Monday, May 15, 2017

Satellite links for interim Internet access in rural Cuba

Decentralized, possibly privately owned and operated, satellite links were a non-starter in 2013, but the technology has improved and the politics have begun to change.

Long Lamai, Malaysi (Source)
The Cuban government claims to be committed to ubiquitous Internet service and has talked about DSL connectivity to homes since 2013. Subsequently, they ran a DSL pilot study and are now offering service in a small Havana neighborhood. They are also conducting a small mobile-access trial.

Both efforts are dead-ends. The mobile trial uses 3G technology at a time when 4G is pervasive and 5G will be deployed before most Cubans own 3G-capable phones. DSL is old and slow and would require an immense investment in telephone central office equipment and replaced telephone wires. I hope ETECSA is not serious about these technologies.

I also hope to see Cuba leapfrog generations of technology and eventually have a ubiquitous, modern Internet, but they need different solutions in the interim. Public-access WiFi hotspots have been the most successful interim step taken by the Cubans, but they are not easily accessed in rural areas and they are too expensive for many.

Rural telecenter projects, India 2005
In 2013, I proposed an interim approach that could be deployed quickly throughout the island -- decentralized satellite access (Click here for a Spanish-language version). I suggested allowing ETECSA agents to own and sell time and services using satellite Internet links -- similar to the way Grameen Phone ladies in Bangladesh bought mobile phones to resell call time or telecentres were established in India and other developing nations. Alternatively, ETECSA could operate their own rural telecenters, like the Peruvian Cabinas Públicas.

The notion of privately-owned Internet-access facilities was a non-starter in 2013, but times have changed. ETECSA authorized agents to sell Internet and telephone time in 2013 and retail telecommunication agent is one of the occupations authorized for self-employment by the Cuban government. There are now 24,602 self-employed agents.

More important, Cuban policy has evolved. The opening of WiFi hotspots and navigation rooms and the home-connectivity and mobile-access trials indicate a change in attitude regardless of their limited practical impact. The government attitude toward private programmers and providers of Internet-based services has softened considerably; streetnets, while technically illegal, are tolerated and licensed and there are signs that this liberalization will accelerate when Raúl Castro steps down next year.

Decentralized, possibly privately-owned and operated, satellite links were a non-starter in 2013, but the technology has improved and the politics have begun to change. Today's geostationary satellite links should be considered as an interim means of achieving rural Internet connectivity and low-earth orbit satellites should be watched as a possible long-run solution.

Update 5/17/2017

Armando Camacho has posted a Spanish translation of this post here.
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