Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Video showing a neighborhood LAN in Cuba

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

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

Building junction point

Cables run across roof tops and between buildings

Does anyone recognize this switch?

Everybody knows that we are being watched ...

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


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

http://www.rikimbili.com/

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

Here's the video:


Friday, July 17, 2015

Instructions/tutorial for connecting to an ETECSA WiFi hot spot

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Does Cuba trust the US (and Google)?

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

Trust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-----
Update 7/17/2015

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

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

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


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

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Update 7/27/2015

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

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cuban international traffic shifts from satellite to the ALBA-1 undersea cable

Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn Research, sent me a note on Cuba's international traffic. As you see here, on July 1, nearly all satellite traffic (blue and green) was re-routed to the ALBA-1 undersea cable:


As a result, median latency has stabilized at around 210 milliseconds:


This is good news for Cubans who have Internet access at work, school or ETECSA hotspots and navigation rooms.

There must be relatively fast terrestrial connectivity to the cable landing point at Siboney Beach. Does anyone have any information about the nature of that connectivity? Huawei is installing home DSL and WiFi -- have they also installed an inter-province backbone? Could there have been an unannounced deal with medium-earth orbit satellite provider O3b Networks?

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Update 7/20/2015

Huawei may be installing home DSL and WiFi hotspots in Cuba, but Doug Madory has discovererd at least one piece of Cisco equipment -- a 2800 router at the University of Havana. (I'd be curious to know how they obtained it.)


I am not familiar with the Cisco 2800, so I Googled it to get the specs. I was saddened to see that it is old equipment, near the end of its support life -- the end date for software maintenance has already passed and hardware support will end soon.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cuba connecting universities with fiber

Is this the start of a fiber backbone?

Walter Baluja, Director of the Computer Science Department of the Ministry of Higher Education has announced that starting January of 2016 all academic centers in the country will have access to fiber connections. I take that to mean ETECSA will offer them fiber connections, not that all will accept the offer, but I could be wrong.

The article also says universities in Granma and Pinar del Rio already have access to fiber cable, as shown below:


There are two campuses (u in the above map) in Granma and one in Pinar del Rio, so I would guess there is now fiber between Bayamo and the undersea cable (c) at Siboney. There may also be fiber to the second Granma campus in Manzanillo. Similarly, there is probably fiber between Pinar del Rio and a satellite ground station (s) in Havana.

I don't know the location of the Havana ground stations, but found this old picture of a ground station near Havana that communicated with Intersputnik and Intelsat satellites.


Anyone recognize the location?

Baluja said the connected universities have already increased their payment to ETECSA to expand connectivity from "2 to 20 megabytes." I am not sure what he meant by that. First of all, it is common to use megabits per second as a measure of communication speed. Regardless of bits or bytes, 20 is way to slow for fiber links to the campuses. Maybe he was trying to say users were getting 20 mbits per second in labs and offices. He also said they would be installing WiFi LANs on the campuses.

Reading between the lines of press releases is tiring and error prone, but this seems to indicate that Cuba is building a fiber backbone. (I've seen a presentation slide showing planned fiber between Bayamo and the undersea cable).

Chinese equipment is being used for DSL to the home and Wifi access points. I wonder if Chinese equipment is being used in these fiber links. If so, how is Cuba paying for it and what, if anything, are they giving up? Oh -- and where does that leave US vendors?

-----
Update 7/17/2015

Almost all of Cuba's international traffic is now being carried over the undersea cable at the eastern end of the island, so I guess there is a backbone network connecting Havana and other large cities to the cable landing at Siboney Beach.

Today, that is probably a mix of fiber and wireless links. If there is to be fiber to every university by 2016, does that imply a fiber backbone for the entire island or are some of those fiber links to microwave towers? The same question comes to mind with respect to the WiFi access points in every province.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A leaked ETECSA presentation on home Internet connectivity in Cuba

I don't criticize to knock the system down. On the contrary, I criticize to perfect the system.
Carlos Alberto Pérez

This post has taken several twists and turns.

I started out to write a post commenting on an ETECSA PowerPoint presentation on their plan for home Internet connectivity. The presentation had been leaked by Carlos Alberto Pérez on his blog Chiringa de Cuba on June 23. In addition to some analysis of the plan, I was going to discuss the role of Chinese equipment suppliers, predominantly Huawei.

Then, on June 25, ETECSA denied the validity of the leaked document, saying it was used only for training. They said the tentative prices shown were incorrect, but did not retract the substance of the presentation, which shows a plan to provide DSL service to some Cuban homes using Chinese equipment.

That denial was followed by the blocking of access to Pérez' blog, presumably because he had published the leaked document.

You can no longer access Pérez' post, but the presentation itself has been posted by several people. I have put a copy here, and invite people to add comments to it. (As they say, information wants to be free).

I will provide my reactions to the leaked document here and save the reflections on the Chinese role for a second post.

The presentation says ETECSA plans to roll out asymmetric (faster download than upload) DSL service using Chinese equipment in an unspecified number of central offices. As we see in the following leaked slide, they will use Huawei ME 60 gateways between the phone and IP networks. I do not know, but it seems reasonable to guess that the digital multiplexers (DSLAMs) installed in the central offices will be from Huawei as well. (I'll get to the question marks later).


The following price slide was included in the presentation, but ETECSA has said this was only a place-holder for training purposes and I will take them at their word -- consider these prices only as possibilities:


These prices may be higher than we eventually see, but there will surely be a significant number of people who cannot afford a DSL connection so we can imagine people sharing accounts and a black market for reselling time.

