Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What stopped the Cuban Internet in 1996 and what is stopping it today?


The problem today is bureaucracy and its companions -- fear of competition, change and stepping out of line.

Cuba connected to the Internet in 1996, but three factors stifled the Cuban Net: the US embargo, economic depression during what the Cubans call the "special period" after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Cuban government's fear of free information, which was also fed in part by the Soviet collapse. As Raúl Castro said in 1997, "Glasnost, which undermined the USSR and other socialist countries consisted in handing over the mass media, one by one, to the enemies of socialism." Cuba would not make the same mistake.

Twenty years later, time has eroded each of those obstacles. China and other nations have filled the gap left by US Internet infrastructure suppliers -- Huawei has replaced Cisco and China played a major role in the financing and construction of the undersea cable connecting Cuba and Venezuela.

While Cuba remains poor, the economy has improved since the special period and there is frustrated demand for Internet service. This should have fueled government and/or private investment, but it has not. Cuba's Human Development Index -- a measure of national income, health and education -- is the second highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, but it is the least connected nation in the region.

Finally, the Cuban government points to USAID projects like ZunZuneo and the Alan Gross affair as proof of a US war on the regime. That makes for good propoganda and provides an excuse for Cuba's lame Internet, but I think Cuba's leaders are smart enough to realize that these efforts, had they succeeded, would have been drops in the bucket. Furthermore, Cuba has had twenty years to observe nations like China, which encourage the Internet while selectively blocking content and, more important, surveilling users.

So, if I am right, what is stopping the Cuban Internet today? Or, to take a concrete example, why would ETECSA, Cuba's Internet/phone/mobile monopoly, want to deploy outdated DSL in homes or 3G mobile technology? Who made those decisions and why?

The problem today is bureaucracy and its companions -- fear of competition, change and stepping out of line.

Consider AP journalist Michael Weissenstein's coverage of the recent Communist Party Congress. He reports that "Raúl Castro blamed 'an obsolete mentality' and 'attitude of inertia' for the state's failure to implement reforms meant to increase productivity."

Weissenstein goes on to state that First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, long seen as Castro's successor, agreed, saying that obsolete ways of thinking led both to inertia in enacting reforms and "a lack of confidence in the future." Diaz-Canel also stated that "Along with other deficiencies, there's a lack of readiness, high standards and control, and little foresight or initiative from sectors and bureaucrats in charge of making these goals a reality," in an excerpt of a speech broadcast on state television.

If you question what Castro and Diaz-canel are saying, check out the goofy list of occupations that are eligible for self-employment in Cuba, then read New York Times columnist David Brooks' experience as a member of a delegation of distinguished American writers, artists, musicians, and cultural leaders that traveled to Cuba last week. Brooks wrote:
The country has many things going against it as it tries to make the journey. It suffers from the dysfunctions that afflict countries that have giant bureaucratic states lying heavy on society. Those at the top have been trained all their lives to regulate and control. The governing elites speak (at great length) in lifeless ideological jargon.
It would be depressing if that were the end of the story, so let me digress on what makes Brooks optimistic. When he met with Cuban artists, he felt "a sense of national solidarity and a confident patriotic spirit that is today lacking in the United States." He attributes Cuban national pride to their impressive cultural achievements and singles out the writing and life of José Martí, the 19th-century poet and journalist "who shifted the national imagination, who told Cubans who they were and what their story was" -- inspiring a "common faith in a dignified future."

Martí died fighting for Cuban independence from Spain, but feared the possibility of a cultural and economic takeover by the United States. You have to admire a man who both sides of the Cuba debate claim as theirs. He is Cuba's national hero, but, when the Reagan administration began broadcasting "Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty" to Cuba, they named it "Radio Martí" and Obama honored him during his recent Cuban trip. Brooks writes that he "was amazed how much Martí’s name came up in conversation [during the trip] and how little Fidel Castro’s did."

José Martí Memorial. He was honored by Reagan, Castro and Obama.

Having digressed, let's get back to the Internet.

The grip of bureaucracy on the Cuban Internet is not unique. Bureaucracy arises wherever game-playing, not merit, determines success. Excellence and hard work -- "rate busting" -- can become liabilities.

Many nations have made transitions since the dissolution of the Soviet Union -- Cuba is only the latest. Cuba can consider and learn from the Internet strategies of nations from Estonia to Russia. (That should be an easy choice).

Cuba is also free to consider the Internet infrastructure ownership and regulation policies of non-Soviet governments and create a uniquely Cuban Internet -- one that benefits the Cuban people and provides ideas for the rest of the world.

The old guard leaders and bureaucracy made a strong showing at the recent party congress, and their view may prevail -- the future of Cuba and the Cuban Internet is uncertain. As José Martí said “The problem of independence did not lie in a change of forms but in change of spirit." Pogo got it too --

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Opening of the Google+Kcho tech center -- much ado about not much (again)

The opening of the Google+Kcho technology center was covered in an article in CubaDebate, which includes 14 photos and two videos.

Google has equipped the center with 20 Acer Chromebooks and a number of Nexus 5 phones and Cardboard viewers. Each Chromebook comes with 100 GB of cloud storage.

The man is in the wheelchair demonstrating Google Cardboard for the press. Kcho
is on the left and Google's head of Cuba operations Brett Perlmutter is to his right.

I have to admit that I find this disappointing for a couple of reasons.

First, it was widely reported that this center would provide connectivity for 40 simultaneous users at 70 times the speed of ETECSA's current public hotspots, but the article just says ETECSA has provisioned one of their access points at the studio. If that is the case and they limit access to 40 simultaneous users -- 20 using Chromebooks inside and 20 more using their own devices outside -- performance should be better than the other ETECSA hotspots, but the speed per user will be more like twice as fast than 70 times as fast.

The studio will be open to the public five days a week, from 7 a.m. to midnight. I guess Kcho will have the whole link to himself on weekends.

