Saturday, February 27, 2016

Will there be Internet-related announcements during the President's Cuban trip?

This week, the Cuban government gave some dissidents one-time permission to travel abroad. I suspect that gesture was related to President Obama's upcoming visit and expect to learn of other agreements when he visits Cuba next month.

I asked a Cuban colleague what concessions he thought might be announced and he mentioned further easing of travel, increased incentives for US investment and a compromise on debt claimed by the US for nationalized property and by Cuba for the cost of the embargo. He did not think Guantánamo would come up, even though President Obama is trying to close the prison. (It seems he was right).

Might there be some Internet-related announcements?

How about an undersea cable from Havana to Florida? Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and US Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, led a high-level delegation to Cuba in January. Upon his return, he said there are at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a cable between the US and Cuba.

An undersea cable connecting Havana and Florida would provide backup for the current Cuba-Venezuela cable, add capacity and reduce latency. More important, it would reduce the load on Cuba's national backbone.

Nearly all of Cuba's international Internet traffic is carried over the undersea cable between Cuba and Venezuela. The cable landing is at the east end of the island but most of the traffic is from Havana and other cities to the west, so a cable from Havana to Florida would reduce the need for investment in backbone capacity. (There is also an undersea cable from Guantánamo to Florida, but that remains in US hands and also lands at the east end of the island).

Leaked high-speed backbone diagram

The Cuban government says the Internet is a priority and the US is no longer standing in the way of Internet infrastructure investment. The ball is in Cuba's court and a cable from Havana to Florida would save Cuban investment. This is something ETECSA can and should do on behalf of the Cuba people, even if it requires foreign partnership (for which there is precedent) or subsidy to attract capital.

Copyright is another Internet-related issue. Cuba's "Weekly Package" of entertainment and software is viable because the content is pirated. The government has turned a blind eye toward the organization that compiles and distributes the material because the people want entertainment and need software and there is speculation that it may be Cuba's largest private employer.

Last summer, I asked a senior State Department spokesman whether copyright violation had come up during discussions with the Cubans and he said "no." Might some compromise on copyright have been reached since then?

Today, US content providers are getting nothing from the Cuban distribution of entertainment and software -- something would be better than nothing. The Cuban government likes the Weekly Package because it entertains the people, provides private employment and is a distribution channel for software. Perhaps an agreement could be reached in which Cuba pays small, affordable royalties today with a promise of increases over time in return for dropping prior copyright violation claims.

While I'm dreaming -- how about the Weekly Package as a distribution channel for Netflix?

Another possibility -- an announcement involving Sprint or another wireless carrier. I've noted some of the things Sprint has going for them, but it may not be enough to overcome Cuban reluctance or Chinese competition.

This is all speculation and probably none of it will come to pass (on this trip). That being said, I expect some progress will be announced -- it will be interesting to see what it is.

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Update 2/28/2016

This post on Cuba, the US and cybersecurity (in Spanish), points out that the US and China have an agreement on cybersecurity and there have been cybersecurity discussions between the US and Cuba. Might there be a cybersecurity announcement during President Obama's trip to Cuba?

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Update 3/9/2016

Reuters reports that the administration will announce easing of restrictions on travel and trade before the President's trip to Havana later this month. The report says nothing of the Internet-oriented announcements that I speculated on. It also says about 20 members of Congress will accompany the President and pointes out that several legislators, including Democrats, have criticized the President for continuing to make unilateral concessions to Cuba.
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