The following slide differentiates between national and international access, so I presume that the actual prices will take that into account. That would be reasonable since most international access will be over congested satellite links. The slides say nothing about which, if any, international sites will be blocked.


The above slide also differentiates speed levels, times of day and days of the week. I suspect the actual pricing will take time and day into account, but that may or may not be the case for the different speeds that are shown. Varying infrastructure will cause speed differences regardless of price.

Before a home can receive DSL service, the equipment in the central office serving it must be upgraded and a relatively short, high quality phone line must run between the home and its central office. (That is one of the question marks in previous diagram).

Cuba reported 3,882,424 private homes (2012) and 939,500 residential phone lines. That means around 2.9 million homes would have to be wired before they could have Internet service. The presentation says they will give priority to homes that already have land lines and those belonging to the self-employed. (The former is obvious and the latter interesting).

Cuba reports having 688 central offices (2013), few of which contain DSL equipment. Most would have to be upgraded in order to provide DSL service.

Once connected, what will be the data transmission speed? The above slide shows asymmetric (down/up) connection speeds ranging from 128/64 to 8,192/768 kb/s. With DSL technology, transmission speed depends upon the distance of a home from its central office and the condition of the copper lines connecting them. These are always best effort numbers -- "up to" the stated speeds.

Let me give an example, I live Los Angeles and Google Maps says I am 1.1 mile from my central office. Verizon offers me two service levels: "high speed" DSL service is .5-1 mb/s and "enhanced" service is from 1.5-3 mb/s, for an extra $10 per month. To be fair, the copper in my neighborhood is 70 years old, but I doubt that many Cuban customers will be able to get 8,192 kb/s.

There is also a slide showing day/night and weekday/weekend traffic patterns. Judging from the y-axis, I am guessing that this is showing international traffic, which is heavy during week days. Before a user logs on, he or she will be able to measure their current connection speed before starting a session and using their hours.


The Internet connection is the second question mark in the previous diagram. What are the connection speeds between the central offices and the Internet? In the US, central offices are connected by high speed fiber, but I know little about Cuba. For example, in Havana, some or all central offices may be connected to a fiber backbone, but what of the link from there to the Internet? Havana is far from the undersea cable landing to the east, so I imagine those links are via congested satellites.

The bottom line is that this is an early step toward modern home connectivity using yesterday's technology and I hope Cubans are planning to leapfrog today's technology in the long run.

Well, that is a little tea reading from the leaked slides. It is too bad that the situation is so opaque that we have to guess about ETECSA and their plans and it is even worse that they seem to have blocked Pérez' blog. He is an asset, not a threat -- as he has stated "I don't criticize to knock the system down. On the contrary, I criticize to perfect the system."

I think the involvement of Chinese suppliers is more interesting than this leak, and I will take that up in a subsequent post.

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Update 6/29/3025

Ted Henken told me that the problem with accessing Chiringadecuba.com may not have been government blocking but expiration of the domain name, and it seems he was correct.

I did a whois lookup and it turns out the domain expiration date was 2015-06-26. I then checked at the registrar, Name.com, and saw that chiringadecuba.com is not available. It sounds like it may have expired, but they are giving Perez a grace period within which to re-activate it. Since he would not have a US credit card, there may be some difficulty with that.

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Update 6/29/2015

Chiringadecuba.com is online again and the expiration date has been extended till next year. My apologies to ETECSA for fearing that they may have blocked access.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What is the effect U.S. trade restrictions on IT exports to Cuba?

The Senate Finance Committee is researching the economic impact of U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba and I was asked to testify before the US International Trade Commission on the effects of the U.S. restrictions on our exports of telecommunication equipment and services to Cuba. I have a chance to revise the testimony, and would appreciate feedback.

Click to download Word or PDF versions of the draft.

Here is the testimony introduction:

The Commission has asked for testimony on the effects of the U.S. trade restrictions on our telecommunication exports to Cuba. Since there is a great deal of uncertainty about the Cuban plans and policies and U.S. policy is also in a state of flux, I will lay out a framework for discussing the issue rather than attempting specific predictions. This framework can be modified and fleshed out by future research. I will focus on Internet-based telecommunications, which are subsuming traditional telephony.

Potential U.S. exports to Cuba include:
  • Personal Internet access devices
  • Internet services for fees or advertising
  • Internet infrastructure
  • Internet service provision
  • Digital entertainment and other content
  • Sensor-based Internet access devices – “the Internet of things.”

Some of these markets, for example, providing Internet infrastructure and service, are more severely impacted by U.S. restrictions than others.

U.S. restrictions are only one impediment to the sale of these goods and services – there are others that are out of our control:
  • Cuban government fear of free information exchange
  • The Cuban economy
  • The absence of domestic Internet infrastructure
  • Socialist values and practices
  • Foreign competition
  • Domestic competition from state monopolies

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Update 6/26/2015

An anonymous reader has the opinion that my testimony document underestimates the potential of the Cuban market. They listed the following examples:

Web hosting service -- the reader is "middle man" for ten Web sites hosted in Canada and knows of many others.

Specialized professional audio/video equipment that is only made in US, or were US products traditionally have much better quality. Examples include products from Avid, M-Audio and Alesis. Their products are sometimes bought by Cuban companies in third countries using a foreign nationals or foreign companies as middle man. Other times they have to settle for lower quality products from China or Europe.

Computer assisted Medical equipment -- this is a big opportunity because the Cuban government spends a lot on healthcare every year

Specialized Software -- for example Oracle databases, which are pervasive in Cuba.

