Monday, June 20, 2016

Cuban UN representative calls for Internet regulation

Belkis Romeu, Third Secretary in the Permanent Mission of Cuba at the United Nations spoke recently at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council.

She advocated "democratic regulation" of the Internet, saying "while we must ensure the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, there are several examples that illustrate the dire need to regulate and make appropriate use of the Internet," and went on to site governmental Internet surveillance and the "ZunZuneo project aimed at creating situations of destabilization in Cuba to bring about change in our political system."

This vague restatement of the "party line" is characteristic of a hollow bureaucracy. I do not know what sort of regulation she is advocating and I have to assume that she is smart enough to realize that the ill-conceived ZunZuneo project was never a significant threat to the Cuban political system. Like the similarly ill-conceived Alan Gross project, it would have been a drop in the bucket had it gone undetected.

In failing, these projects gave the Cuban government propaganda fodder and embarrassed the US, but they don't explain the sad state of the Cuban Internet. Don't get me wrong -- I am in no way condoning ZunZuneo or the Alan Gross effort -- there are no good guys in this post.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A thesis on El Paquete -- a step toward quasi capitalism?

I skimmed the contents of a single edition of El Paquete recently but Dennisse Calle, a sociology student at Princeton University, looked at multiple Paquetes and interviewed distributors and users in researching her senior thesis El Paquete, A Qualitative Study of Cuba’s Transition from Socialism to Quasi-Capitalism.

After a literature review and description of her interview-focused research methodology, the thesis has chapters on the content, distribution/business organization and consumers of El Paquete. She began by classifying the content by type, as shown here.

Most of the content is entertainment -- television, movies and music. The users Calle interviewed "rarely referred to" the items in the "other" category, things like The Bible in audio, software, magazines, music videos, movie trailers, karaoke and (surprisingly) Cuban Music. The one exception was the weekly download of the Revolico want-ad site.

This led her to conclude that El Paquete functions primarily as a diverse alternative to Cuban television, so she drilled down on the television content, looking at its source and category. As shown here, over half of the content is from the U. S., exposing Cubans to U. S. culture and society.

Calle also looked at the genres of the 305 television shows. Soap operas and animations each accounted for 20% of the content and comedy and sitcoms each accounted for 13%. Educational programming accounts for 9% and drama 5%, leaving 20% for "other." The "other" shows included news, reality shows, competition shows, exercise shows, food shows, and talk shows. You can draw your own conclusions as to how these allocations reflect Cuban taste and influence their view of the outside world.

She also investigated the distribution organization. The top level consists of unknown compilers who collect the content. Below them are packagers who put the weekly distribution together, inserting local content, including ads, that varies around the country. At the bottom of the organization are distributors who sell it to everyday Cubans -- from store fronts or door to door.

From the compilers to the distributors, this is a capitalist business, but the distributors blend capitalism and sharing. Calle interviewed five distributors -- three with storefronts and two who went to customer's homes. Some transactions were done at "list" price, but not all. For example, a distributor might offer a low price or free content to someone who could not afford to pay more or to family and friends.

Of the 45 people Calle interviewed, 17 paid for or at some point had paid for El Paquete and 28 did not pay for it. Those who paid were distributors, self-employed cuentapropistas, workers for state enterprises, a student, an artist and one person with family abroad. The 28 who did not pay got their content from a friend, neighbor or family member.

While not profit maximizing, this sharing and discretionary pricing builds social capital, which one day may yield monetary returns and is valuable as an end it itself. As Richard Feinberg points out, Cubans have been brought up to believe that equity and social solidarity are important goals.

Calle sees El Paquete as one factor (along with remittances, tourism, self-employment, etc.) contributing to the transformation of Cubans' sense of self -- seeing Cuba in a global perspective and seeing themselves as consumers with discretionary, luxury spending power:
In a country where materials, shopping, and consumption are limited to food and maybe clothing, El Paquete becomes a luxury, a form of asserting one’s independence from the state’s attempts to suppress individuality.
Consumer choice is not the only element of capitalism surrounding El Paquete. Advertising is another -- El Paquete provides businesses with a means of mass-market advertising. Cubans are also aware of copyright, and Calle reports that many consumers would prefer to obtain the content legally.

Competition is essential for successful capitalism and, in some cases, the retail distributors have a choice of packager and the end users have a choice of retail vendor. This leads to capital investment (perhaps a fast PC for duplicating files), good customer service and the emergence of entrepreneurship. (It is said that El Paquete is the largest private employer in Cuba).

If Cuba can exploit positive aspects of capitalism within a society that continues to value equity and social solidarity, we may see a uniquely Cuban capitalism from which we can all learn.

