Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cuba led early Caribbean networking -- might they lead in the 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.

Nbr. of
Dominican Republic63.622
Trinidad & Tobago17.141
Saint Lucia11.721
Antigua & Bermuda1.061
St. Vincent & The Grenadines.791

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.

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