The reader went on to say that some US companies refuse to sell their products to Cuban even in foreign countries. For example Dell dealers refus to sell laptops to people with Cuban passports in Madrid and Barcelona.
Note that the specialized software is pirated, as is much of the software and content distributed in the weekly "paquete." Copyright infringment will be an issue in any discussion of liberalizaton of US trade policy. Also note that the medical and audio/video equipment is sold primarily to government enterprises, not private individuals or cooperatives.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Cuba's WiFi access plan raises intresting questions.

Do we see the outline of a future national fiber backbone?

Luis Manuel Díaz Naranjo, ETECSA Director of Communications, has announced that during the coming weeks, they plan to roll out 35 WiFi access points. As shown here, they will be distributed throughout the island.

Forthcoming WiFi access locations -- hint of a backbone?

Mr. Díaz said the access points would accommodate 50-100 or more simultaneous users at speeds up to "1MB" per second. (I assume he means megabit, not megabyte). He also announced that ETECSA's hourly access charge would be permanently cut to 2 CUC. This is evidently a rollout of an earlier trial in Santiago de Cuba.

While these access points are not yet operating, Carlos Alberto Pérez has spotted the equipment at one of the Havana locations. The equipment is supplied by the Chinese company Huawei, which is bad news for US companies.

Three Huawei WiFi antennae in Havana

That is all I know about this new Cuban path to the Internet, but it raises several interesting questions and points.

For a start, how do they achieve backhaul speeds to support 50-100 simultaneous users at up to 1 mb/s at an access point? The announcement makes it clear that some access points will be more powerful than others. Assuming they allow international access, are some linked to the undersea cable and others linked to satellites?

Regardless of the international link, how is the link made from the access point to the international connection -- fiber, copper, wireless, a combination? The answer will differ for each access point. Looking back at the above map, do we see the outline of a future national fiber backbone?

I have seen a couple of presentation slides showing a four-phase "planned" fiber backbone connecting many of the provinces shown on the access-point map. Eight of them are included in the first phase of the backbone.

Another question has to do with the equipment vendor, Huawei. Lina Pedraza Rodríguez, Cuban Minister of Finance and Prices, said that Cuba is in "very advanced" negotiations with Huawei, at the recent World Economic Forum on Latin America.

Could she have been referring to the wireless and backhaul equipment for these access points? Might she have been thinking of a possible upgrade to DSL of Cuba's telephone central offices, as suggested by the announced plan to make low-speed broadband connectivity available to half of the homes in Cuba by 2020? Or could she have been thinking of the plan to connect all Cuban schools or even a national fiber backbone like the one in the slides I saw?

Regardless, one wonders how the work will be financed, what sort of concessions ETECSA has made, and what this means for US telecommunication equipment and service providers who hope to do business in Cuba. I assume the installation is being done by ETECSA employees -- I hope they are hiring some of the folks who have been building out unauthorized WiFi LANS.

Will the government block access to some sites and services? Freedom House ranks the Cuban Internet as not free for political and cultural reasons, but there is also the possibility of blocking access for economic reasons. For example Skype and FaceTime are blocked in Cuba. Could that be to protect ETECSA phone call revenue?

Skype recommends 100 kb/s upload and download speed with reasonable latency. As Doug Madory has shown, Cuban undersea cable links have a latency of around 200 milliseconds, so Skype would work for international calls from cable-connected access points.

Latencies: 600 msec satellite (A), 200 msec cable (C)

Other developing nations have faced this same tradeoff. My favorite example was India during the mid 1990s when voice calls over the Internet were explicitly illegal, yet shops offering the service advertised in the newspaper and had signs on their storefronts.

This is a major rollout by Cuban standards, but it is a drop in the bucket. Does it signify a policy shift? The overriding question has to do with the goal of the Cuban government. Is the goal to remain in power, maximize ETECSA profit, maximize government profit, transfer wealth to ETECSA investors, etc. or is it to provide affordable, modern Internet connectivity to the Cuban people?

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Update 6/22/2015

The WiFi hotspot in Santiago de Cuba is on line and this report makes it sound like the connection is quite slow and congested at peak hours -- whether hard wired or by WiFi. That is a bad sign -- if Santiago is not connected to the undersea cable, which region is?


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Update 6/28/2015

The photo of three Huawei WiFi antennae shown above is from the blog of Carlos Alberto Pérez, but his blog is no longer accessible online.

On June 23, Pérez published a leaked document -- a presentation on ETECSA's plan for home Internet connectivity. ETECSA has denied the validity of the leaked document, saying it was used for training. They said the tentative prices shown were incorrect, but did not retract the substance of the presentation, which shows plans to provide DSL service to some Cuban homes using Chinese equipment.

It seems likely that Pérez' blog was blocked because he published the leaked document.

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Update 7/3/2015

The new WiFi hotspots are now online. If you have used one, let me know what the speed and user experience was like.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Cuba's broadband connectivity plan

The International Telecommunication Union advocates nations formulating broadband plans. They stated the case for broadband planning in a 2013 report on the correlation between national broadband plans and citizens’ access to affordable service. In a subsequent report, they surveyed the state of national planing and found that 140 nations had national plans, 13 were working on them and 43 were not.

Cuba was one of the 13 in the process of planning, and the Ministry of Communication has now drafted a national plan for developing broadband infrastructure and you can read the executive summary here.

They define broadband as a connection speed of at least 256 kbit/s, saying that will advance to 2,048 kbit/s (download) by 2025 and 10 mbits/sec (download) by 2030. For comparison, the Federal Communication Commission revised the US definition of broadband from 4 mbits/s download and 1 mbits/s upload to 25 mbits/s download and 3 mbits/s upload and Google Fiber and others are rolling out 1 gbit/s up and down in selected cities.