Still, even if it is no faster than a public hotspot, it will be free. That sounds good, but the lines waiting to get in will run the length of the Malecón. How will they ration access -- who will get in and for how long? Perhaps access will be reserved for professionals.

The article asks us to imagine how great it will be for the robotics faculty at CUJAE, a Cuban university, to hold a video conference call with researchers at the Alphabet-owned robotics company Boston Dynamics. Two problems -- that sounds a little patronizing and it has been reported that Boston Dynamics is up for sale.

I'm also disappointed in Google. They have developed and deployed amazing technology and are a huge company that has invested a lot in well-publicized trips to Cuba. Couldn't they have afforded to contribute their own high-end Pixel Chromebooks and Nexus 6 phones instead of Acer Chromebooks and Nexus 5 phones? And, how about a terabyte instead of 100 gig? It's not a big deal, but it feels cheesy given the hype surrounding the opening of the center.

There is too much kowtowing and hyperbole -- "Kcho's magic, Etecsa's megas and Google's technology have converted this place into the first connection point on the island, completely free for all Cubans." The article makes a Google Hangout on Air and Cardboard VR sound like cutting edge technology.

Another disappointment was Kcho and Leysi Rubio, head of the communications (press relations?) department, looking a gift horse in the mouth by taking pot shots at the US government and the "blockade." There is no suggestion that Cuban government fear or mistrust might impose any limitations.

Regardless, the valiant Kcho vowed to persevere -- he doesn't know how -- but, somehow, he will keep doing things. Good grief.

The press coverage of this project was also disappointing. A Google search for "Google Kcho" news turns up hundreds of articles on the project during the last few days. The story was covered in many nations and languages -- from Turkey's Daily Sabah (in English, Turkish or German) to the New York Times. The Internet tech press all jumped on the story.

I've only read a fraction of these stories, but they all have one thing in common -- they are either direct copies or paraphrases of the story published by the Associated Press after an exclusive tour of the facility on March 21, 2016. They even repeat a symmetric connection speed of 70 megabytes per second, which I suspect should be 70 megabits per second.

I would not be so disappointed if this were an isolated case, but I am afraid that click-supported Internet news may inevitably be superficial, redundant and concentrated.

I may have gotten some of this wrong, but it has the same publicity-stunt feeling as Kcho's first free hotspot. Let me know if you get online at the Google-Kcho center and your experience is different. I'd also be curious to know which, if any, of the Google Drive services are blocked in Cuba.

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Update 4/4/2015

Kcho is well connected. My friend Sam Lanfranco pointed me to this photo of Kcho (left) waiting with Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and member of the Cuban Parliament Esteban Lazo Hernandez for the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.



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Update 4/18/2015

This report on the Google+Kcho Center clarifies the bandwidth question. The original AP story said connectivity would be 70 megabytes per second, leading to repeated assertions in the press that connectivity would be 70 times faster than the typical 1 megabit per second service at the 60 paid public access hotspots around the island.

It turns out that users were disappointed when they found that they had difficulty streaming YouTube videos.

Since there are only 20 simultaneous users in the center, it seems that Google+Kcho has the same backhaul speed as the other public access hotspots. The "70 megabytes" per second must actually be 70 megabits per second backhaul for the entire center, not for each user.

I don't know whether this misunderstanding was an intentional effort to mislead the public and perhaps even President Obama or just the Internet press copying what they had read in the AP story.

In addition to slow connections, it turns out that users are not allowed to bring phones, laptops, cameras or flash drives to the center and sites like Cubaencuentro, Revolico and 14ymedio are blocked.

The advantage this hotspot has over the other public access hotspots is that it is free and the users do not have to bring their own devices -- but free means long lines waiting to get one of the 20 tickets that are given out each hour.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Internet-related announcements around President Obama's trip to Cuba

There were important financial and university-related announcements.

Last month, I speculated on possible Internet-related announcements that might be made in conjunction with the visit of President Obama. Nothing I mentioned came up, but let's look at what was announced just before and during the President's visit.

The week before the President arrived in Cuba, changes in regulations on travel, trade and finance were announced. Two of those changes were:
  • Cuban origin software is now authorized for importation into the United States.
  • Non-immigrant Cuban nationals in the United States will be permitted to earn a salary or compensation consistent with their visa status. U.S. companies are now also authorized to sponsor or hire Cuban nationals to work or perform in the United States.
That should clear the way for Cuban apps in Google, Apple and Microsoft stores as well as outsourcing. The ball is in Cuba's court.

The same week Verizon announced an agreement to provide direct telephone connections to Cuba. That is nice, but it does not provide Internet connectivity. There were rumors that AT&T would make an announcement during the visit, but, as far as I know they did not.

During the visit, several further developments were announced.

Silicon Valley payments startup Stripe will make it possible to give Cuban entrepreneurs access to the US financial system. Cubans will be able to incorporate a US company, set up a US bank account, and start accepting payments from the US. Stripe will be working with the Merchise Startup Circle, which has been working to form and facilitate a Cuban startup community. Again, the ball is in Cuba's court. Will they allow self-employed workers or cooperatives to open those accounts?

There was more financial news. Paypal expects to bring Xoom, their global money transfer service, to Cuba by the end of the year and Western Union announced that they would phase in money transfers starting at the end of the second quarter. (It seems like they are already offering that service -- perhaps a reader can clarify this for me).

Priceline subsidiary Booking.com will offer online reservations at Cuban hotels and Airbnb announced that they were no longer restricted to serving US customers and would book rooms for anyone travelling to Cuba.

Google tech center -- not sure what it will provide. Photo by Ramón Espinosa/AP

The most widely publicized announcement was that Google would offer free, high-speed Internet access to Cubans at a technology center belonging to the Cuban artist Kcho. The center will also have laptops, Google Cardboard and phones.

