Friday, September 3, 2021

The long-run effect of Cuba's recent Internet-augmented protests

Neither tweets and Facebook video clips nor the repetition of tired slogans from Granma are likely to convince many Cubans to change their minds.

It's now more than 6 weeks since the Cuban political protests and accompanying Internet service disruption. Will they lead to a long-run change in the Cuban Internet or the Cuban political situation?

Let's start with the Cuban Internet. Many of the Internet changes during the protests have disappeared. Total daily traffic, the ratios of mobile to fixed traffic, and human to automated posts, and the proportion of blocked Signal sessions are about what they were before the protests.

But everything is not the same. Before the protests, tech-savvy Cubans had been using the Psiphon VPN service to access content the Cuban government blocked. In the ten days leading up to the protests, Psiphon averaged 17,285 unique daily users.  During the protests, daily users peaked at 1.425 million on July 16, then began to taper off. However, it did not return to the pre-protest level. For the 13 days shown here, the average was 109,429 unique users per day, over six times the number during the runup to the protests.


Speed measured at the
University of Havana
Keith McManamen from Psiphon said that this kind of retention -- 5x-10x baseline -- is typical of their experience in other nations and that Cuban usage intensity -- bytes/unique user/day and sessions/user/day -- has returned to pre-protest levels. Since Psyphon access is slow and Internet access is expensive in Cuba, roughly 90,000 new users must be motivated.

Another Internet discontinuity is the existence and continued growth of a crowd-sourced archive of images and videos of the protests. There were 219 documented protests as of August 6 and today there are 281. This archive may inspire future discontent or it may be used to identify and prosecute protest participants. Regardless, it will be available to historians and political scientists -- either at its present URL or, if it's deleted, on the Internet Archive. (As an aside, the first such historical protest archive that I know of contains all of the Usenet traffic during the protests against the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt and it is still available online).

There is also speculation that the protests triggered or accelerated the new Internet regulation, announced on August 17th. The regulation treats online content as a potential security threat and bans “spreading fake news,” “slander that impacts the prestige of the country,” “inciting protests,” “promoting social indiscipline,” and undermining someone’s fame or self-esteem.”  The government has also set up a Web site for citizens to report violations -- crowd-sourcing 1984.

Cuba has had previous protests, but the prolonged, nationwide protests that began on July 11th were a product of mobile Internet access, which began rolling out in 2018. The protests led to the changes to the Internet mentioned above, but will the Internet be the cause of long-run political or social change? 

I suspect not.
 
Cloudflare reports that during the last 30 days, 70% of Cuban traffic was from mobile phones and 30% from fixed desktops, as it was before the protests. Furthermore, the majority of the fixed traffic is from workplaces where access is controlled and easily surveilled. Therefore, most political traffic is to and from mobile phones, which means posts are short and divisive -- government supporters are talking to and reinforcing the beliefs of other government supporters and the same goes for the protesters. (There are many beneficial Internet applications in business, science, health care, education, entertainment, etc., but they generally depend upon the fixed Internet).

I don't know what percent of Cubans support or oppose the government, but neither tweets and Facebook video clips nor the repetition of tired slogans from Granma are likely to convince many Cubans to change their minds. Reasoned, long-form argument on the fixed Internet might be a little more persuasive, but things like money, power, organization, demographics, negotiation and compromise and exogenous factors like climate change, COVID, or political and economic decisions made in China will determine Cuba's political and economic future, not the mobile Internet.

 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

SpaceX Starlink comes to South America

This one-year pilot study in rural Chile will be productive and successful.

Starlink antenna on the roof of the
John F. Kennedy school
SpaceX has roughly 90,000 Starlink beta test customers in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand and now they have one in South America --  in Sotomó, an isolated town at 41.6° South in Chile's Lake Region. Chile's second terminal will be online at a school in Caleta Sierra in a few days and other pilot locations will follow.  

