Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cuba needs a domestic upgrade to utilize the ALBA cable. Will China help?

Commemorating 50 years of Cuba-China relations
The Cuba-Venezuela undersea cable will soon be operational. In our report on the Cuban Internet, we discussed the cable and China's role in its financing and construction. We mentioned a report stating that the cable had been financed with a Chinese loan to Venezuela, and described the Chinese role in its design and installation.

When complete, the cable will increase the speed of Cuba's international connectivity dramatically, but, what of the physical and human infrastructure needed to capitalize on that increase? Cuba's domestic network and the people and organizations that operate it have been working with low-speed, high-latency international connectivity. They are, to a great extent, living in the dial-up access era.

To utilize the capacity of the new cable, they will have to upgrade equipment, organizations, and worker skills. If they do not, the cable will be of limited value -- a strong link in a weak chain.

The Ministry of Informatics and Communications (MIC) and others in Cuba must have plans and programs for upgrading the physical and organizational Internet infrastructure.

For example, we discussed Cuban computer science education in our report, with some focus on the relatively new University of Informatics Science (UCI). UCI places major emphasis on practical work along with education -- I expect (hope) that they are involved in both training for and implementing a strategic upgrade of the domestic network.

In January 2011, MIC was reorganized and later in the month Cuba purchased Telecom Italia's 27 percent share of ETECSA. These moves may indicate a strategic shift toward support of a new domestic network.

But, what of the funding? It was reported that it cost $706 million to buy Telecom Italia out. Those funds are no longer available for domestic network upgrades, but might China play a role in modernizing Cuba's domestic Internet?

Cuba was the first Latin American nation to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1960. At a fifty-year commemoration ceremony, the Chinese pledged to "provide assistance to Cuba to help its social and economic development."

Like the US before it, China has made many investments in developing nations, and they have already participated in the undersea cable project. China has extensive experience building Internet infrastructure at home and to a lesser extent in Africa and other parts of the world. Furthermore, Huawei, a Chinese company, has emerged as a major manufacturer and exporter of Internet equipment.

How will Cuba upgrade its physical and organizational infrastructure to take advantage of the new undersea cable and what will be China's role in developing the domestic Internet in Cuba? Is there a Cuban IT plan?

My speculation on China should be qualified by the fact that according to a Wikileaked diplomatic memo Cuba-China trade volume fell with the current economic crisis and China is somewhat disillusioned with Cuban finance.

There has been speculation that Cuba is looking for a new foreign partner, perhaps to finance new domestic infrastructure.
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