The thesis is not online, but you can request a copy from the author, dcapupp at

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Cubans and the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers is a collection of 11.5 million documents (2.6 terabytes) that was leaked by an anonymous source to Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a German newspaper. The documents were from the internal files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that creates anonymous offshore companies around the world. The database on 320,000 offshore companies may be accessed here.

SZ did not have the staff and resources to analyze that many documents, so they decided to cooperate with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of more than 190 journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.

(The story of this massive, Internet-based collaboration is amazing in its own right. For more on the ICIJ and the methodology of this investigation, check out this excellent 15 minute podcast, with transcript).

Three weeks ago, we learned that the leaked data revealed the existence of dozens of businesses associated with senior figures in Cuba.

Now the Miami Herald has published an in-depth story showing that the Cuban government used Mossack Fonseca to "create a string of companies in offshore financial havens that allowed it to sidestep the U.S. embargo in its commercial operations." They have identified at least 25 companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, Panama and the Bahamas that are linked to Cuba, enabling the Cuban government to import and export goods and invest funds abroad.

Twenty five companies linked to Cuba

For investigative reporter Nora Gámez Torres' video summary (2m 20s) of her findings click here.

I have the feeling that this story is just beginning to unravel. It is depressing.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Recommended interview: Open for business: Building the new Cuban economy

NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten (l) and author Richard Feinberg

On May 31, the Brookings Book Club hosted Nonresident Senior Fellow Richard E. Feinberg and NPR Correspondent Tom Gjelten in a discussion of Feinberg’s new book, “Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.”

The interview, which focused on international diplomacy, changes already underway in Cuba, successful Cuban entrepreneurs and foreign investments, and scenarios for Cuba’s future development path, was followed by a discussion with three young Cuban leaders.

I usually focus on the Internet, but I really liked this interview and the context it provides. You can watch the entire video (1 hour, 18 minutes) below, but let me give you a few (subjective) highlights:
  • Cuba and North Korea are the only two traditional, centrally-planed economies in the world.
  • No one in Cuba is saying "to get rich is glorious," which Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is often quoted as saying.
  • Cubans have been brought up to believe that equity and social solidarity are important goals.
  • Nations lending money to Cuba have realized that Cuba often fails to make payments. (This 2010 Wikileaks memo from the US Interests Section in Havana makes the same point).
  • The Cuban government is counting on tourism and remittances for short-run economic growth.
  • President Obama anticipated this -- tourism and remittances have increased substantially since he opened to Cuba and much of that revenue goes to private citizens, not the government.
  • The Cuban army controls the Gaviota Group tourism and hotel conglomerate and they are independent and not audited by the government. Does Cuban telecom monopoly ETECSA enjoy the same autonomy and financial freedom?
  • Bureaucrats are afraid to sign documents -- there is a downside to making decisions in Cuba. (This constrains the Cuban Internet).
  • An open, prosperous Cuba will become a labor importing nation, thereby compensating for the aging population.
A couple of final notes:
  • It was cool to see what Tom Gjelten looks like (and how he spells his name :-) after hearing him for many years on NPR.
  • I did not watch the video, but listened to the audio while working out at the gym. There are no slides or graphics, so the audio is all you need, but the soundtrack is terrible. It's too quiet, so I made an amplified version that you can download here.
    Here's the video if you prefer that:

    Update 6/7/2016

    My colleague Armando Camacho has posted a Spanish translation of this post on his blog Carpe Diem.

    Friday, May 27, 2016

    Inside an edition of El Paquete

    I've been writing about El Paquete for some time, but had never seen a copy. This week, someone who will remain annonymous, gave me a copy of the Paquete from the week of March 16, 2016 and I've had a chance to poke around it a bit.

    As you see, it is not, as is usually claimed, a terabypte, but is only 760 gigabytes. Regardless, it took around three hours to copy from one USB hard drive to another -- I hope the professionals working with El Paquete in Cuba have devices for more rapid duplication than my laptop. While it is less than a terabyte, it is huge with nearly 13,000 files and 1,400 folders.

    The copy I received did not have any sort of user interface software. Perhaps that is good enough for the El Paquete distributors, who are familiar with file structure and content, but end users deserve something better than a Windows Explorer view of the file system, as shown below. If it does not already exist, someone should write a user interface program that lets users search for and select, copy and view content.

    As you see there is a variety of content -- in English and Spanish -- and I poked around a bit. The following are a few things I noticed.

    I wonder who decides what to include and what criteria they use. For example, I found two old Hollywood cowboy movies, four US spring traing baseball games and an Australian formula 1 car race. Why those movies? Why those games? Why that race?