The announcement referred to 70 mbps speeds and 40 simultaneous users, but it is not clear whether those users will each have 70 mbps or they will be sharing it. I have asked Google for clarification, but have not received a response.

If it is shared, it will be similar to their current hotspots, but free. If it is per user, it will be inspirational and novel and there will be very long lines waiting to get in.

Regardless, like Kcho's earlier free access over DSL, it is a drop in the bucket and to a great extent a publicity stunt. That being said, both the President and Google executive Brett Perlmutter implied that this was just Google's first foray into Cuba and they hoped to announce more in the future.

President Obama announced a $1 million fund for US-Cuba academic partnerships. The impact of this program will not be immediate, but it is important. Today, the few Cuban students with Internet access have slow connections and tight usage caps. Imagine the reaction of a Cuban exchange student in a computer lab in a US university with gigabit connectivity. Similarly, what insights might come from the exposure of a US student to the constraints on and innovations by Cubans?

Cisco training at UCI may foreshadow competition for Huawei.

A university was also involved in what may have been the most important announcement. Last January, a high-level US delegation travelled to Cuba. At that time, Cisco proposed the establishment of a Cisco Academy training and certification program at Cuba's prestigious University of Information Science. The proposal has been accepted.

This is great news and it implies a Cuban willingness to be open to competition in the infrastructure market. In the early days, Cisco equipment was used in Cuba, but today Huawei is dominant. Cisco-certified graduates will be ready to work with Cisco equipment.

Now, if Cuba would also be willing to allow competition in the Internet service market ...

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April 17, 2016

A special edition of Cuba's weekly sneakernet, El Paquete Semanal, contains full coverage of President Obama's trip to the island. The distribution features coverage of the his speeches, his press conference with Raúl Castro, a short documentary on his life and his and his comedy skits with Cuban comedian Pánfilo.

You can see the comedy sketches below, but neither is a threat to Saturday Night Live.





Cubans can also purchase a pirate DVD covering President Obama's trip.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Google will provide a fast, free hotspot in Havana

The hotspot when it opened last March

A year ago, Cuban artist Kcho opened a free public hotspot with a DSL connection to the Internet. Today, Google announced that they would be providing a 70 mbps link from Kcho's studio to the Internet. As before, Kcho is paying the bill and providing free connectivity.

The hotspot will be open five days a week, from 7 a.m. to midnight, for about 40 people at a time. Google will also provide Chromebooks and Cardboard viewers (with phones??) at the center.

Forty people sharing 70 mbps super fast and 40 people in a nation of over 11 million is not meaningful, but, like the DSL link last year, it will generate a lot of publicity. (If it turns out they are provisioning 70 mbps for each of 40 users, 2.8 gbps, it will become a cool demonstration/inspireation site).

Kcho being interviewed

It would be interesting to know what the infrastructure supporting this hotspot looks like and whether it is related to the recently announced broadband pilot study for parts of Old Havana. (Scroll to the end of the post).

Google's announcement says they are "also exploring additional possibilities around increasing and improving Internet access, but they’re at early stages." Google could do so much more. For example, they have installed wholesale fiber backbones in two African capitals and are offering service to competing retail ISPs. It's hard to imagine ETECSA allowing that, but one can dream ...

Google's wholesale fiber backbones

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Update 3/23/2016

Here is a short video clip of Kcho and Google Representative Brett Perlmutter outside Kcho's studio, talking about their plans for connectivity, Chromebooks and Cardboard.



I've made inquiries, but still have no details on the Internet link. Stay tuned.

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Update 3/23/2016

Laptops on a table inside the new Google technology center that will offer free internet at the studio of Cuban artist Alexis Leiva Machado, better known as Kcho.

I was hoping to see Pixel Chromebooks, but this is just a start -- Google announced that they would accomodate 40 simultainous users and there would also be Google Cardboard and phones.

Ramón Espinosa/AP

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Teaching material for Cuba -- El Paquete Educativo?


Locations of deploying organizations and installations of the offline Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is arguably the most important source of online learning on the Internet. Over 39 million teachers and learners have used their collection of 57 innovative, highly modular courses for students from grade school to university.

The Open Courseware site of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts teaching material that has been used in over 2,300 classes during the last 15 years. The material has been provided by professors in 31 departments (not all technical) and is viewed by over 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

Online access to these sites is impossible for the vast majority of Cubans, but there are offline versions of both.

These could be used by individuals for self-study or installed on local area networks in schools, universities, Youth Computer Clubs, etc. and accessed offline. The site software and teaching content could be distributed on portable drives. An Internet connection would be needed for periodic updates -- MIT recommends a connection speed of at least 1 mbit/second. Updates could be distributed on portable drives to users without connectivity.

I've summarized this proposal in a few sentences, but nationwide, regular distribution would require organization and support. Could a Cuban University, the Youth Clubs or the Ministry of Education create El Paquete Educativo?

Cuba would become more than a consumer of educational material. Necessity is the mother of invention and Cubans have developed innovative solutions -- the Youth Clubs, offline software, El Paquete Semanal, "frankenstein" motor bikes, etc. for themselves and others. (ELAM, the Latin American Medical School comes to mind -- watch this TED Talk if you are not familiar with it).

Similarly Cuba could be a source of Spanish-language educational content. This is a time of global innovation in online education and the institutions surrounding it. Exposure to software like MIT's Open Courseware or the Khan Academy would inspire Cuban developers and educators.

I have posted short descriptions of the Khan Academy and MIT's Open Courseware Project online. If you have good Internet connectivity, you can also visit their sites -- MIT Open Courseware, the Khan Academy in Englsih and the Khan Academy in Spanish.

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Update 3/29/2016

You can see a Spanish translation of this post at:

http://laredcubana.blogspot.com/2015/10/trying-to-clarify-latest-u-s-opening-to.html

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Alan Gross' talk at the National Press Club

Source: Local10.com

Alan Gross spoke at the National Press Club and answered questions about his years in prison in Cuba. Although I have been covering the technical and political aspects of his case for years, he said a number of things I had not heard before.