This is indicative of a DSL roll-out in Cuba, which I have advocated earlier as a short run step toward a modern Internet, but the 2030 goal strikes me as low for 15 years from now. I am also struck with the mention of download speed, but not upload speed -- a nation of content creators would want fast upload as well.

The plan includes lists of conceptual and economic barriers in the way of broadband connectivity and goals like connecting institutions and homes, improving cybersecurity and the environment and improving university and research connectivity. Each goal has a list of specific objectives like connecting every university and research institute to the national research and education network at a speed of at least 256 kbit/s for 30% of the users and 2 mbit/s for 70% of the users.

There are also lists of implementation guidelines, recommendations like evaluate building another Internet exchange and check the prices of personal computers and smart phones. There are also two resolutions -- approve this plan by June 22, 2015 and prepare an implementation timetable by October 2015. There was no mention of who should approve it and no request for comments.

This is just the executive summary -- I have not seen the full document. It is far from an implementable action plan and it raises more questions than it answers -- for example, when they say "Internet connectivity," do they mean international Internet connectivity and, if so, is it over satellite or undersea cable? Still. it is more than we are used to seeing from Cuba. Hopefully we will learn a lot more in October.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Cubans announce the formation of an IT professional society -- the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba (UIC)

There are differences between Cuba's IT professional society and the Association for Computing Machinery in the US.

The formation of the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba (UIC) was announced during a plenary session at the First National Workshop on Computerization and Cybersecurity in Havana. Over 7,500 computer professionals also watched via a teleconference (no mean feat in Cuba).

My first reaction upon hearing the news was "cool -- it's a professional society like our Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)," but after reading more I realize that there are differences between ACM and UIC, reflecting cultural/bureaucratic differences between the US and Cuba and the fact that ACM was established 68 years ago. Let's look at some of the differences.

The UIC was established by the Cuban Ministry of Communication, which also controls the Internet and telephone systems, while ACM was established at a meeting at Columbia University in 1947.

ACM is a professional society -- it's tagline is "advancing computing as a science and a profession" -- while UIC feels like a professional/political organization. As Yoani Sanchez points out, the membership application form asks for political affiliations like membership in the Communist Party or Young Communist Union. Can you imagine ACM asking whether a member is a Republican or Democrat?

The UIC membership application asks for political affiliations (red added).

People have to apply to be accepted into the UIC and they may be dropped for infractions like violation of the code of ethics. An applicant has to complete a form by July 15, attach a photo, copy of their diploma and a CV, then wait to see if the application is accepted. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs could not have applied and I am not sure if, say, a biologist who did computer modeling would be eligible.

One joins ACM by filling out the following form online and paying the first year dues.


Members are expected to have either a bachelor's degree, the equivalent level of education or two years full-time employment in the IT field, but no one checks up on this. There is also an optional profile in which one specifies professional specialties and interests, but the information is used for allocating ACM resources (and perhaps selling ads), not for screening applicants.

The UIC is a Cuban organization, open only to Cubans, while ACM is global, with chapters in 57 nations.

ACM has 138 active chapters

ACM reaches out to young people via student chapters on college campuses and, while UIC does not yet have student chapters, Cuba devotes significant resources to training potential computer users and professionals via a well-established system of Youth Computer Clubs (YCCs). The government established 32 YCCs in 1987 and today over 2.25 million kids and adults have completed courses (and played games) at 611 YCCs.

ACM offers concrete benefits including the monthly Communications of the ACM magazine, online access to articles, books, videos, webinars and courses and membership in over 170 special interest groups. ACM was formed in 1947 so they have had 68 years to organize and capitalize -- what will UIC be offering members 68 years from now?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Improved Internet connectivity is coming to four Cuban universities.


Minister of Higher Education (MES), Rodolfo Alarcón Ortiz, has authorized on-campus Internet access for all teachers, researchers and students at the universities of Havana (UH), Computer Science (UCI) and the East and at the Higher Polytechnic Institute Jose Antonio Echevarria (CUJAE). They will also provide dial-up access from the homes of the faculty, researchers and students.

While encouraging, the brief announcment (in a letter to the universities) offers no detail information on the plan. For example, it says nothing about the speed of the connections from the universities to the Internet. In an earlier post, I suggested several short-term steps Cuba could take to improve connectivity. One of those was to provide backbone connectivity linking universities to the undersea cable and I hope that will be the case for these schools. If the MES can provide high speed links to the campuses, students and staff can deploy local area networks to utilize them.

(Do any readers know what sort of connectivity these universities have today)?

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education announced plans to provide Internet connectivity to all schools from day-care centers through high school during the next three years. Together, these announcements indicate that Cuba is giving educational connetivity priority.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dueling Cuban Commerce Laws in the U. S. Senate

Believe it or not -- there is bipartisan support for bill in the U. S. Senate.


The dueling bills are:

The Cuban U.S. Claims Settlement Act:
U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and David Vitter (R-LA) have introduced legislation that would require Cuba to address unsettled and unpaid legal claims with the U.S. before easing restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.

Versus

The Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act (DATA):
U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) have introduced bipartisan legislation that would enable U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to provide their services and devices in Cuba.

And

On December 17, 2014, the Whitehouse published a fact sheet called Charting a New Course on Cuba saying that "Telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba."

I am no politician, but here are a couple observations.

