, I believe it could be listed on the Google Play Store as well as on Apklis.

The key difference between toDus and Apkis and WhatsApp and the Play Store is that the former run on Cuba's national intranet, not the global Internet. One could argue that this duplication is done to lower operating costs or improve performance. I don't know how Cuba's international access is priced, but it seems that the marginal cost of international traffic for a chat app used by 11 million people would be very small and the latency difference imperceptible. (If Cuba is trying to save on communication cost or cut latency, they would be way better off pursuing an undersea cable between Havana and Florida).

Yadier Perdomo, Director of Networks at UCI, may have alluded to a more significant motivation when he stated that toDus "guarantees technological sovereignty, something that similar products, such as WhatsApp and Messenger (from Facebook), do not do." I am not sure what he means by "technological sovereignty," but it seems consistent with an overall effort to focus on domestic as opposed to global communication and services. Furthermore, ETECSA is rolling out 3G mobile connectivity (and experimenting with 4G) and evidently planning to charge less for access to the national intranet than the Global Internet.

Does this point to a strategy of encouraging a Cuban "walled garden" that favors intranet communication and services (and El Paquete Semanal) over Global Internet communication and services?

That policy would have two negative side effects. For one, it would create two classes of Cuban users -- the relatively poor, mass population that predominantly uses mobile phones on the intranet and elite users with access to the global Internet using computers as well as mobile phones. The Internet-enabled users would have access to more information and more powerful application and be better able to create content.

Second, while Cuba can create and support a simple application like toDus on its own, they lack the scale and resources to create complex and mass-data dependent applications -- Cuba's Ecured will never be as comprehensive as WikiPedia, their Mapa service will never be as useful as Google Maps, there can never be a Cuban equivalent of Google Translate, etc.

One might justify favoring the intranet over the Internet as an interim step to what the Cubans call "the computerization of society," but it is a drain of resources in the short run and a dead-end in the long run. Cubans should focus on things in which they have a comparative advantage -- as the saying goes, "do what you do best and link to the rest."

Well, that brings me to the end of this post, but I want to add two miscellaneous tidbits — kind of a PS:

1. If you go to the Internet portal of Cuba's intranet, you see links to toDus and Apklis. Both are broken from outside of Cuba, but the Apklis link is to https://www.apklis.cu/es/. It seems they are working on multi-language versions of the site.

2. The names and logos of Apklis and toDus are completely goofy. The toDus logo is evidently a reference to the Cuban tody bird and I cannot guess the rationale behind the Apklis butterfly. One thing is clear -- neither name or logo says anything about the corresponding service, though one might guess that Apklis has something to do with APKs.










Monday, June 25, 2018

Will Cisco make a comeback in Cuba?

Is the recently announced Cisco Networking Academy at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas a belated drop in the bucket or the first step in a significant opening?

Laura Quintana, Cisco Vice President of Corporate Affairs, launching
Cisco networking training at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas
Cisco dominated the infrastructure equipment market in Cuba and elsewhere during the early days of the Internet, but Huawei replaced them in Cuba -- here is a timeline:
What does this mean?

It might be a belated drop in the bucket. UCI has only 19 trained CNA instructors while the CNA curriculum is being taught by over 20,000 instructors at over 10,000 institutions.

On the other hand, this might be the first step in a significant opening. The Castros are no longer in power -- might the US allow Cisco to sell equipment to Cuba and might the Cubans consider Cisco as a competitor to Huawei, SES, and other connectivity providers?

The Trump administration has cracked down on individual travel but has not curtailed the sales of communication equipment to Cuba. Trump would doubtless like to claim credit for any Cuban sales by Cisco and for Raúl Castro stepping down and he is indifferent to human rights violation, so my guess is that the US would allow Cisco to sell to Cuba.

Similarly, competition from Cisco would enhance Cuba's bargaining position with Huawei and, while much of their SNA material is generic, some is Cisco-specific, giving them an advantage. I don't know if Cisco is charging for their training or equipment, but they may be donating it as a marketing and international public-relations expense. (In the mainframe days, IBM gave significant discounts and subsidies to universities so students would be trained on their equipment. They even built the building to house the computers at the UCLA Western Data Processing Center where I was a student).