Twenty families live in Sotomó and it is only accessible by private boats or subsidized services that navigate the Reloncaví Estuary on which it is located. The town has electricity about 12 hours a day thanks to a diesel generator installed by the Lake Region government in 2019. 

Javier de la Barra, the teacher in charge of the seven-student John F. Kennedy school where the terminal has been installed, said the service will be available to community members as well as students. Tablets are being provided for the students and he expects Internet connectivity will enrichen and improve the curriculum and student experience and, perhaps more important, he expects that it will improve his ability as an educator.

Inside the John F. Kennedy school in Sotomó
My first reaction was that that sounds like a lot to expect from a single 1-200 Mbps Internet connection, but then I remembered that this is a school with seven students and a teacher who is motivated to improve his ability as an educator. Add a local-area network with a server for downloaded courseware like that of the Khan Academy or other teaching material and provide technical and pedagogic support and this sounds like a promising pilot project. It will be most interesting to see what sort of procedures, software, and curricular innovation is developed around a single link to the Internet and if it is replicated, by the online community of educators like Javier de la Barra.

Furthermore, speed and latency will improve with time as SpaceX upgrades its software and, in the long run, the satellite constellation. My guess is that the first equipment upgrade will be a new generator or larger diesel fuel tank so they can be online, perhaps downloading content, more than 12 hours a day.

It will also be interesting to hear how the community members use their access. I don't know anything about the Sotomó economy so can't speculate on business applications, but there is at least one tourism business, Termas de Sotomó (Sotomó Hot Springs), which already has a Web site. (Perhaps it uses a geosynchronous satellite ISP). In addition to business applications, I'll bet a lot of movies and other entertainment content will be downloaded and a thriving sneaker net -- sharing files on flash drives -- will evolve. How long will it be before someone develops a system that takes requests for unattended downloads?  (For an idea of the breadth of material that can circulate on a sneakernet, see this look at the contents of one week of Cuba's "weekly package").

In the early days of the Internet, my colleagues and I studied its diffusion and application in developing nations, including Chile. Sotomó and other pilots present us with a fresh opportunity to study the applications and social and individual impact of today's Internet on a new, "greenfield" community.

At the time of our early studies, Chile was arguably the most advanced networking nation in Latin America and Chile's GDP per capita is second only to Uraguay in South America and 50% greater than that of third-place Argentina. Furthermore, the government and telecommunications industry recognize Chile's significant digital divide and are committed to rectifying it. (This was not lost on SpaceX -- they established a Chilean foreign affiliate entity in July 2019). Given that background, I would not be surprised to see SpaceX Starlink become part of Chile's future rural connectivity infrastructure.

The opening ceremony for the Sotomó project was attended by the Chilean Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, Gloria Hutt, who said:

The arrival of Starlink in Sotomó marks a before-and-after in terms of digital inclusion for our country. This revolutionary technology will allow us to bring high-speed connection to the most extreme points of our immense and varied geography, democratizing internet access and all the benefits it brings in favor of multiple areas of our lives.
That statement is reminiscent of the rosy vision that many, including me, had in the early, academic years of the Internet, but we were naive. We have since learned that the Internet enables Nigerian princes, fake news, filter bubbles, etc. along with the good stuff.

Chilean prosperity, combined with economic inequality (the Chilean Gini coefficient is fourth highest in South America), has led to violent protests and deep political division. Chile should heed the experience of the United States and other nations and be aware of the social and political risks that may attend enhanced rural connectivity.

I don't want to end on a negative note. As Minister Hutt pointed out, rural connectivity and reduction of the digital divide, will in itself diminish the economic and cultural inequality at the heart of Chilean unrest.

Update 8/11/2021

I spoke with someone from Sotomó today and learned that there is also a clinic in the school building -- paving the way for medical information retrieval, remote medical consultation and telemedicine.

Update 8/20/2021

For a lightly edited machine translation of this post into Spanish, click here

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Cuban Internet in the aftermath of the anti-government protests

Before the protests, around 18 thousand Cubans used the Psiphon VPN per day. Now its holding steady at around 166 thousand per day.