He spent the first year in prison confined to his cell and rarely saw daylight, but in subsequent years, after his "conviction," he had a number of visitors including his wife, Jimmy Carter, former president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez and "numerous U.S. elected officials from both sides of Congress and both sides of the aisle."

Gross said that Carter attempted to persuade Cuban President Raul Castro to free the contractor.

"I was visited by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, and President Carter told me that the night before our visit he had met with President Raúl Castro, who told him, 'Jimmy, I know that Alan is not a spy.' And President Carter said, 'Well Raúl, I have my plane with me (so) why don't you let me take him home?' And President Castro said, 'If I do that Jimmy, they'll run me out of town on a rail.' I don't think that sounds like a person who has total control over his government," Gross said.

When asked about the current situation, Gross replied that

"Normalization is not going to occur for many years, but all it took was a single step -- they say a journey of a thousand miles begins by the single step, and we've taken more than a single step -- not only in the United States, but in Cuba too. And to those members of Congress who said that Obama has been giving gifts to the Castro brothers, I would respond to that by saying the Castro brothers are totally irrelevant to Cuba's future."

You can download an audio recording of the talk here and read more quotes here.

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Update 3/29/2016

These photos underscore Alan Gross' contention that the Castro brothers are no longer relevant. Crowds watching Obama drive by while Venezuelan President Maduro visits Fidel Castro -- the past and the future.



Neither Castro nor Obama wished to meet each other and Fidel criticized President Obama after he had left Cuba.

Verizon's direct-connection agreement is nice, but it's not the Internet

Verizon and Sprint both offer mobile roaming in Cuba, and Verizon has just signed a direct-connection agreement.

I am frankly not sure what the difference is between a "direct-connection" and their earlier "roaming" agreement, but it sounds like simpler routing, eliminating middle-man networks.

That should lead to better sound quality and lower prices. Verizon has not announced their prices, but we can get a clue by looking at today's roaming prices. Sprint charges $2.49 per minute for voice calls, $1.99 per megabyte of data and 50 cents to send SMS text messages. (Receiving SMS messages is free). Verizon’s current roaming rates are $2.99 per minute for voice calls and $2.05 per megabyte of data.

IDT, which established a direct connection with Cuba last year, claims "crystal clear conversations, low rates and no hidden fees." Their rates for calling Cuba from the US are shown below, but I cannot find their rates from Cuba and I don't understand the difference between the 65 cents a minute and 83 cents for three minutes services.


It is also rumored that AT&T will announce some sort of deal before President Obama's trip to Cuba, so we may soon have cheaper phone calls between the US and Cuba.

That is good, but, to paraphrase Bill Clinton -- "It's the Internet, stupid."

As shown below, mobile traffic is increasingly data, not phone calls. We called them "phones" till about 2011, but now they are "computers."

Source: Akamai

ETECSA said the service agreement will "initially allow the offering of voice services," which perhaps implies that they will eventually offer data services, but nearly all of Cuban mobile connectivity is 2G.

These deals demonstrate that Cuba is willing to let a state enterprise deal with US companies and they may be feet in the door leading to eventual domestic infrastructure agreements, but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, direct or indirect roaming may be mostly for tourists and Cubans will still crowd around ETECSA hotspots.

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Update 3/18/2016

If you are serious about the question of telephone regulation between the United States and Cuba, you need to follow the writing of Eduardo Guzman. For a detailed history up to last year, see his article Telecommunications in Cuba and the U.S. Embargo: History, Opportunities, and Challenges

There have been many regulatory changes since that time, leading up to the establishing of direct telephone connections by IDT, Sprint and Verizon. Guzman surveys the history then brings us up to the present in a long blog post "U.S.-Cuba Telecommunications: Turning the Corner."

Direct telecommunication service between the United States and Cuba essentially ended after the imposition of the embargo in the early 1960s. The Cuban Democracy act of 1992 allowed US carriers to provide telecommunications services between the U.S and Cuba, but there were so many strings attached -- including a $.60 per minute cap on settlement rates -- that nothing happened.

The deadlock was broken by the Obama Administration and Guzman imagines that we will see "increased use of cellphones to make direct calls to Cuba from the U.S., more options for traditional wireline long distance service to Cuba from the U.S., and new products sold to U.S. consumers to allow their relatives and friends in Cuba to make cheaper calls to the U.S." as well as services aimed at U. S. tourists roaming in Cuba.

That will enable families to talk with each other and tourists to call home, but it does nothing for broadband connectivity, which would require further negotiation and, more important, upgraded Cuban infrastructure. We've "turned a corner," but the road ahead is long and full of obstacles.





Thursday, March 3, 2016

Might Cuba's street net, SNET, become legitimate?

In earlier posts, I have described Cuba's community mesh network, Street Net (SNET), and its relationship to the government. Cachivache Media has just published a post (in Spanish) on SNET, adding to my earlier description and suggesting that the government may legitimatize it.

More on that later, but first a description of SNET.

SNET is over 8 years old and, while it is well known to the government, they have turned a blind eye toward it (while cracking down on others). SNET has grown during those eight years -- it now extends from Cotorro to Bauta, a distance of over 30 kilometers.


SNET provides more services than I had realized. It has social networking (similar to Facebook), FTP (file transfer) for content sharing, live music streaming, software for download, forums for developers and engineers, poetry, literature, comics, sports and much more.

I have suggested (hoped) that Cuba might be a source of innovation, that they might evolve a uniquely Cuban Internet, reflecting Cuban culture and politics. SNET reflects Cuban values in that it is cooperative, free, non-commercial and self-sufficient. Users buy, install and maintain the equipment and administer the network. (It is reminiscent of the Internet culture when Cuba first connected to the Internet in 1996).