It's too soon to know if this is an important first step and it will be interesting to see how events unfold. A good start would be for the US to allow Cubans access to Cisco's online CNA courses and for UCI to expand their initial internal offering and to train CNA instructors at schools and organizations like the Unión de Informáticos, ETECSA, networks like Infomed, and the Joven Clubs.

President Obama announced the Cisco-UCI SNA plan over two years ago. Two years from now, we will know whether it is significant for either Cisco or Cuba.










Sunday, June 17, 2018

Cuba's forthcoming 3G pricing model -- protection and control

Zero-rating or other forms of subsidy are particularly problematic when the Internet service provider is a government-owned monopoly.

Jorge Luis Valdés Hernández
Jorge Luis Valdés Hernández, Director de Servicios Convergentes de la Vicepresidencia de Integración Comercial de ETECSA, described forthcoming changes to their mobile Internet service in a recent press conference. (He also has a very long job title).

To be honest, the press conference coverage left me a bit confused, but this is some of what he said as I understood it:
  • There are 5.1 million active mobile accounts today and of those 35% use 2G phones, 45% 3G and 20% 4G. (ETECSA will be selling a lot of 3 and 4G phones).
  • Fourth generation LTE service is being tested in Varadero and deployment will begin in 2019. (Armando Camacho has reported on the tests and found the preliminary speeds surprisingly slow).
  • I believe that access to selected sites will be free or subsidized -- zero-rated -- and others will be capped by the amount of data transferred. My guess is that the majority of the free sites will be on the national intranet as opposed to the global Internet.
  • He gave a hypothetical example in which a user on the 1 GB plan would receive .5 GB free access to sites on the national intranet, stating that international access was more expensive than domestic.
  • While not defining plans or prices, he presented two hypothetical paid plans -- one for "moderate" users at 500 MB per month and a second for "intense" users at 2.5 GB per month -- and showed typical data utilization for various applications:

The press conference hailed the "launch" of the mobile Internet, but Cuban 3G mobile access began in 2015 when it was made available to tourists in limited locations and it has steadily expanded. Today there are over 520 3G-compatible base stations covering 47% of the population and all of Havana.

This press conference was not about new technology, but about new pricing, which favors government-approved political content and protects local content and services from global competition.

Subsidized content delivery is an attractive consumer marketing tool, but proponents of network neutrality argue that it gives the Internet service provider (ISP) the power to pick winners and losers. For example, AT&T could begin zero rating -- delivering content produced by its recently acquired Time-Warner subsidiary -- at no cost to the user.

Zero-rating or other forms of subsidy are even more problematical when the Internet service provider is a government-owned monopoly, as it is in Cuba. If you live in the US, depending upon your point of view, you probably consider Fox News or MSNBC politically biased, but your ISP does not give you a discount on either. Will Granma.cu be zero-rated?

Going beyond political information, the new pricing continues the Cuban policy of favoring content or service on the national intranet over that on the global Internet. Valdés asserted that in addition to increasing the consumption of national service, this policy would help offset the increased cost of delivering international content, but that increase is marginal and the national intranet discount amounts to a protectionist tariff on foreign content and services. (And, I bet ETECSA will make a handsome profit even with this national-intranet discount).

Mobile connectivity, not WiFi hotspots or home DSL, is the focus of Cuba's current "universal Internet access" campaign and the new pricing plans will serve to protect local content and service providers and control political information.



Thursday, June 7, 2018

How about opening a YouTube video production space in Havana?

YouTube has video production spaces in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, New York, São Paulo, Berlin, Paris, Mumbai, and Toronto -- how about opening one in Havana?

In 2015 I wrote that Cuba was well positioned to produce Spanish-language entertainment and education content and suggested that they open a YouTube production space in Havana.

The idea of opening a production space in Havana makes even more sense today than it did in 2015.

Google Global Cache (GGC) servers are now installed and operating on the Island. That means Google content can be viewed and uploaded faster than in 2015 and the result is that YouTube has made substantial gains since GCC went online last April:

YouTube gains since GCC went online (source)

There is also a growing, enthusiastic community of young Cuban YouTubers, several of whom are profiled in this YucaByte article and you can "meet" a few others in this short (5:36) video from Periodismo de Barrio:


(The YucaByte article also contains a short video sampler showing enthusiastic YouTubers).