In an earlier post, I looked at the use of the Internet by anti-government protesters last month and the government's attempt to block them. Now, a few weeks later, let's see how the Internet changed after my July 18 post.

The protesters used messaging and social media services, which the government tried to block, and posted images and videos of protests around the island. The following is a snapshot of an interactive, crowd-sourced map showing the locations of the demonstrations (200 on the 11th, 11 on the 12th, 5 on the 13th, and 3 on the 17th). There are now 219 documented protests and you can see images and videos by clicking on the locations


The governmenet began blocking access to Web sites and messaging and social media services the evening of the 11th. For example, in my previous post, I noted that OONI, an Internet monitoring organization, reported that the encrypted messaging service, Signal, was blocked at 2:41 AM UTC on July 12th but drilling down on OONI data, we see that the blocking is sporadic, not constant and that must frustrate and discourage users.

As shown here, OONI reported that Signal was heavily blocked during the days of the protests, but no tests were blocked on July 19-21 from the 13th through the 28th.

OONI test results are reported when someone runs a query using the OONI probe application. Some of the variation in results is probably due to tests being run from different locations since, for privacy protection, they do not geo-locate within a nation.

My biggest surprise while looking through OONI data was to discover that the Website of the anti-regime Cuban American National Foundation was accessible on July 26th at 19:24 UTC and July 27th at 15:43 UTC. Can anyone offer an explanation for that?

Cloudflare monitored the Cuban Internet during the protests and noted a marked shift from mobile to desktop traffic. As shown below, that shift has largely been reversed, but a visible inspection of the plots indicates that mobile traffic has not completely recovered to pre-protest levels. 


There was also a sharp increase in the percent of traffic written by bots rather than humans during the protest and, as shown below, humans have more than recovered.


The Cuban government attributed the increase in the percent of automated traffic to the US government and Cuban mercenaries, but an analysis by Cazadores (hunters) of Fake News does not support that assertion. They downloaded and analyzed 1,048,576 tweets with the #SOSCuba hashtag that were posted between July 10 and 12, 2021. Only 4.84% were "pure" tweets, 83.68% were retweets, 8.55% were replies, and 2.83% were "other." The study concluded that

  • The contribution of bots and spam was insignificant relative to real, organic tweets from Cuban citizens on the island and supporters -- human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and artists -- in other nations.
  • The vast majority of the photos and videos that were disseminated on Twitter were authentic. 
  • Ninety-three "highly suspicious" accounts published more than 144 tweets per day and generated 27,442 tweets, but that was only 2.66% of the total. (I looked at the most prolific, @RRetuiter, and it is apolitical random nonsense).

As shown below, the overall level of Cuban traffic peaked during the protests and has dropped back off, but it is still noticeably higher than before.


During the protest period, technically oriented Cubans used the Psiphon VPN service to circumvent blockage and to my mind, the most interesting post-protest result is the rate of Psiphon VPN utilization, as shown below.

Before the protests, daily usage was consistently around 18 thousand unique users per day. (It was up to around 28 thousand on the first day of the protests). There were nearly 1.4 million users during the heaviest protest day and it now appears to be holding steady at around 166 thousand. It seems that knowledge of the Psiphon VPN spread during the protest period and people learned to use it. I wonder how many Cubans downloaded the client during the protests.

Subsequent to the protest, CyberGhost, a Romanian VPN service, offered a free account to any Cuban users. It would be interesting to see a Cuban speed comparison between Psiphon and CyberGhost.

The bottom line is that usage patterns have shifted toward pre-protest levels, more Cubans know about VPNs and more people outside of Cuba are aware of the situation there.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Time for a change in our Cuban Internet strategy

In a post last week, I advised Cuban President Díaz-Canel that investment in fixed broadband Internet would benefit both the Cuban people and his regime. This week, I've got advice for US President Biden -- don't try to out-pander the Republicans and call President Díaz-Canel's bluff by offering support for fixed broadband.