SNET has a strict code of behavior -- there is no talk of politics or religion, vulgar language, sexualized avatars or pornography and no connecting to the Internet. As such, it has been tolerated by the government. SNET, like El Paquete Semanal, satisfies the people without posing a threat to the government.

The article suggests that the Ministry of Communication is working on a new regulation that would legitimatize SNET. A legitimate SNET could expand into areas like e-commerce and online education, while providing employment. (There is speculation that El Paquete Semanal is Cuba's largest private employer).

It sounds like they see SNET evolving into a government service, operated by government employees, rather than a private enterprise, but I may be wrong about that.

If SNET is legitimatized, I hope they reach out to share information (both ways) with community networks in other nations -- particularly with the Guifi network in Spain. (I bet they already have). I also hope the restriction on Inernet connections would be dropped.

This is all speculative, and a bit rosy. There is a lot of overhead in a mesh network -- it would be interesting to see some data on the network architecture, amount of traffic at different times, numbers of users, speed and reliability as experienced by the end user, etc. (How do they connect users in Bauta and what sort of performance to they see)? As an open network, I would expect SNET to provide that sort of data.

Copyright is another hurdle. Like El Paquete Semanal, a considerable amount of SNET content is pirated. If the government were to legitimatize and perhaps operate SNET, I think they would have to work out some sort of copyright agreement.

A legitimate SNET would have to be considered in the context of Cuba's overall short and long term networking strategy. I hope the experiment continues and evolves -- we can all learn from it.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Will there be Internet-related announcements during the President's Cuban trip?

This week, the Cuban government gave some dissidents one-time permission to travel abroad. I suspect that gesture was related to President Obama's upcoming visit and expect to learn of other agreements when he visits Cuba next month.

I asked a Cuban colleague what concessions he thought might be announced and he mentioned further easing of travel, increased incentives for US investment and a compromise on debt claimed by the US for nationalized property and by Cuba for the cost of the embargo. He did not think Guantánamo would come up, even though President Obama is trying to close the prison. (It seems he was right).

Might there be some Internet-related announcements?

How about an undersea cable from Havana to Florida? Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and US Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, led a high-level delegation to Cuba in January. Upon his return, he said there are at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a cable between the US and Cuba.

An undersea cable connecting Havana and Florida would provide backup for the current Cuba-Venezuela cable, add capacity and reduce latency. More important, it would reduce the load on Cuba's national backbone.

Nearly all of Cuba's international Internet traffic is carried over the undersea cable between Cuba and Venezuela. The cable landing is at the east end of the island but most of the traffic is from Havana and other cities to the west, so a cable from Havana to Florida would reduce the need for investment in backbone capacity. (There is also an undersea cable from Guantánamo to Florida, but that remains in US hands and also lands at the east end of the island).

Leaked high-speed backbone diagram

The Cuban government says the Internet is a priority and the US is no longer standing in the way of Internet infrastructure investment. The ball is in Cuba's court and a cable from Havana to Florida would save Cuban investment. This is something ETECSA can and should do on behalf of the Cuba people, even if it requires foreign partnership (for which there is precedent) or subsidy to attract capital.

Copyright is another Internet-related issue. Cuba's "Weekly Package" of entertainment and software is viable because the content is pirated. The government has turned a blind eye toward the organization that compiles and distributes the material because the people want entertainment and need software and there is speculation that it may be Cuba's largest private employer.

Last summer, I asked a senior State Department spokesman whether copyright violation had come up during discussions with the Cubans and he said "no." Might some compromise on copyright have been reached since then?

Today, US content providers are getting nothing from the Cuban distribution of entertainment and software -- something would be better than nothing. The Cuban government likes the Weekly Package because it entertains the people, provides private employment and is a distribution channel for software. Perhaps an agreement could be reached in which Cuba pays small, affordable royalties today with a promise of increases over time in return for dropping prior copyright violation claims.

While I'm dreaming -- how about the Weekly Package as a distribution channel for Netflix?

Another possibility -- an announcement involving Sprint or another wireless carrier. I've noted some of the things Sprint has going for them, but it may not be enough to overcome Cuban reluctance or Chinese competition.

This is all speculation and probably none of it will come to pass (on this trip). That being said, I expect some progress will be announced -- it will be interesting to see what it is.

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Update 2/28/2016

This post on Cuba, the US and cybersecurity (in Spanish), points out that the US and China have an agreement on cybersecurity and there have been cybersecurity discussions between the US and Cuba. Might there be a cybersecurity announcement during President Obama's trip to Cuba?

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Update 3/9/2016

Reuters reports that the administration will announce easing of restrictions on travel and trade before the President's trip to Havana later this month. The report says nothing of the Internet-oriented announcements that I speculated on. It also says about 20 members of Congress will accompany the President and pointes out that several legislators, including Democrats, have criticized the President for continuing to make unilateral concessions to Cuba.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sprint connected Cuba in 1996, how about 2016?

Does Sprint have an advantage over other US companies?


Journalist Mark Walsh (@markfwal) sent me an interesting conjecture -- perhaps Sprint is well positioned to play a role in Cuba's mobile connectivity. He pointed out that Sprint already offers cell phone roaming in Cuba and their CEO, Marcelo Claure, seems like he might be a natural for dealing with Cuba. (Verizon also offers roaming in Cuba).

Claure was born in Bolivia and founded Brightstar, a Miami-based distributor of wireless devices in 1997. Today Brightstar designs, manufactures and distributes wireless equipment and offers services to 200 mobile network operators, 40,000 retailers, and 15,000 enterprise customers in over 50 nations, 20 of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Birghtstar was bought by SoftBank, which also owns 80% of Sprint, and Claure became CEO of Sprint in 2014.

So Claure is from Latin America, has done business in Cuba and other Latin American nations and has ties to Miami and, doubtless, the Cuban community there. On top of all of that, he is active in promoting professional soccer.

The final hint is historical. In the 1990s, the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) had an International Connectivity Program (ICP), which connected research and education networks in many developing nations.

