Saturday, June 4, 2011

A conversation with a Cuban telecommunication engineer

I asked for input and test runs from people in Cuba in a recent post, and I've had an interesting email conversation with a telecommunication engineer who says he has never worked in that field. He asked me not to share his name or email address.

We talked about Internet access. He says only foreign people with permanent resident visas, foreign students, and business with foreign capital can get Internet accounts, and that those dial up accounts have all ports open.

Enterprises throughout the country can get DSL connections, but they are limited to Web (HTTP) applications. He has also heard rumors that pro-government bloggers get DSL connections.

He told me that Cubans are not allowed to connect to the Internet from their homes so they pay an illegal fee of 1.50 to 2.00 CUC per hour to buy time from foreign students and others who have dial-up accounts. (One CUC = US$1.08 and the average wage is 20 CUC per month).

It is legal to buy a WiFi card (if you can find one in stock) and connect at one of a few hotels in Havana or Varadero with WiFi connectivity. They charge 8 CUC per hour for access to a 128 kb/s link that is shared by all of the hotel users at the time. The second legal option is to go to a Cyber-Café or hotel which charges 2 CUC for 15 minutes of access to PC with "veeery slow" connectivity.

Education centers like universities and medical schools are connected by fiber. Within the organizations they have 100 mb/s LANs behind NATs. He recalls a time when the university he attended (I won't say which one) had only 512 kb/s connectivity for approximately 1,000 PCs. That was eventually stepped up to 2 mb/s.

He is on point-to-point Ethernet connection to enet.cu, and is able to trace the route from his dial-up connection to Google via a Newcom International satellite link. Average ping time to Google was 683 ms. Ping times to other machines at enet.cu averaged 110 ms.

He did not want to run many tests, because he feared surveillance by CuCERT. Like their counterparts in other nations, CuCERT is charged with responding to network security incidents, but he characterizes them as being like "cyber-cops, who can enter your house, pick up your HDs and walk away without previous notification."

(I tried to reach cucert.cu, but could not from the US -- not sure if it is blocked or down or both).

He gave me the IP address of a university server that was running network monitoring software. I could see graphs of traffic on the links to the university, the internal Ethernet LAN, temperature, and disk utilization on several servers. I could also reach the help desk, but resisted the urge to submit a help desk ticket request :-). You see a sample traffic graph above (click on it to enlarge it). The green line is incoming traffic and the blue outgoing. As you see, the 2 mb/s link is pretty well saturated -- surfing must be slow.

It feels cool to see the graphs, and I bet they would be upset to know that they were visible, but they are not of much practical value except to the network administrators at that university. If one could get similar statistics from all Cuban universities, one could begin to stitch together a picture of the backbone networks.

He also confirmed that bootleg satellite TV from the US is common and found in almost all parts of the country. People buy a satellite receiver from a local supplier who gets an account from the US. Some of those people sell service to their neighbors using coaxial cable, although he thinks that activity is decreasing after several antenna seizures. The service costs around 10 CUC per month, and the viewers cannot change channels themselves.

There are "muyyyy" few people with HughesNet Internet links, and they are heavily prosecuted and can go to jail if caught. He said WiFi is everywhere, and is mainly used to share music and videos and play games. He said the government is concerned about that, but I don't understand why since WiFi is local, and I doubt that they are concerned with copyright violation on the music and video :-).

We talked a bit about the Alan Gross case. He thinks the trial and sentence were for political reasons, and the government hopes to do a prisoner exchange. Gross got a long sentence, but a Cuban could get 3-5 years for having a satellite link to the Internet. He said there are some people with satellite connection who provide service to others using WiFi access points and repeaters and homemade antennae, but, as mentioned above, that is risky business.

If you are in Cuba, how does your experience compare to what I've just described?