What won't work

Claiming that the recent protests were a "United States-backed, social media-driven plot to stir up public discontent and overthrow the Cuban regime," the Cuban government blocked Internet access on July 11th. That prompted FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr to endorse Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis' call for President Biden to "provide the necessary support for American enterprises to deliver Internet service to the Cuban people." Senator Rubio and other Republican politicians agree and Commissioner Carr assured us that "we have the technical capability to do this."

When asked about the technology in a subsequent interview, Commissioner Carr reasserted his confidence that we could do it, but said he didn't "want to get too bogged down in the particulars of that because my sense is there's going to be other technologies that I'm not aware of, including from DOD or CIA, that can also help facilitate this." I'll try to keep an open mind when read about those DOD and CIA technologies but, for now, I don't see how it can be done. 

A Cuban agent with a seized antenna
disguised as a boogie board
I've seen suggestions that it could be done using forthcoming low-Earth orbit satellite constellations like SpaceX Starlink, but there are problems with that. Earlier attempts to smuggle in end-user terminals by Alan Gross and others disguised as surfing equipment have failed spectacularly. (Gross spent five years in prison). Furthermore, they would have been inconsequential drops-in-the bucket had they succeeded. Finally, if we could get even one Starlink terminal into Cuba, would SpaceX would be willing to flaunt international law and connect to it without Cuban permission?

Another "solution" is to deploy balloon-based mobile phone towers in the stratosphere, creating an alternate cell phone company that could use Cuban mobile phones. Do they have the technology to do that? How about getting SIM cards for the "US BallonNet" mobile phone company into Cuban handsets? 

If they did get SIM cards to the people, what about radio interference with Cubacel's terrestrial towers? I'm not a lawyer, but transmitting without Cuban permission sounds like a violation of international law or at least custom, but that wouldn't bother Commissioner Carr because he "doesn't care." In a recent interview, he said "The pinheads at the ITU (UN International Telecommunication Union) will likely view this as a violation of international law. So we need to stand up the support of the federal government to do this." (Ex-FCC Chairman Pai also participated in the interview).

Others have suggested that we offer support for the Psiphon VPN service. I believe we are already doing that and on July 15 nearly 1.4 million Cubans used Psiphon. Psiphon support was a good idea.

How about hotspots near the US Embassy or using wireless backhaul from offshore? How many people would a hotspot reach and how long would it take the Cuban government to arrest them?

From Eisenhower's embargo to the Bay of Pigs invasion to Trump's trade, financial, and tourism restrictions and declaring Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, the hard-line has failed to dislodge the Cuban regime.

What might work

President Obama spoke to the
Cuban people.
In spite of its apparent impossibility, the call to "beam the Internet to the Cuban people" puts President Biden in a political bind. He has responded by stating that he is "actively collaborating with the private sector to identify creative ways to ensure the Cuban people have safe and secure access to the free flow of information on the Internet." While it may not be possible to achieve that goal using technical subterfuge, there is another possibility -- he can go over the heads of the Cuban leaders and make well-publicized offers of assistance to the Cuban people. Let me outline two such offers.

Smuggling SpaceX Starlink terminals into Cuba is a dead end, but SpaceX offering service in Cuba would be possible if both SpaceX and the Cuban government would agree to do it. I suspect that iconoclastic Elon Musk would be willing -- it would be good business and good karma

Díaz-Canel and ETECSA executives would be a harder sell. Diplomacy and a well-publicized offer that was visible to the Cuban people would put pressure on the Cuban regime. If the campaign succeeded and Starlink became available in Cuba, it would benefit the people and therefore, in the long run, relax the grip of the Cuban regime. 