The ICP provided access to the Internet by linking foreign networks to NSFNET, the NSF backbone network in the US. The ICP funded Cuba's first Internet connection, providing a link from the US to Cuba's National Center for Automated Information Exchange (CENIAI), which also had non-Internet links to Russia and Canada.

You may have guessed by now -- that link was provided by Sprint, under contract to the NSF. As Jesus Martinez, the head of CENIAI at the time, put it:
After so many days, years of sacrifice and vigilance, I have great satisfaction to announce that our beloved Cuba, our "caiman of the Indies," has been connected to the Internet as we had desired. We have a 64 Kbps link to Sprint in the U.S.
You might be surprised to read that Cuba was allowed to connect to a US network over a link provided by a US company -- what about the embargo? Steve Goldstein, who headed the ICP, says the program was authorized by the government:
In the case of Cuba, we applied for a license to route its traffic on the NSFNET backbone and in the (NSF regional networks) from the Department of the Treasury, which administers the Trading with the Enemy Act. Treasury coordinated it with State and other government agencies, as did Commerce when we asked for advisory opinions about Russia, for example.
Well, what do you think? Does Sprint have an advantage over other US companies? Would they be able to compete successfully against Chinese companies that are already in Cuba?

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure signing a roaming agreement with ETECSA

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Update 2/27/2016

Armando Camacho has translated this post into Spanish on his blog Carpe Diem.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mobile access phone booths in rural areas

Omar Tejedor, Central Director of Public Telephony at ETECSA, announced a pilot test using public pay phones for mobile access. They will upgrade public phones, enabling them to access the mobile GSM network.

the public phones will link to underutilized mobile base stations and their goal is to augment telephone access in rural and mountain areas. This is a small pilot test -- they've contracted for upgrades to 50 phones so far -- and prices have not been announced.

This is not a major development, but it is consistent with Cuba's history. Since the early days of the Internet, they have put more emphasis on rural connectivity than was common in developing nations.

It is also an instance of Cuban ingenuity -- like equipping a bicycle with an engine, pop-bottle fuel tank and oversize seat, creating El Paquete Semanal or growing street nets.

http://www.rikimbili.com/

It also reminds me of a time many years ago in Havana when my wife asked a woman on the street if she knew where the closest pay phone was. She replied that there was one up the street, but it had not worked for years. That was the bad news. The good news was that she had a phone in her home and invited us in to use it.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Support Cuban bloggers

Translating Cuba bloggers

Since Yoani Sanchez launched her blog Generaion Y in April, 2007, the Cuban blogosphere has grown to represent a variety of points of view and voices and played an increasingly important role in public discussion. One can discover blogs in collections like the state-run Reflejos blogging platform, the English language Translating Cuba site, Desde Cuba or elsewhere.

Internet access is extremely expensive for bloggers in Cuba.

While Cuban connectivity prices are among the highest in the world, those of us living outside of Cuba can afford to support bloggers we like and at least two companies, Ding.com and Fonoma.com allow us to donate Internet-access minutes to Cubans.

If you like what a Cuban blogger is saying, "top up" his or her Internet account.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A second high-level US delegation to Havana to discuss telecommunication and the Internet

Daniel Sepulveda speaking at the University of Information Science (UCI)

A short post on the Web site of Cuba's Ministry of Exterior Relations reports that a high-level US delegation went to Cuba to discuss telecommunication during January 20-22.

The US delegation was led by Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler. They were accompanied by officials from the Departments of State, Commerce and Treasury, and the FCC. The delegation also included representatives of US telecommunication companies.

Deputy Minister of Communications, Jorge Luis Perdomo Di-Lella met the delegation along with officials from other ministries and representatives from business and academia. They visited the Joven Clubs, Polytechnic José Antonio Echeverría and the University of Information Science.

The post gives no substantive details on the meetings, but says they discussed the effect of the trade embargo and blocking of access to US Internet sites that were key to Cuba's scientific, technical and economic development. They also talked of the scope and limitations of the new regulations adopted by the US government on Cuban telecommunication, which probably means that Chairman Wheeler clarified the implications of the recent removal of Cuba from the FCC "exclusion list" (which is now empty). That sounds like a quick summary of issues the diplomats and officials may have raised, but there was no mention of which US business leaders were in the delegation or what they may have said.

This was a follow-on to a similar meeting held last March. Based on the minimal reporting of the two meetings, the only difference would seem to be the participation of the FCC.

In addition to clarifying the implications of Cuba being removed from the exclusion list, the Cubans and FCC staff may have discussed alternative infrastructure ownership and regulation policies. Since Cuba is late to the Internet game, they are free to consider the wide variety of policy alternatives adopted by different nations. It may be unlikely, but it is possible that in doing so they could come up with a uniquely Cuban Internet.

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Update 1/26/2016

Daniel Sepulveda, who has led both US government delegations to Cuba, has given interviews on the trip to the Miami Herald and OnCuba magazine (in Spanish). You should read both interviews, but I will summarize some of the things that jumped out at me.

Sepulveda said there are at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. An undersea cable connecting Havana and Florida would provide backup for the ALBA-1 Venezuelan cable, add capacity and reduce latency. Perhaps more important, it would reduce the load on Cuba's domestic backbone. This is something ETECSA can and should be negotiating on behalf of the Cuba people, even if it requires government subsidy to attract capital, and they have requested specific, written proposals.

Sepulveda also pointed out that such a cable would establish both a psychological and physical connection between the two countries -- a sign of healing.

The ball is now in Cuba's court. In the past, the embargo limited, but did not stop the Cuban Internet. Mexico's Grupo Domos and the Italian phone company STET were investors in ETECSA, US equipment was available through third parties and China has provided the undersea cable and much domestic infrastructure. Sepulveda pointed out that there are no longer restrictions on US telecom company dealings with ETECSA or other Cuban organizations. (private programmers can also work for US companies).

