Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What might Google do in Cuba? Content? Infrastructure?


Commercially, Cuba is small potatoes to Google -- a mere 11 million potential users. But what of potential creators? Google is recruiting in another small nation, Israel -- will they be recruiting in Cuba some day?

The other day, a journalist who was writing an article on Cuba contacted me to ask what Google might do there in the short run. I referred him to an earlier post in which I had listed some short term steps, but I will add some speculation on production and hosting of domestic content and infrastructure here.

Content

Cuba has a vibrant film-making community and revised relations with the US could lead to significant improvement. Netflix is open for business in Cuba. I don't think the current Cuban government would be willing to allow unfettered access to YouTube even if there were bandwidth to handle it, but I can see Google employing and supporting Cuban film makers.

YouTube has video production spaces in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, New York, São Paulo, Berlin, Paris, Mumbai, and Toronto -- how about opening one in Havana?

I won't be surprised if I see Cuban content turning up on Netflix in the near future -- along with Cuban film and animation on YouTube.

Of course, Cuba is a largely untapped source of content beside cinematic video. For example, in an earlier post, I suggested that a free, well connected Cuba could be a rich source of online education and medical information.

Google has built a MOOC platform and offered MOOCS. In 2013, they announced a partnership called mooc.org with edX that promised an open platform for hosting courses, but, over a year later, the mooc.org Web site is unchanged. However, they have been contributors to open edX, the open source edX platform. Could Google host an open edX service for Spanish language courses developed by Cubans (and others)?

The same applies to medical information. Cuba has focused on medical research, training and practice since the time of the revolution and Infomed, their medical network, predates their connection to the Internet. Could Google provide hosting services or high speed connectivity to Infomed and Cuban universities or to Cuba's Latin American Medical School for remote training and course development?

On a recent trip to Cuba, Google executives told students at the University of Information Science that they could not sell applications they had developed in the Google Play store at this time.

I find that a bit confusing, because it is my understanding that the US will now allow software imports from Cuba as long as the programs are produced by independent entrepreneurs and computer programmer is one of the jobs the Cuban government authorizes for self-employment.

There may be some problem with allowing Cubans to sell software through Google Play that I am not aware of, but, if that is not the case, this would seem like a quick, simple thing for Google to do -- it would create a relationship between them and Cuban software developers.

Infrastructure

That is fine for Cuban-produced content for export, but what about domestic consumption? The Cuban economy and infrastructure can not support video distribution today -- might Google contribute to Cuban infrastructure?

Google has data centers in many cities around the world, but it is hard to imagine them building one in today's Cuba, which has little power and very few Internet users. However, for the short term, they could invest to improve ETECSA's data center.

Google also has an interest in last mile wireless and, since necessity is the mother of invention, Cubans have a lot of experience with mesh Wifi LANs. Google might hire and learn from those folks.

Could they help with Cuban backbone infrastructure? Satellite and terrestrial wireless might be used for interim connectivity in rural areas, but what about Havana? Could Havana become a Google Fiber city? Even if ETECSA were to allow it, it is hard to see Google becoming a retail ISP in Havana, but might they provide wholesale backbone infrastructure as they have with Project Link in Kampala, Uganda where they have installed over 800km of fiber.

Kampala is a smaller, more densely populated city than Havana, but the GDP per capita in Cuba is ten times that of Uganda and only about 5% of the Ugandan population lives in Kampala while around 20% of Cubans are in Havana. Considering these rough figures plus Havana's advantages in health and education, Havana seems as good a place to invest as Kampala.

Havana's demographics look good, but there is one large problem -- a lack of competition. In Kampala, Google is a wholesale service provider not a retail competitor. The Internet Society lists 13 retail ISPs in Uganda, while Cuba has one, ETECSA. If Cuba is unwilling to forego ETECSA's monopoly in the retail ISP market, neither Google nor anyone else will make the sorts of investments needed to build a modern Internet.

Early this month, a US delegation headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy Daniel Sepulveda, will travel to Havana to work on greater Internet connectivity "to better support access to information for the Cuban people." While the ultimate goal is to better support the Cuban people (customers), the delegation will focus on finding out how and when the Cuban government/ETECSA wants to engage US companies interested in selling them equipment and services.

Charles Rivkin, assistant secretary of state says they have received comments from many US companies and the delegation's goal is to "see what is possible from the point of view of Cuba."

Josefina Vidal, who has been leading Cuban discussions with the US said they welcome US telecommunications companies to explore business opportunities, but there a lot questions. As I said in an earlier post, the ball is now in Cuba's court. Perhaps this delegation will learn what they plan to do with it.

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Update 3/8/2015

Last week, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Google Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai said they would be expanding Project Link, installing fiber backbones "many more" African cities this year.

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Update 3/16/2015

While Google has a vested interest in increasing the number of Internet users world wide, Cuba is not an easy place to do business -- The Heritage Foundation ranks their economy as one of the least free in the world, but they are taking steps to improve the business climate.

In March, 2014 the Cuban government formally acknowledged the importance of foreign investment to their economy and revised foreign investment regulations. Foreign investment is authorized in "all sectors except those dealing with the health and education of the population and the armed forces institutions, with the exception of their business systems."

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Update 5/19/2015

Cuba recently announced a plan to bring Internet connectivity to all schools at all levels within three years and I made several suggestions for doing so in an earlier post. (I am full of free advice for the government of Cuba :-). Google could contribute to this effort in several ways. One would be in helping with a backbone network to connect the schools. I also suggested that the Cubans take a decentralized approach to building LANs at the schools, and Google could help with that effort -- perhaps using the hi-frequency wireless equipment they have been testing. Finally, the Cubans are talking about tablets for students -- Chromebooks would be better. The One Laptop per Child project has distributed laptops to over 2.4 million children -- how about One Chromebook per Child in Cuba?


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Update 6/24/2015

Last week, representatives of companies in the food and beverage, infrastructure, vehicles, insurance and international corporate law sectors visited Cuba and met with government officials, private entrepreneurs, cooperatives, journalists, economists, artists and members of the diplomatic community.

Two of the visitors, Brett Perlmutter of Google Ideas and Brehanna Zwart of Google Access and Energy, were from Google, and they reportedly came with a proposal. I don't know what they proposed, but they indicated that it was for mobile infrastructure. I've been speculating about things Google might do in Cuba -- why stop now?

Brett Perlmutter and Brehanna Zwart at OnCuba Magazine

Google has experience with fiber installation, both in Google fiber cities in the US and in Kampala Uganda where they have installed a wholesale fiber ring. Might they do the same in Havana or elsewhere? Google's fiber could be used for mobile backhaul. (Cuba is already rolling out WiFi hot spots).

But what about linking that to the Internet? It will be some time before there is a fiber path between Havana and the undersea cable at the east end of the island, but they could use O3b Network's high speed satellites. (Some time ago, I suggested that ETECSA use home satellites to reach rural areas).

This is total speculation -- I have no idea what Google proposed or what ETECSA is willing to allow, but it is fun to speculate. Going further into the future, how about Google Fiber in Havana? And, when will we see those Google baloons over Cuba?

Google Fiber cities -- Havana someday?
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