Cuban backbone network 
An undersea cable connecting the US and Cuba would also improve the Cuban Internet. Today the vast majority of Cuba's international Internet traffic is carried on the ALBA-1 undersea cable at the southeast end of the island, far from Havana and other population centers to the west. There have been at least half a dozen proposals to connect Cojimar, near Havana, to Florida. Doing so would provide backup in case of a temporary problem on the ALBA-1 cable, cut average latency time on international links, and, most important, reduce the load on Cuba's terrestrial backbone, saving terrestrial infrastructure investment.

The most recent of these proposals was for a branch from the ARCOS undersea cable to a landing point at Cojumar. The ARCOS consortium applied for permission on July 23, 2018, and the application was approved for "streamlined processing procedures" -- 45 days -- by the FCC. It had still not been acted upon when it was withdrawn without comment on October 20, 2020. 

President Biden could authorize the re-activation of the ARCOS application, and, if it is no longer on the table, a suitable alternative could be found. There was also talk at one time of eventually turning the undersea cable running from our base at Guantánamo to Florida. That could also be done, although a cable landing near Havana would be more valuable.

One last Internet-related item. While The President lacks the authority to fire FCC commissioner Carr, he should call for his resignation. A US official advocating violation of international law is embarrassing and Putin-worthy.

Before concluding, allow me a quick digression. Improving the Internet is a long-run project, but the pandemic requires immediate action. President Biden should immediately remove any supply chain and financing barriers impeding Cuba's ability to acquire, manufacture and distribute COVID 19 vaccine and related medical equipment.

The US has been trying to overthrow the Cuban government for over 60 years at great cost to us and the Cuban people. The hard-line strategy was initiated by President Eisenhower during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. His fear of the Soviet Union was based upon profound personal experience as the general who led the allied invasion of Europe and watched the Iron Curtain fall

When he ran for president, Eisenhower had two slogans -- "I like Ike" and "It's time for a change." Today, the Soviet Union has collapsed and our current global rival, China, is eating our lunch in Cuba. It's time for a change in our Cuba Internet strategy.

Monday, July 19, 2021

President Díaz-Canel, The Cuban Internet is more than Facebook on a cell phone -- don't be afraid of it.

The Internet could and should be controlled and used to serve peace and development.
Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, Cuban Minister of Informatics and Communications, 1997

Ramiro Valdés Menéndez
As a result of Internet service interruption during the recent anti-government protests in Cuba, Florida Senator Rubio and Governor DeSantis and President Biden have called for measures to strengthen and guarantee Cuban Internet connectivity, but that won't happen until the Cuban government recognizes that doing so is in its long-run interest.

I have seen several suggestions that we smuggle end-user satellite terminals from services like SpaceX Starlink into Cuba but attempts to smuggle in end-user terminals by Alan Gross and others disguised as surfing equipment have failed spectacularly. Furthermore, they would have been inconsequential drops-in-the bucket had they succeeded.

However, if the Cuban government would permit it, SpaceX service in Cuba would benefit the Cuban people and, in doing so, strengthen the position of the Cuban government.

There have also been several proposals to provide undersea cable connectivity to Cuba. The most recent one was killed in the US, but I'm confident that President Biden would support it (or another one) if the Cuban government would permit it.

I served on the advisory subcommittees to the Cuban Internet Task Force, and made a number of recommendations for facilitating Cuban Internet connectivity. Again, none of these proposals would work without the support of the Cuban government.

The Cuban government was frightened by the role mobile phones running communication and social media applications played in the protests, but mobile apps are one small part of the full Internet. Widespread fixed broadband connectivity via satellite and improved cable capacity would have positive effects on the economy, education, healthcare, entertainment, etc. thereby enhancing the government’s standing with the people.

Fidel Castro opens the Youth Computer Clubs
When the Internet first came to Cuba, there was a high-level debate on its risks and rewards. Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, then Minister of Informatics and Communications, is often quoted as calling the Internet "the wild stallion of the new technologies" and a potential tool for "global extermination" but he went on to say it "could and should be controlled and used to serve peace and development." Fidel Castro also recognized the potential upside of the Internet and supported the establishment of Youth Computer Clubs throughout the nation. (They were networked using pre-Internet technology).