  • DATA is a way better acronym than CUCSA
  • The DATA act sounds redundant, but the next president or the courts could reverse President Obama's Cuba policy.
  • The Helms-Burton act prohibits "the investment by any United States person in the domestic telecommunications network within Cuba."
  • Cuba is rolling out infrastructure now -- US companies will miss the boat unless the DATA act passes or the embargo is dropped.
  • I bet both acts sneak in more than their one-sentence summaries indicate.
  • The DATA act is bi-partisan -- when is the last time that happened?
  • Cuba also has claims against the U. S. for damage caused by the trade embargo.

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Update 6/3/2015

U.S. House panel seeks to ban funding for U.S. embassy in Cuba.
The appropriations bill released on Tuesday would restrict funds to facilitate the opening of a Cuban embassy in the United States, increase democracy assistance and international broadcasting to Cuba and provide direction to the State Department on denying visas to members of the Cuban military and Communist Party.

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Update 6/5/2015

The House of Representatives has passed a transportation funding bill that includes a provision to reverse the Obama administration's easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba -- travellers would again require a license from the Treasury Department as they had in the past.

The Republican rationale is that portions of the Havana airport were expropriated by Cuban government. The White House has threatened to veto the bill, in part because of the Cuba-related provision.

I don't know what all the transportation bill deals with, but it is surely a lot more than just this "poison pill" issue.

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Update 6/12/2015

U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Angus King (I-Maine) have introduced legislation to restore trade with Cuba. The Cuba Trade Act of 2015 (S. 1543) would grant the private sector the freedom to export U.S. goods and services to Cuba while protecting U.S. taxpayers from any risk or exposure associated with such trade.

The senators seem to have different motivations for sponsoring the bill. Senator Moran is attracted to the bill by the possibility of exporting Kansas farm and ranch produce to Cuba and Senator King is worried about the growing influence of China in Cuba.

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Update 6/29/2015

Three more senators -- a Republican and two Democrats -- visit Cuba.
Three visiting U.S. senators said on Saturday they hoped Congress would support President Barack Obama's opening toward Cuba, including lifting a ban on U.S. citizens traveling to the Communist-run island.

Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Ben Cardin of Maryland joined Republican Dean Heller of Nevada on a trip to Cuba where they met First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and ordinary Cubans.


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Update 7/20/2015

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., on Monday announced they will introduce the Cuba DATA Act, a bill that would enable U.S. telecommunications and Internet firms to offer more services in Cuba. We now have versions of the Cuban DATA Act before both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

A bill with bi-partisan support is unusual, but this one is not surprising since 2/3 of the US public favors ending the embargo. (These bills stop short of repealing the embargo -- they seek to exempt a single industry).

Senate majority leader Mitch Mcconnel opposes President Obama's Cuban policy, but it seems the President has outflanked him on this issue.

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Update 7/24/2015

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to allow Americans to travel to Cuba and to block enforcement of a law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. Four Republicans joined the 14 Committee Democrats in an 18-12 vote.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said "This is a first step by the Senate to dismantle a failed, discredited and counterproductive policy that in 54 years has failed to achieve any of its objectives ... These votes were not about the repugnant policies of the Castro regime, but about doing away with unwarranted impediments to travel and commerce imposed on Americans by our own government."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Will the nascent Cuban startup community thrive?

The first meetup of the Merchise Startup Circle will be held in Havana on May 23. The event is being organized by a couple of Cubans who have worked abroad and hope this is the first of many meetings for people interested in startups, tech and entrepreneurship.

Can Cuba develop a vibrant tech startup community? Cuba may be short on financial capital, but that be raised fairly quickly -- Cuba's human capital has taken years to develop.

A successful software industry requires trained, demanding users and skilled technicians and Cuba's long-standing emphasis on education leaves them with both. As an indication of their commitment to education, Cuba spends 12.8% of its GDP on education -- the highest rate in the world -- and the Cuban literacy rate is 100%.

The United Nations Development Program reports a human development index (HDI) for every nation annually. The HDI includes components for health, economy and education and the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean to out rank Cuba on the overall HDI and the education index is Chile. (Chile and Cuba rank 43rd and 44th on the HDI and 49th and 50th on the education index).

Cubans are generally well educated, but are they "trained, demanding users of technology?" Internet connectivity is nearly non-existent in Cuba and relatively few have sporadic, slow access to the Cuban intranet, but there a long history of promoting computer use and literacy among the youth. In 1987, Fidel Castro agreed to create 32 Youth Clubs of Computing and Electronics (YCCs) for promoting and teaching computer technology. As shown below, he expressed his envy of the young people at the dedication the YCC headquarters, which occupied the ex-Sears store in Havana (prime real estate) and his support has continued.

Fidel at the opening of the YCCs

Today there are 611 YCCs and over 2.25 million adults and kids have completed their courses. The YCCs are distributed throughout the island, not concentrated in one or a few large cities -- a common pattern in developing nations.

Of course, Cubans have some Internet and intranet experience. Most is at work or school, but there are also paid Internet access "CyberPoints." It is noteworthy that ETECSA (Cuba's single provider of Internet and telephone access) plans to increase the number of Cyber Points from 155 to over 300 by late this year -- evidently there is demand for slow Internet connectivity even if it costs as much as a week's salary per hour. (I would be curious to know who the users are and how they are using it. That would be an interesting survey).

Trained users will demand and shape tech products, but what about developers? The YCCs trains and supports hackers as well as users. Their Free Technology Users Group is active in information exchange and support of development. For example, they have been involved in developing and contributing content to EcuRed, Cuba's faux-Wikipedia. This photo shown below was taken at a 2015 users group freeware festival.