Not exactly being a millennial myself, I am not likely to become a follower of these youthful YouTubers, but they are inheritors of a rich history of Cuban music, cinema and education.

Google executives and Senator Jeff Flake just met with Cuban president Diaz-Canel and former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt who said “We already have an agreement signed that allows easier access to data. We would like to do more.”

How about opening a YouTube video production space in Havana?

Friday, June 1, 2018

Update on Cuban advances in the "computerization of society"

A recent televised roundtable enumerated advances in the computerization of Cuban society, including:
  • Telephone density is 58% with 6.5 million accounts, 5.2 million of which are cell phones.
  • 1.5 million people access Nauta mail with cell phones.
  • Over 1.7 million have permanent accounts.
  • There are 1,713 public-access spots: 709 WiFi locations, over 700 at ETECSA premises and the same number in third-party locations (but 709+1400 is 2109, not 1,713).
  • There are over 37,000 Nauta Hogar accounts, 22,000 of which were installed this year, and they hope to install another 30,000 by the end of the year.
  • Nauta Hogar is available in 136 municipalities and 22 percent of the Popular Councils.
  • They have installed a lot of fiber.
  • There are over 1,400 cellular base stations and over 520 of them are 3G compatible.
  • There are 935 ATMs, serving all provinces, but only 69 municipalities.
  • There are currently 11,500 point-of-sale terminals, mainly in retail stores.
  • UCI is working on "RED Cuba" a search service for all national intranet content.
  • UCI has a service for monitoring over 1,500 national intranet Web sites -- presumably monitoring traffic, not content.
  • Apklis, the online application center for Android devices, will serve as an alternative to the Google Play store for Cuban applications.
  • An e-government application for the collection and management of fines has been installed in 198 offices.
A few tentative observations come to mind. They are continuing to stress the national Cuban intranet with applications like Apkis and RED Cuba. Nauta Hogar is attractive to a subset of people and small businesses who can afford it and are located in served areas, but it will not reach the mass population -- for that, they are counting on 3G cellular and public-access spots.

Here is the roundtable video:




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Internet in Cuba -- a Periodismo de Barrio anthology

Periodismo de Barrio has edited a collection of 13 articles on the Cuban Internet in collaboration with the Internet Policy Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. The articles cover the history of the Cuban Internet, the legal framework, services, communities, and projects. It is a diverse collection -- something for everyone. Here are thumbnail summaries of each article:
¿Puede Estados Unidos conectar a Internet a los cubanos? – Elaine Díaz Rodríguez
A critical look at US efforts to enhance Cuban connectivity, from the Clinton administration through the recent formation of the Cuban Internet Task Force by Trump
La ruta de Internet en Cuba – Anidelys Rodríguez Brito
A survey of Cuban networking from the pre-Internet days through today's 3G, home DSL, and public access points
Internet en Cuba: ¿limitada por la política o la economía? – Eloy Viera Cañive
A survey of the political and economic factors that curb Cuban access and content
¿Quién eres, ETECSA? – Mabel Olalde Azpiri
A history of ETECSA and its role in serving Infomed and other networks as well as the general public
Variaciones sobre la wifi – Lianet Fleites
A portrait of WiFi hotspot users and uses
Te quiero, mi sangre – Geisy Guia Delis
People connecting with expatriate family members
Nauta Hogar: nueva herramienta para emprendedores cubanos – Julio Batista Rodríguez
Nauta Hogar: a new tool for Cuban entrepreneurs
El color verde en la palabra Sígueme – Jesús Jank Curbelo
A look at Sígueme, the SNET "Facebook" application
Se venden héroes a diez pesos – Carlos Melián
Kids playing multiplayer online games
Tecnología y cambio social en Cuba: en busca de hipervínculos – Mónica Baró Sánchez
An interview of Yohana Lezcano Lavandera, who advocates computer literacy education
El Callejón de los Milagros – Rogelio Serrano
An interview with professor and researcher Juan Antonio García Borrero about his project The Alley of the Mircales
Ocho aplicaciones contra la desconexión – Mónica Baró Sánchez
Descriptions of eight mobile phone apps that can be used offline
¿Qué podría hacer el gobierno cubano en el escenario virtual? – Jessica Domínguez Delgado
Potential e-government applicatioins in Cuba
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this collection is not any one of the articles, but the fact that they were pulled together and edited as an innovative online "dossier" -- an anthology of articles on the Internet in Cuba.