Sepulveda feels a sense of urgency -- neither he nor President Obama will be in the government next year, and, while he does not believe it will be possible for the next administration to reverse the advances that have been made, it will be possible to delay implementation and stop further progress. There is an issue of trust in both directions -- trust that the US and the Internet will not undermine the Cuban government and trust that the Cuban government will be open to foreign investment and will not constrain investors with overly burdensome regulation. US companies need positive signs from Cuba if they are going to invest.

The US delegation included Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, and representatives from Cisco Systems, Comcast, the North American division of Ericsson, a Swedish communications company, and other government and industry officials. Google, which has expressed considerable interest in Cuba, was conspicuously absent -- perhaps due to the lack of trust Sepulveda referred to.

Cisco has proposed establishing a Cisco Academy training and certification program at the University of Information Science. That is the most concrete proposal I have heard of and, if it is approved, it would signal Cuba being open to competition for Huawei, which has a dominant position today. Opening a Cisco Academy at a major computer science university would both give Cisco a foothold in the Cuban infrastructure market and signal Cuban willingness to have infrastructure competition.

Sepulveda favors rapid rollout of fourth generation mobile connectivity, mentioning Vietnam, Myanmar, Ecuador, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic as examples. That must have brought a smile to the face of the representative from Ericsson. (Doug Madory has suggested Myanmar as a model).

Finally, the delegation met with independent bloggers -- I wonder which ones and what was said.

Those are a few highlights, but the interviews say more.

Here is a short video of Sepulveda speaking with the Miami Herald:



Daniel Sepulveda during his OnCuba interview

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Update 1/28/2016

I mentioned above that the US delegation met with several Cuban bloggers and entrepreneurs, and I wondered who they had met with and what was said. Two of the bloggers they met with were Norges Rodríguez and Taylor Torres and Norges has summarized the meeting in a blog post.

After summarizing the meeting, he inlcuded the full text of the interview of Sepulveda, which I highlighted above, and he promises to post more on their wide-ranging meeting.

I do not know which other bloggers and entrepreneurs the delegation met with, but the inclusion of Taylor and Norges is interesting because one blogs on art and culture, the other on telecommunication technology and policy. We tend to focus on topics like infrastructure, access to information, social networking, etc., but the Cuban creative community has the potential to become a rich source of Spanish language entertainment and art content. (Netflix came to Cuba less than two months after the December 17 opening of relations -- I suspect in search of potential content as well as subscribers).

It is also encouraging that high-level US officials and business people are meeting with bloggers and entrepreneurs as well as government officials and ETECSA executives. Perhaps we will see a uniquely Cuban approach to the Internet.

Norges Rodriguez, Taylor Torres, Tom Wheeler and Daniel Sepulveda

Image from Taylor Torres' art-focused blog
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Update 1/29/2016

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has written a blog post on the trip to Cuba. I don't think he adds much of substance, but it is good to see Cuba on his mind and concludes that he came away from the trip with "a newfound understanding of both the opportunities and challenges facing Cuba in terms of communications technology and access."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his participation in the trip was that he met with students and bloggers as well as government officials and executives of state enterprises. Here he is shown with the Cuban bloggers shown above.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Criticism in the US and Cuba

Criticism has the possibility of being more effective in Cuba than in the US.

Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn Research, sent me a note saying the Cuban blog Internet en Cuba was down, displaying the message "This site has been archived or suspended." He tried emailing the blog's author, but that email bounced.

You cannot see the blog at this time, but the Internet Archive has stored a couple of recent posts, including this one:


The post is critical of ETECSA for not being transparent about the cause of an outage and whether they plan to compensate users. I have no way of knowing whether the problems with the blog are related to this criticism or not -- I hope not -- but it got me thinking about criticism in Cuba versus the US.

I have been quite critical of my Internet service provider, Time Warner Cable, in blog posts. For example, I have said they violate network neutrality, offer terrible customer service, abuse their monopoly power and mislead customers on pricing. This is the image I used to illustrate the post on misleading prices:


In spite of all that, I continue to receive my usual, overpriced service.

In the US, we are generally free to criticize ISPs, political candidates, corporations, the government, etc., but that criticism has little effect. My opinion of Time Warner Cable is common and many people have pointed out the same failings as I have, but nothing has changed.

Cuban blogger Carlos Alberto Pérez has said "I don't criticize to knock the system down. On the contrary, I criticize to perfect the system." I may be naive (probably am), but criticism has the possibility of being more effective in Cuba than in the US.

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update 1/27/2016

The blog has suddenly reappeared with two new posts and email to the author, who uses a pseudonym, is working again. No explanation of its absence was given.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Universiy of Havana hot zone?

A Cuban WiFi zone on and around the University of Havana?

Alejandro Ramos Encinosa, from the University of Havana, has written a short description of a campus WiFi project that would bring connectivity to the UH campus and nearby neighborhoods. Ramos says there are over 25,000 students on campus and only about 3,000 computers in labs. Like ETECSA's public WiFi hotpsots, students will access the network using their own devices, saving the university capital and maintenance costs.

It is noteworthy that they plan to offer access to non-students who are near the campus. A few Cubans have been able to gain unauthorized access to the networks of universities and other organizations, but it sounds like the university intends to provide open access in this case.

It is not clear whether the off-campus access will be paid or free. (I assume it will be free for students). The only free public access project I know of in Cuba was a hotspot opened up by the artist Kcho, but that was more of a symbolic photo op than meaningful infrastructure.

Free or paid, if 25,000 students and the public are to use this network, it will need a fast connection to the Internet (or even the Cuban intranet if that is the intention). I assume that backhaul capacity would have to be provided by ETECSA, in which case they might charge for public access as they do with their existing hotspots.

