Monday, June 27, 2016

An innovative street net with Internet access

This project offers an interesting proof of concept, but could it scale up? We will probably never find out.

I've advocated Cuba's leapfrogging today's technology and planning for the technology of the future, when their political and financial situation is improved, but that leaves the question of what to do in the interim.

To date, public access points are the only stopgap measure ETECSA has employed, but I have suggested others. One of those is to legitimize and systematically support informal local area networks, street nets.

Two recent Cubanet posts point to a novel combination of street nets and ETECSA public access hotspots.

Uncomfortable public access hotspot
The first post is a summary of the history and evolution of the WiFi hotspots a year after they began. It paints a sad picture. It has taken a year to expand from 35 to 128 access points -- a drop in the bucket for a country with over 11 million inhabitants. Access is slow and dropped connections are common. The price is too high for most Cubans and the lines to buy time are long. Furthermore the outdoor facilities are crowded, lack privacy, exposed to rain and heat and attract criminals.

The second post describes an innovative street net project in Pinar del Río. Street nets are not novel in themselves, but this one has a twist -- it uses a nearby ETECSA access point for backhaul to the Internet, enabling people to access the hotspot from the comfort and safety of their homes.

The article does not go into detail on the topography of the street net, the equipment they use, the speeds and latency times the users see, etc., but the project is a proof of concept and it provides an example of Cubans devising appropriate technology -- innovation when faced with a constraint.

The users pay the street net a flat fee of 4 CUC per month in addition to paying ETECSA for their time online, but they can log on from home rather than sitting outside and can use a desktop computer if they wish to.

Pinar del Rio streetnet with Internet connection
The real breakthrough here is not technical -- it is the decision by ETECSA to allow this to happen. ETECSA turns a blind eye to this connection since it costs them nothing and their utilization and revenue increase without additional investment.

ETECSA is ignoring this connection for the time being, but this sort of project can not scale beyond an interesting proof of concept without system wide planning and support.

I have suggested that, if embraced and supported, street nets like this one could form a part of Cuba's interim Internet infrastructure, but that would require a major policy shift.

What stops Cuba from investigating this sort of innovation and, if it is found to be viable, scaling it up?

One roadblock might be political, having to do with "inappropriate" use of the network, but that would not be the case here since the Internet connections are made through ETECSA and they could perform whatever surveillance and filtering they do today.

Another is financial -- what sort of investment would be required and what would be the return? Since ETECSA does not reveal information on their networks or finances, only they can evaluate the technical and financial feasibility of such a project. If this sort of interim project made sense, one could imagine (dream of) the government allowing foreign investment if needed.

(The people planning a street net project at the University of Havana would be a good choice for conducting a technological and financial feasibility study for such a project).

As I have suggested previously, bureaucracy poses a third roadblock. Cuba has had over half a century to develop a rigid bureaucracy, leading to fear of competition, innovation and stepping out of line.

The following are two short videos -- interviews of WiFi hotspot users and of the young man who linked the street to the public Internet access point. Note that the young man is unwilling to show his face or give his name on camera -- that reflects the biggest roadblock of all, fear.

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