    Someone at Netflix told me that I would find their content, but I did not find any. There was a House of Cards video subtitle (.srt) file, but no video episode. This is 100% speculation, but I wonder if the absence of Netflix content is tied to the possibility of their investing in infrastructure or producing content in Cuba.

    There are directories of Android, IOS and Windows software. I wonder if the programs are free of malware.

    The quality of a lot of the video I saw was poor, making me wonder how it is captured -- perhaps it is compressed and downloaded over slow connections. Another possibility is that it was not copied from a digital version, but recorded through the so called "analog hole" during playback. The commercials had been cut out of some of the foreign video, but others included the original commercials, again suggesting that they had been recorded during playback. There were also current Cuban ads like the one shown here.

    There is a lot of text as well as audio and video material -- for example scanned copies of popular magazines. While the commercial magazines are sometimes out of date and difficult to read, government publications like Granma and official documents like the text of laws are perfect, legible PDFs. It would seem that the government is providing this content directly. Some have gone as far as asserting that the government actively supports El Paquete, and they surely do not discourage it.

    Whether or not the government supports El Paquete, they allow it to exist, subject to an informal agreement to remove violent, pornographic or Cuban political content, but I found one delightful example of political content, an episode of Samantha Bee's "Full Frontal." As a cord cutter, I had never seen the program, but the episode was 100% political -- making fun of the U. S. right wing politicians. Evidently U. S. politics are not a taboo subject.

    In the past, I have suggested that Cuba could use the Internet to export Spanish-language entertainment and educational content and I found quite a bit of Cuban video on El Paquete. I did not screen all of it, but every program I did look at was offered by a Cuban company, LAY Agencia Publicitaria, which has the slogan "Made in Cuba and for the world." I wonder if the folks who run El Paquete own that agency and see pivoting to Cuban content export as their "exit strategy" in a post-piracy Cuba. (A legitimized Paquete is another possiblity).

    Saturday, May 7, 2016

    Connection speeds from the LACNIC 25 Conference, hotels and the Google-Kcho Center

    The LACNIC 25 Conference was held at the Havana Convention Center (Palacio de Convenciones) this week and Doug Madory, a frequent contributor to this blog, was there and sent me speed tests from the Convention Center and his hotel:

    Convention Center speed test

    Hotel speed test

    Doug also forwarded a hotel speed test run by another attendee, Martin Hannigan, @TheIcelandGuy:

    Hotel speed test

    Access at the hotels was what we have come to expect -- around 1 mbps -- but connectivity at the Convention Center was much faster. I don't know whether that much bandwidth is always available at the Convention Center or if ETECSA allocated extra resources for this hi-tech conference.

    Doug's next speed test was run at the Google-Kcho Center. As shown below, he used one of the center's chromebooks and connectivity was about four times the speed of the hotels.

    Google-Kcho center speed test

    Doug said there were maybe 4 or 5 chromebooks in use at the time he ran the test -- "Mostly young people on Facebook so not bandwidth intensive."

    It is clear from this that the initial report that the center would provide connectivity for 40 simultaneous users at 70 times the speed of ETECSA's public hotspots, was incorrect. My guess is that they should have said 70 mbps backhaul shared among all the users currently online.

    Finally, it is interesting to note that all four link speeds are roughly symmetric. We expect download speeds to be faster than upload speeds in the US because we download a lot more than we upload -- about 70% of our downstream, peak-period traffic is streaming entertainment.

    But, in Cuba, home connections are over dial-up lines and the connections at public access spots and hotels are too slow for video entertainment. One mbps is fast enough for audio and even low-quality video chats, so symmetric bandwidth makes sense (as long as Cuba has El Paquete for the distribution of entertainment).

    Thursday, May 5, 2016

    Politically correct rhetoric at a technical conference in Cuba

    In a recent post, I argued that the US embargo, the poor state of the Cuban economy and fear of free information had stifled the Cuban Internet at its inception in 1996, but that twenty years later, those constraints were significantly reduced. I suggested that the Cuban Internet was being held back by mundane bureaucracy and political correctness.

    We got an example of that at the Latin American and Caribbean Network Information Center (LACNIC) conference in Havana this week. LACNIC is one of five regional Internet registries and technology and policy leaders attend their conferences.

    LACNIC assigns Internet addresses for networks in the region.

    It is noteworthy that LACNIC25 was held in Cuba this year and, since it is a prestigious event, ETECSA was one of the sponsors and ETECSA president Mayra Arevich Marín gave a talk.

    She said that the "economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States was the main obstacle to the development of ICT and the Internet in Cuba." She also called for regional cooperation to stop "the illegal use of computer systems of nations by individuals, organizations and states to attack third countries"

    Ms. Arevich Marín knows that President Obama has essentially ended restrictions on the export of Internet infrastructure and services to Cuba and they have succeeded in financing and doing business with companies from China and other nations.