2015 Latin American Freeware Festival in Havana

In a 2011 report on the state of the Internet in Cuba, I looked at Cuban universities and found their general enrollment rates and expenditure per pupil were high, another indicator of potential user demand, but what about technicians? In 2011 Cuban universities produced 5,407 technical science graduates and 572 in natural science and mathematics. One university, the University of Informatics Sciences (UCI), which specializes in information science has graduated 12,648 engineers in computer science since it was founded in 2002.

In my 2011 report, I compared the UCI curriculum with the computer science curriculum at Carnegie Mellon University and found that
The work-study balance – ten semesters of professional practice and three studying business topics – differentiates UCI from U. S. universities. Students are expected to work on useful applications in education, health, sport, and online government -- writing software, building Web portals and developing multimedia products.
While they may not have experience with the latest technology, Cuban graduates should be ready to do practical work and good students may gravitate toward startups since state enterprises are the only alternative source of employment.

Even without domestic users, outsourcing can help bootstrap a tech community and Cuba's outsourcing prospects look good. Cuba is close to the large U. S. market, is in the Eastern time zone and there are many Cuban expats in the U. S. and elsewhere with professional and family ties to Cuba. Cuban developers have been doing small-scale, sub rosa work for U. S. firms for some time, but now that we have approved work by independent Cuban programmers (as opposed to state enterprises) that work can expand openly.

UNDP HDI and education ranks
I checked the 2014 A.T. Kearney Global Services Location Index™ and it turns out that the top ranked nation for outsourcing is India and Mexico (4th) and Chile (13th) are among the top 15. Given their UNDP Human Development and Education indices, Cuba looks like a formidable competitor to all three.

I've focused on tech and education to this point -- what about Cuban culture?

Of necessity, Cubans are resourceful. The old cars that Cubans have managed to keep running are as well-known as Cuban cigars. Homebrew computers are common. Before the government cracked down, homemade TV dishes were ubiquitous in Havana. There are even illegal satellite links in Cuba. These are a few examples of Cuban resourcefulness in the face of constraints. For more, watch this video:



The legacy of years of socialist rhetoric might also contribute to the success of a startup community. The early ARPA/Internet community or Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s provide examples of success that was partially due to a somewhat idealistic, cooperative culture and a sense that the participants were doing something important.

When the PC revolution was just getting under way, computer clubs sprung up around the country. One, the Homebrew Computer Club (HCC) met in an auditorium at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley. The meetings featured a "random access" session during which people stood up to ask for help or offer to share information. At one meeting I attended, Steve Wozniak offered schematics and a parts list for anyone who wanted to build a copy of the single-board computer he had designed, while his partner Steve Jobs stood at a table showing off wire-wrapped versions of the machine. After the meetings, "competitors" met at a hamburger place in Menlo Park (I forget its name) to talk about their latest S-100 but boards.

Random access session at the Homebrew Computer Club

The early Silicon Valley user/maker community was very much influenced by the "counter culture" movement that valued sharing, cooperation and appropriate technology. The Whole Earth Catalog ("access to tools and ideas"), The People's Computer Company and the Community Memory project and later the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link exemplified the values in the Silicon Valley.

Might the Merchise Meetup and the YCC Freeware Festivals turn out to be Cuba's HCC?

I've been painting a rosy picture -- talking more about what I would like to see happen than what I think will happen -- "Silicon Malecón" faces many obstacles.

Readers of this blog well know the sad state of Cuban Internet connectivity. As neuroscientist Frances Colón, acting science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Kerry says, "More than anything else, Cuban science and technology entrepreneurs need connectivity to finally move into the 21st century of scientific discoveries and technology development."

A lack of capital is another obvious problem, but Cuban entrepreneurs with good ideas and organizations will be able to attract capital if government polices encourage foreign investors. That being said, the Cuban economy is already looking up with easing of tension with the U. S. and Cuba may find it desirable to finance significant parts of its own Internet infrastructure.

A lack of business and marketing experience may also hinder Cuban entrepreneurs. That should be mitigated by close ties between Cubans and the expat community. Business schools are also eyeing Cuba. There is also Proyecto Cuba Emprende, which offers "training and advisory services to Cuban entrepreneurs who wish to start or improve a small business in order to contribute to the development of an entrepreneurial culture, social progress and to improve the quality of their lives."

The biggest problem for the startup community may be Cuban bureaucracy and the power of incumbent state software enterprises. Will the government stifle startups with micromanagement and regulation (as exemplified by their list of jobs eligible for self-employment) and taxes? Will politically entrenched state software enterprises like Albet and Desoft view startups as competitors to be beaten or will they be a training ground for future entrepreneurs? (This is similar to the question of the infrastructure policies of ETECSA).

I've mentioned some of the things the Cuban startup community has going for and against it. Let's hope it takes off.

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Update 5/26/2015

The Merchise Startup Circle meetup was held last Saturday. Over fifty people came -- there would have been more if they had had more space (and a larger pizza and beer budget :-).

An elegant meetup setting

Two of the organizers, Alex Medina and Medarado Rodriguez welcomed the attendees (the third, Rodney Hernandez was out of the country and could not attend). 

Alex medina (l), Medardo Rodriguez (r)

More meetups are planned and you can see more tweets and photos from this one here.

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Update 6/2/2015

The Cuban government has approved new measures for private, non-agricultural cooperatives.

They will now allow cooperatives a year to hire workers (it had been 3 months) and are studying 205 proposals to create new cooperatives.

Since 2012, 498 private non-agricultural cooperatives have been established (347 are still operating) and the authorities are presently studying 205 proposals to create new cooperatives.