The same debate took place in China around that time, and they decided on a robust, but controlled Internet. It would be great if the US could convince the Cubans that the Chinese and Valdés were right. If we cannot, the Chinese, with their own satellite and cable projects, may.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Internet during the anti-government protests in Cuba

On Sunday, July 11, thousands of Cubans, took to the streets in anti-government protests triggered by COVID, the faltering economy and an overwhelmed healthcare system. In four days, at least 118 large and small protests took place across the island. The following is a snapshot of an interactive, crowd-sourced map showing the locations of the demonstrations (94 reported on the 11th, 14 on the 12th, 7 on the 13th and 3 on the 17th).
For the interactive version, many with images and videos, click here. As the images and photos show, the government responded with arrests and violence in some cases.

The government also began blocking the Internet on the evening of the 11th, as shown in the following graph, posted by Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Kentik.

It was totally blocked for a short time, then partially blocked. Madory speculated that they may have been trying to figure out how to block certain portions of the country.

Several messaging apps were blocked during the protest period. As you see below, the encrypted messaging app, Signal, was blocked at 10:41 PM on July 11 and was still down on the 17th. (UTC is four hours ahead of Cuban time). Messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram were also blocked, but not Facebook Messenger.

Cloudflare was also monitoring the situation in Cuba and, as shown below, there was a marked shift from mobile to desktop traffic. I read reports that mobile access had been cut off, and there are periods where 100% of traffic was from desktop users, but some mobile traffic moved during the protests.
Another interesting shift was in the percent of traffic written by humans to that from bots. Some of this shift may be a result of the blocking of human traffic or from increases in search engine activity. Since they report percents rather than absolute levels, it is hard to know.
In spite of blocking and suspension of Internet service in Cuba, there was a roughly three times increase in Cuban traffic during the protest time -- Cuba was in the news and Cubans were doing their best to communicate.

When blocked, many Cubans accessed the global Internet using the Psiphon VPN service. As shown below, the number of VPN users grew steadily during the protest period and reached a peak of 1.389 million daily unique users on July 15. I bet many new people learned about VPNs and learned to use Psiphon during the days of protest.

The Cuban protests and Internet shutdown attracted widespread attention and we have seen sympathy demonstrations throughtout the world -- particularly in Florida. Politicians from Florida's Governor Desantis and Senator Rubio to President Biden have spoken out in support of the Cuban people and called for some sort of technical intervention to strengthen and guarantee Cuban Interent access, but I don't see how that can happen without the agreement of the Cuban government.

The Internet-supported protests in Egypt led to the downfall of a dictitorial government, but the euphoria was short lived since the protesters were polarized.  Large crowds took part in pro-government rallies across Cuba on the 17th. Let's hope for political reform and compromise in Cuba.

Monday, March 22, 2021

A look at Cuba's digital revolution

In spite of having slow, expensive, government-controlled Internet infrastructure, Cuba is undergoing what Ted Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria refer to as a digital revolution.

The digital revolution might be said to have begun in 2007 when Yoani Sánchez launched her blog "Generation Y." Internet access was difficult -- she would get illegal connectivity at tourist hotels and the blog was initially hosted in Germany. Soon, the Huffington Post began publishing her posts, and she has subsequently received many international awards, including the Ortega y Gasset Award for Digital Journalism in 2008.

I recall reading of her teaching others to blog at her home and other blogs followed, but that was just the start of the digital revolution. Today, she publishes a daily digital newspaper 14Ymedio which is available in Spanish and English and there are many independent (non-government) media sites that cover fashion, sports, art, music, and technology as well as news, commentary, and current events.

