Sunday, February 11, 2018

Suggestions for the Cuba Internet Task Force

John S. Creamer
The Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) held their inaugural meeting last week.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs John S. Creamer will chair the CITF and there are government representatives from the Department of State, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Agency for International Development. Freedom House will represent NGOs and the Information Technology Industry Council will represent the IT industry.

They agreed to form two subcommittees -- one to explore the role of media and freedom of information in Cuba and one to explore Internet access. The subcommittees are to provide preliminary reports of recommendations within six months and the CITF will reconvene in October to review those preliminary reports and prepare a final report with recommendations for the Secretary of State and the President.

They are soliciting public comments, looking for volunteers for service on the subcommittees and have established a Web site.

I may be wrong, but it sounds like the subcommittees will be doing much of the actual work. The subcommittee on technological challenges to Internet access will include US technology firms and industry representatives and the subcommittee on media and freedom of information will include NGOs and program implementers with a focus on activities that encourage freedom of expression in Cuba through independent media and Internet freedom. They aim to maintain balance by including members from industry, academia and legal, labor, or other professionals.

I hope the Task Force resists proposals for clandestine programs. Those that have failed in the past have provided the Cuban government with an excuse for repression and cost the United States money and prestige. Both the Cuban and United States governments have overstated what their impact would have been had they succeeded.

Cuba's current Wi-Fi hotspots, navigation rooms, home DSL and 3G mobile are stopgap efforts based on obsolete technology and they provide inferior Internet access to a limited number of people. (El Paquete Semanal is the most important substitute for a modern Internet in Cuba today).

It would be difficult to devise plans or offer support for activities that the current Cuban government would allow and be able to afford; however, the situation may ease somewhat after Raúl Castro steps down in April. Are there short-run steps Cuba would be willing to take that we could assist them with?

For example, the next Cuban government might be willing to consider legitimizing and assisting some citizen-implemented stopgap measures like building street nets and rural community networks, selling geostationary satellite service and installing LANs in schools and other organizations.

They might also be willing to accept educational material and services like access to online material from Coursera or LAN-based courseware from MIT or The Khan Academy. (At the time of President Obama's visit, Cisco and the Universidad de las Ciencias Informaticas promised to cooperate in bringing the Cisco Network Academy to Cuba, but, as far as I know, that has not happened).

The US requires Coursera and other companies to block Cuban access to their services. We could reverse that policy unilaterally, without the permission of the Cuban government.

Google is the only US Internet company that has established a relationship with and been allowed to install infrastructure in Cuba. The next Cuban administration might be willing to trust them as partners in infrastructure projects like providing wholesale fiber service or establishing a YouTube production space in Havana. Cuba could also serve as a test population for Google services optimized for low-bandwidth networks.

These are short-term, stopgap measures. In the long run, Cuba should investigate opportunities for leapfrogging – planning for technology like 5G wireless and low-Earth orbit satellites that will be available in, say, five years. Our mobile phone companies and nascent satellite ISPs SpaceX and OneWeb may have significant offerings in five years -- might Cuba be willing to work with them?

Long-run steps like these would require Cuba's leapfrogging regulatory and infrastructure-ownership policy. The ITU defines four generations of regulation and Cuba is one of the few remaining first-generation nations -- might the Cuban government be willing to make policy changes in five years?





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