Cooperatives are allowed to have Internet accounts, but do any readers know if any of these cooperatives -- existing or proposed -- involve technology or the Internet?

Bus from the cooperative Taxi Rutero

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Update 6/30/2015

The date has been set for the second meetup of the Merchise Startup Circle in Havana.


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Update 7/12/2015

The Miami Herald has published an article profiling several Cuban software startups. It describes their applications and the difficulties they face. A "window" is starting to open for Cuban software startups -- how long until it is closed by established competitors -- from the US and other nations or Cuban state software enterprises?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Connecting Cuban Schools


Cuba plans to provide Internet connectivity to all schools at all levels during the next three years. We offer a few suggestions, based in part on the US experience of the 1980/90s.

Fernando Ortega, Director of Educative Informatics Services at the Cuban Education Ministry, has announced a plan for connecting Cuba's 295 high schools and 395 polytechnic institutes to the Internet during the next school year. During 2017 they plan to extend the education network to junior high schools, day-care centers and special schools and in 2018 the network will connect the remaining primary schools. They hope to connect 26,650 teachers to the Internet by next May.

This is an encouraging announcement, but it leaves many policy and technical questions unanswered, like:

  • Will the schools be connected to the international Internet or the Cuban intranet?
  • If connectivity is international, will it be over the undersea cable or satellite?
  • If the link is to the Internet, will sites be filtered out?
  • Will users be surveilled and tracked?
  • What will be the backbone technology and speed?
  • How fast will the backhaul links to the schools be?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, a school backbone and connectivity to it is only a small part of the networking of schools. What about school LANs? Curriculum? Teacher training and student expectations? Cuban schools are facing the same questions US schools and universities faced when first connecting to the Internet -- can they benefit from our experience?

In the late 1980s, the National Science Foundation connected all US colleges and universities to the Internet. (They also connected networks in many developing nations, including Cuba). They did this by establishing a backbone network (NSFNet) and gave each school a router and paid for a link to the backbone. That cost the US taxpayers $94.5 million, but it was just seed money.

The schools spent much more collectively -- hiring network technicians, building local area networks (LANs), buying computers and incurring overhead on all of that. Could Cuba do something similar -- connect schools to an education backbone and leave the rest to the schools themselves?

I reviewed the curriculum of Cuba's University of Information Science in a report I wrote in 2011. Compared to the US, the curriculum was relatively practical and it involved working on real-world projects. If the government of Cuba were to construct an educational backbone and provide a high-speed connection to each school, advanced university students could be deployed to schools where they would lead the installation of LANs by the students and faculty of the schools. (Note that idealistic, motivated graduate students implemented much of the ARPANet).

This decentralized, do-it-yourself approach was used in networking California high schools. Sun Microsystems founder John Gage led the NetDay initiative in which equipment kits were assembled and distributed to schools for installation by students and faculty under the supervision of professionals. In a similar effort, my students established a wireless LAN connecting the rooms in our campus dorms to out campus backbone.

There was a major change between the time of John Gage's NetDay project and my student's dorm connectivity project -- WiFi equipment became available, making our task easier. Necessity being the mother of invention, it turns out that Cuba has experts in the deployment of modern WiFi LANs -- the people who have created mesh "streetnets". Cuba might also take a look at Google's experiments with high frequency wireless communication. Sun Microsystems is not longer with us, but might Google sponsor a Cuban NetDay?

A Cuban "NetDay" project would establish a LAN at relatively low cost and also provide initial training and involvement for the people who would eventually run and use the LAN.

What about computers? Mr. Ortega reports that there are about 30 students per computer in Cuban school labs and his plan is to replace them with tablets. I would think twice about those tablets.

Los Angeles, where I live, recently cancelled an ill-advised project, which sought to deploy tablets in schools. The project envisioned a large expenditure for tablets that would quickly become obsolete. Furthermore, machines with keyboards, and perhaps touch screens, would be more appropriate. Today, the best bet for most students and many teachers would be Chromebooks and, where necessary, laptops. One Laptop per Child has distributed laptops to over 2.4 million children -- how about One Chromebook per Child in Cuba? (Is anyone at Google reading this)?

But the biggest problem with the failed deployment in Los Angeles was not sub-optimal hardware, it was in software and curriculum. The tablets were to come with installed teaching materials provided by a single vendor. The tablets were "Trojan Horses" for the curriculum.

I would worry about something similar happening in Cuba -- top-down design and distribution of teaching material by experts at the Ministry of Education. Cuba has developed some educational software, but it is limited in scope and quantity and, more important, not Internet oriented. We are in the midst of a boom in MOOC-inspired online education and innovation in curriculum, technology and pedagogy. Cuba should look to the outside (the Khan Academy in Spanish would be a good place to start) and also encourage decentralized domestic development -- perhaps providing a hosted, Spanish-language "YouTube" for teaching material using Google and MIT's open source MOOC.org platform. (Better yet, that should be hosted by Google).

Without answers to the questions I raised at the start of this post, one cannot say what will happen with Cuba's school network. I've assumed the best intentions on behalf of the Cuban government and thrown out some relatively low-cost ideas, some of which were helpful in getting US schools online. Let's hope Cuban kids are enrolling in MOOCs and working their way through Khan Academy material before too long.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Russia, Japan and others want to do business in Cuba

The US is interested in doing business with Cuba, but we are far from alone and we are late to the party. Cuba has a history of trade with Vietnam, China, Spain, France, etc. and visits from trade delegations have picked up.