Finally, the editor, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez. asked me for feedback on her opening contribution ¿Puede Estados Unidos conectar a Internet a los cubanos? and I might as well share my comments.

Elaine covered several US efforts to influence the Cuban Internet, most recently Trump's Cuban Internet Task Force. I've written a couple of posts on the Task Force, which I see as a political act. That being said, the Task Force participant's hearts are in the right place for the most part and we can hope that genuine aid and investment might be possible in the future if Trump is defeated and Diaz-Canel adopts Internet-friendly policies.

Elaine also drilled down on the Alan Gross fiasco. I've written many posts about Alan Gross, including several on what he actually did, how little difference he would have made had he succeeded and how much the Cubans overstated the impact it would have had.

I agree with Elaine that nothing happened as a result of President Obama's trip to Cuba. That being said, Google has worked diligently, before and after President Obama's trip, to establish relationships in Cuba. The only concrete result has been their caching server (GCC) in Cuba, but the relationships they have built may pay off in the long run. (GCC has resulted in a noticeable increase in YouTube traffic relative to Facebook).

I've also written posts on La ruta de Internet en Cuba -- including one on the initial Cuban Internet connection over a link provided by Sprint with a subsidy from the US National Science Foundation and several on pre-Internet networking in Cuba.

I've speculated on the question raised in the essay Internet en Cuba: ¿limitada por la política o la economía?. From the early days of the Internet, it has been both the economy and politics, but I would add vested interests and bureaucracy today.

Another post asks ¿Quién eres, Etecsa?, a question I've also asked, but can't answer.

The post Te quiero, mi sangre shows WiFi hotspots being used to communicate emotion and presence, in the tradition of the pioneering Hole in Space performance art project.

I've also looked at Nauta Hogar, and, while I agree that it is useful for some tech and other small businesses, it is a dead end on the road to home connectivity.

The articles include photos and other images as well as original illustrations.

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Update 5/31/2018

Periodismo de Barrio is also experimenting with short video documentaries about the Cuban Internet. Here are links to their first five videos:

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Five million mobile accounts

Active mobile accounts
Cubans now have 5 million mobile accounts. The five-millionth account was recently opened Guanabacoa, in the eastern part of Havana and we see here that growth slowed last year, but has resumed -- perhaps due to increased 3G availability.

Most Cubans have 2G phones, which are used primarily for making calls and sending text messages that may have attached images. As of June 2017 there were 856 2G base stations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population.

Cuba is rolling out 3G connectivity and ETECSA reports that 47% of the population is now covered and, as of last June, there was some coverage in all provincial capitals and tourist resorts.

The only speed data I have seen was gathered by Armando Camacho who ran a number of 3G speed tests in Havana (near the corner of Patrocinio and 10 de Octubre) and observed ping time to a server in Miami as ranging from 91 to 127 milliseconds, upload speed from .48 to 1.58 Mbps and download speed from .85 to 10.42 Mbps. The latter is fast enough to allow Web browsing and other applications, particularly those like YouTube Go, that are designed for use over slow, expensive connections in conjunction with offline SD-card storage.

Armando observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources and performance would be frustrating at times. (Have others run similar tests)?

I don't have any statistics, but many Cuban phones are incompatible with ETECSA's 3G service, so users will be stuck with 2G until they get new 3G phones.

Upgrading to 3G technology when 4G is common in many nations and 5G is close on the horizon may sound discouraging, but it makes sense as a stopgap strategy for Cuba since it keeps backhaul load down and phones are cheap. That being said, I hope they are evaluating the possibility of leapfrogging to 5G technology when it matures and they can afford it.

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Update 4/21/2018

For the 26-year history of mobile phones in Cuba see this post.
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