<random speculation>
Since I don't know what is actually planned and what the status of the project is, I can offer some highly speculative suggestions. Might students be involved in the installation of the network -- something along the lines of Net Days, which I described in a post on connecting Cuban schools? If there is sufficient backhaul capacity, could they deploy mesh networks in the neighborhoods around the campus -- perhaps look at Guifi Net or the adhoc "street net" LANs in Havana.
</ random speculation>

If you are familiar with the project, let us know about what is planned and its status.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cubaoutsource.com -- an online meeting place for Cuban developers

I've written several posts on the well-educated, underemployed Cuban tech community, which is beginning to form an ecosystem through meetups and hackathons. The government has also established a professional society, the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba, to bring qualified computer scientists together.

Community benefits, Unión de Informáticos de Cuba

Manuel Alejandro Gil Martín, a Cuban developer who lives in Chile, hopes that his new site, Cubaoutsource, will further community building. His goal is to help developers find and collaborate with each other and to offer outsource service. The site has just launched with profiles of fourteen registered members. They have between 6 and 30 years experience and have used various languages and tools. For example, two of the registrants have Python experience -- they can get to know each other now.

Cubaoutsource is light-weight social media, following the principle "do what you do best and link to the rest." User profiles include fields for links to LinkedIn and StackOverflow profiles for career and project details. (Perhaps version 2 should add a link to a Makerbase profile).

I've been talking about community building, but, as the name implies, the site is also aimed at facilitating employment and outsourcing. President Obama has loosened regulations, allowing US organizations to outsource the development of mobile apps to Cubans. That is a (vaguely worded) start, but there will no doubt be more.

My guess is that in five years, Cubans will be doing a lot of off-shore programming and application development -- especially for Spanish language clients -- and a lot of that will be for the US, where there are over 37 million Spanish-speaking people aged 5 and up.

US Spanish speakers age 5 and up, Pew Research

If I were a Cuban programmer, I would take a few minutes to register with Cubaoutsource. Like any social media, Cubasoutsource needs scale, and, if it catches on, it will contribute to the Cuban tech ecosystem.

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Update 1/29/2016

You can see a Spanish translation of the text of this post (without the pictures and links) here. Thanks to Armando Camacho, who blogs at Carpe Diem.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Paquete Semanal, S. A.

A legitimatized "Paquete Semanal, S. A." could distribute Netflix content in Cuba today.

To the extent that we are allowed to see it, Cuba's plan for the Internet focuses on connectivity in homes and public places and support of areas that are considered socially important like education and health care. Even if Cuba is patient and leapfrogs current technology, a large investment will be required in service of those goals.

What about digital entertainment?

As shown below, real-time entertainment (audio and video traffic) accounts for over 70% of North American, fixed access, downstream traffic during peak hours. Netflix is the individual leader with 37.1% of downstream traffic.


The infrastructure investment needed to support digital entertainment is beyond Cuba's means, but, necessity being the mother of invention, Cuba has outsourced digital entertainment to El Paquete Semanal. The organization supporting El Paquete has grown organically and efficiently distributes content in a timely manner. There is demand for their product and El Paquete may be Cuba's largest private employer.

That is the good news, but is El Paquete officially legal? And isn't it's viability dependent upon copyright piracy?

Ironically, El Paquete must also suffer from piracy by end users. I don't know if they worry about that today or just tolerate it and rely on fresh weekly material for their revenue. Regardless, if prices rise after the removal of the wholesale piracy subsidy, there would be a greater incentive for end-user piracy.

Normalization of relations between the US and Cuba will eventually require elimination of the piracy subsidy that makes El Paquete viable. When the negotiations on digital piracy take place, Cuba should consider the strategic role El Paquete plays and find a settlement that allows it to remain a part of the Cuban digital infrastructure.

(There might even be competing "paquetes semanales" -- with the government acting as a wholesaler that negotiates deals with content owners).

Netflix entered the Cuban market shortly after December 17, but that seemed to be a symbolic step, with no prospect of profit. It will be many years before Cuba is able to support the streaming of Netflix content, but a legitimatized "Paquete Semanal, S. A." could distribute Netflix content in Cuba today.

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Update 1/7/2016

In this post, I have focused on content distribution, but the Cuban film and creative communities could be a source of Spanish language content for Netflix and others to distribute in other nations, including the US. I had suggested earlier that Cuba could be a source of content for Google and it's been reported that Cuba is being considered as a location for "Fast and Furious 8" -- might we see Google, Amazon, Netflix and other production centers in Cuba one day?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Alan Gross talks about his years in prison in Cuba

His suicide threat was a ploy to turn up the heat on the Cubans.

Alan Gross at home. (Suzanne Pollak/Washington Jewish Week)

Alan Gross has talked about his experience in Cuban prison in a recent interview. He described his life after being in prison as surreal and says the incarceration was not about him -- he was a mere bargaining chip in US-Cuba negotiations and propaganda. (What he did was costly to the US taxpayer and, had he succeeded, would not have mattered).

He says he was threatened and confined to a cell 23 hours a day, but never tortured. He did not eat well, losing 70 pounds the first year and 40 more during the next three years and malnutrition led to his losing several teeth. He coped with the hardship by exercising religiously, finding something to laugh at every day and drawing strength from memory of his family that had survived the Holocaust.

Gross had limited contact with his family for the first 3 1/2 years and was not aware of the efforts being made on his behalf in the US. When he learned of those efforts, he let it be known that he was in failing health, despondent and unwilling to see anyone but his wife. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April 2014 and said he would kill himself if he were not freed by the end of 2015.

He now says he never intended to commit suicide -- it was a ploy to turn up the heat on the Cubans, who had been alarmed by his hunger strike.

Gross had worked on many similar USAID communication projects before going to Cuba and misses that work, but said he was now afraid to leave the US.

He still has special affection for the Cuban people, including the Jews he tried to serve and is "gratified to witness a new found diplomatic relationship between Cuba and the United States”.

If you are interested in full coverage of what Gross did and the efforts to free him, see these posts.