The Cuban and Soviet economies were deeply intertwined before the Soviet breakup and on April 22 Russia and Cuba signed a five year deal for trade in the aeronautics, metallurgy, medicine, railway transportation and other sectors.

Russian and Cuban delegations met in Moscow.

The emphasis in US-Cuba trade discussions seems to be on the sale of US goods and services to Cuba rather than the other way around, but the Russian agreement includes the sale of Cuba-made pharmaceuticals to Russia, if they are found to be satisfactory in testing. Note that Russia is willing to purchase goods and services from Cuban-state enterprises while the US allows the purchase of goods and services from private Cuban enterprises, but not state firms.

Japan is also interested in doing business in Cuba. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and on May 2 some thirty business people met with representatives of a dozen Cuban state firms to discuss possible business deals at The Cuba-Japan Business Forum.

Cuban and Japanese foreign ministers and their delegations met in Havana. Foto: ain.cu

Cuban debt came up as a possible barrier to trade. Forum President Tomoyoshi Kondo said that "once the issue of the Cuban debt is solved, the two countries will be able to discuss and talk about the future.” The issue of Cuban debt also arose around the financing of the ALBA undersea cable. I don't know the current situation, but a Wikileaked memo from 2010 stated that:
Payment problems continue for all countries. Despite once again restructuring all of its official debt in 2009, Japan has yet to see any payments.
Many nations are looking for business and trade opportunities with Cuba now that detente with the US appears likely. In the short run, Cuban debt and poverty may limit that trade, but improved relations with the US and Cuban economic reform will surely improve the Cuban economy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Cuba the tenth most censored nation in the World, but they are improving.

Cuban newspaper vendor sells the state paper, Granma

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has listed Cuba as the tenth most censored country in the world, saying:
Despite significant improvements in the past few years-such as the elimination of exit visas that had prohibited most foreign travel for decades-Cuba continues to have the most restricted climate for press freedom in the Americas.
That sounds pretty bad, but CPJ has been reporting about repression of journalists on their Web site since 1998. In that year, they ranked Cuba as the fourth worst offender on their Enemies of the Press list, saying "The independent journalism movement seemed to gain strength until early 1996, when Cuban MIGs shot down two private planes piloted by exiles from Miami" -- an action that strengthened hard liners in both Cuba and the US -- and went on to say that:
Despite implicit promises to Pope John Paul II that there would be greater room for freedom of expression, Castro continues his control over all media outlets and his harsh treatment of independent journalists, who are routinely detained, arrested and beaten, or forced into exile, especially before major political events.
Unfortunately, I could not find a clear explanation of the methodology for these rankings, nor does the CPJ do them on a regular basis. I found three more in their archive:

  • 2006 (Cuba ranked 7th)
  • 2009 (Cuba ranked 4th)
  • 2012 (Cuba ranked 9th)

CPJ has many blog posts and some country reports (like this 2011 report on Cuba) which are best found by going to their Web site and searching for Cuba. Somewhat ironically, CPJ needs a better organized and designed Web site.

At any rate, the situation in Cuba is better than it was before, and, with the current rapprochement with the US, I bet Cuba is off the ten worst list next time CPJ publishes their rankings.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cuban networking -- past and future

Grenada's Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell, who heads CARICOM (the Caribbean Community Secretariat), has announced that CARICOM will send a science, technology and innovation committee delegation to Cuba with the hope of strengthening the regional ICT structure.

At first it may seem surprising that CARICOM would be looking for leadership in the nation with the worst Internet access in the region, but, upon reflection, it is not so strange. In the period just before their connection to the Internet, Cuba was the leading networking nation in the region. In the pre-Internet days, Caribbean networks exchanged traffic asynchronously, doing bulk international transfers once or twice a day.

As shown in the following table, Cuba's pre-Internet international traffic volume was second only to that of the Dominican Republic in early 1996.

CountryTraffic
MB/month
Nbr. of
networks
Dominican Republic63.622
Cuba45.544
Trinidad & Tobago17.141
Belize13.741
Saint Lucia11.721
Barbados8.591
Bahamas4.151
Suriname2.291
Antigua & Bermuda1.061
St. Vincent & The Grenadines.791
Greneda.631
Guyana0.101
Total169.3716

However, international traffic volume does not tell the whole story. Cuba had four significant networks with international links. Three served specific user communities -- Medical researchers and practitioners, Biotechnology researchers and young people at Cuba's Youth Computer Clubs. These networks had their own technicians and knowlegeable users. (The Domincan Republic had two networks but one was dominant, with 94% of the nation's traffic).

The fourth Cuban network was operated by CENIAI, the Center for Automated Information Interchange of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. CENIAI began networking in 1982 and was the Cuban interface to Soviet block networks. They had a large staff and they offered email, discussion forum access, database access, consulting services, etc. Later in 1996 CENIAI established Cuba's first direct connection to the Internet.

CENIAI staff in 1990

(It is interesting to note that Cuban Internet connectiivty was initiated in the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment and it is now overseen by the Ministry of Informatics and Communications -- paralleling the evolution of the Internet from a research and education network to one for general use).

Together, the four networks had 3,386 users -- by far the most in the Caribbean. This and the statistics shown above are from a 1996 article, Cuba Networking Update, which concluded that:
Cuba has developed a sizable user community, with networking skills and applications. The community has grown out of both a long-standing commitment to education throughout the society and major research, development, and therapy programs in biotechnology and medicine.
Given Cuba's networking history, relatively large population, policy on education and research and the present thaw with the United States, CARICOM may be quite right in their expectation that Cuba will become a significant force in Caribbean ICT.