    I assume the illegal use of computer systems she alluded to are the foolish efforts of USAID -- projects like ZunZuneo and the Alan Gross affair. Again, I think she knows that, had they gone undetected, these projects would have not made a huge difference, but they have been used as propaganda tools.

    Bureaucrats in any nation are under pressure to remain politically correct and Cuba's bureaucracy is close to 60 years old. I hope this sort of rhetoric is only for show.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2016

    Hollywood comes to Havana, what about Havana coming to Hollywood?

    American movie companies are shooting in Cuba. When will Netflix, Google, Amazon, Hulu and "Hollywood" begin producing content in Cuba?

    The movie Fast and Furious has been filming in Cuba and Papa Hemingway in Cuba, a biography of Ernest Hemingway, which was filmed in Cuba in 2014, is now in theaters in the US.

    The Hemingway movie was shot before the December 2014 US-Cuba rapprochement began and more productions will probably use Cuba as a location. Cuban production will continue as long as the government makes it attractive, but, to me, that is less interesting than the prospect of Cubans producing entertainment and educational content for Spanish-speaking audiences.

    The potential Spanish language market is large. There are 427 million Spanish speakers in the world and 339 million English speakers. About 45 million people speak Spanish as a first or second language in the US alone.

    Distribution of Spanish speakers by county

    If I were running the show at Netflix, Google, Amazon, Hulu or "Hollywood" in general, I would be thinking about setting up a production center in Cuba. Cinema and other arts are alive and vibrant in Cuba and there are tons of overeducated, underemployed creative professionals.

    Take Google for example. They currently have YouTube production spaces in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, New York, São Paulo, Berlin, Paris, Mumbai and Toronto. Will the next one be in Havana?

    Or how about Netflix? Netflix was among the first US companies to "open" to Cuba, but since there is virtually no Internet infrastructure capable of streaming their content, we have to wonder what that means. Cubans do not stream Netflix productions, but they do watch pirated versions thanks to El Paquete Semanal. Someday, they might see Cuban royalty revenue from a legitimatized Paquete Semanal or, in the far future, streaming, but, with the approval of the Cuban government, they could be producing content in Cuba today.

    Crowds watch shooting of Fast and Furious

    Shot in Cuba and now showing in the US

    Update 5/14/2016

    I've been speculating about the opportunity Netflix (and others) have for creating Spanish language video content in Cuba. Netflix was one of the first US companies to offer service (that no one could afford or access) in Cuba and they held an executive off-site meeting in Havana last month.

    Well, here is some related speculation.

    Dave Temkin, Netflix VP of Network Strategy and Architecture, posted an upbeat article on Cuba after their off-site meeting and returned for the LACNIC conference last week in Havana. Might Netflix (or Google) be thinking of building a data center in Cuba?

    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.

    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.

    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 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 ...

    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

    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.

    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.

    Update 3/29/2016

    You can see a Spanish translation of this post at:

    Tuesday, March 15, 2016

    Alan Gross' talk at the National Press Club


    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.

    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.

    Update 5/17/2016

    Alan Gross, who spent five years in prison in Cuba for bringing in portable satellite equipment, has given an interview in which he talks in some detail about what he did and did not do.

    The video below shows a user setting up a portable satellite ground station like those Gross carried into Cuba. As you see, it is highly portable and is set up in about three minutes.

    In the interview, Gross describes the moment at which you lock onto a satellite signal after adjusting the antenna alignment:
    When you lock onto the satellite you've lit a candle. It's a feeling of elation. After I did it the first time, that's all I wanted to do. Go around the world lighting candles.
    He's good man!

    (For more on Alan Gross, what he did and the politics surrounding his eventual release, click here).

    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.

    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.

    Update 5/11/2016

    T-Mobile now offers roaming in Cuba. Sprint and Verizon already offer Cuban roaming and AT&T is negotiating a roaming agreement with ETECSA. But, roaming is not the Internet.

    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.

    Speaking of El Paquete, a legitimatized SNET would compliment a legitimatized Paquete Semanal. A robust SNET could be used for the distribution of Paquete content to local distributors and end users.

    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 and doing so would be a mistake.

    While I would not want to see SNET operated by the government, government could provide support. For example, in facilitating communication and standardization among local people building and operating SNETs and in making large quantity equipment purchases. (I've suggested a similar approach to installing local area networks in schools).

    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 Internet connections would be dropped and that ETECSA would provide high-speed backhaul.

    This is all speculative, and a bit rosy. Even with government support and cooperation, 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.

    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?

    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.
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