Since Cuba had and still has very poor Internet infrastructure, one might ask how this digital content is distributed. The digital-distribution revolution began in 2008 with el Paquete Semanal, the "weekly package" of digital material distributed on hard and flash drives that became a nation-wide sneakernet. El Paquete is financed by advertising and customer fees and it has been suggested that it is the nation's largest private employer. In 2015, the Government began opening public-access WiFi hotspots. Cubans hackers also created local community networks which did not have a connection to the global Internet. The largest, Havana's SNET, had an estimated 100,000 users before it was taken over by the government. More recently, 3G mobile service was introduced and now 4G is beginning to roll out.

Cuba's independent media and ad-hoc distribution channels are a product of a culture of innovation -- from restoring old cars and equipping bicycles with lawn-mower engines to creating community networks like SNET, software startups, and work as independent, self-employed programmers. Necessity is the mother of invention.

I've been speaking of media, but Henken estimates that there is also a digitally-convened movement or protest in Cuba every two months or so. He describes several of these and their leaders in this article.

If you are interested in more on Cuba's digital media revolution, check out Henken's recent interview at Tulane University. (It's over an hour-long, but he speaks clearly so you can listen at 2X speed). He talks about Cuban media and introduces a forthcoming anthology he and Santamaria edited. In his presentation, Henken discusses independent Cuban media and summarizes each chapter of the book, which will be available from the University Press of Florida on June 1. Here is the table of contents:

Introduction

In Medias Res: Who Will Control Cuba’s Digital Revolution?, Ted A. Henken

Part I. History, Media, and Technology

1. The Past, Present, and Future of the Cuban Internet, Larry Press

2. Historical Itineraries and Cyclic Trajectories: Alternative Media Communication Technologies, and Social Change in Cuba, Edel Lima Sarmiento

Part II. Politics

3. Information and Communication Technology, State Power, and Civil Society: Cuban Internet Development in the Context of the Normalization of Relations with the United States, Olga Khrustaleva

4. Ghost in the Machine: The Incompatibility of Cuba’s State Media Monopoly with the Existence of Independent Digital Media and the Democratization of Communication, Alexei Padilla Herrera and Eloy Viera Cañive

5. The Press Model in Cuba: Between Ideological Hegemony and the Reinvention of Civic Journalism, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Arechavaleta

6. Digital Critique in Cuba, Marie Laure Geoffray

Part III. Journalism

7. From Generación Y to 14ymedio: Beyond the Blog on Cuba’s Digital Frontier, Ted A. Henken

8. Independent Journalism in Cuba: Between Fantasy and the Ontological Rupture, Sara Garcia Santamaria

9. Perceptions of and Strategies for Autonomy among Journalists Working for Cuban State Media, Anne Natvig

10. Independent Media on the Margins: Two Cases of Journalistic Professionalization in Cuba’s Digital Media Ecosystem, Abel Somohano Fernández and Mireya Márquez-Ramírez

Part IV. Business and Economy

11. Online Marketing of Touristic Cuba: Branding a “Tech-Free” Destination, Rebecca Ogden

12. A Una Cuba Alternativa”? Digital Millennials, Social Influencing, and Cuentapropismo in Havana, Jennifer Cearns

Part V. Culture and Society

13. Without Initiation Ceremonies: Cuban Literary and Cultural E-zines, 2000–2010, Walfrido Dorta

14. Images of Ourselves: Cuban Mediascapes and the Post-socialist “Woman of Fashion,” Paloma Duong

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

SpaceX's Starlink service in Cuba would benefit the Cuban people, SpaceX, and the US.

SpaceX has begun the process of securing licenses to operate its Starlink Internet service in the Caribbean. I don't know which nations they are considering, but would advise them to seriously consider Cuba -- Starlink service in Cuba would benefit the Cuban people, SpaceX, and the US.

What's in it for Cuba?

Fixed home and commercial connectivity in Cuba are limited, slow, and expensive, but they do have shared connectivity -- 1,095 pubic WiFi hotspots and 346 public access rooms with a total of 1,304 computers. They also have 1,057 GSM, 2,611 UMTS, and 768 LTE cell towers.

I can't imagine Cuba permitting SpaceX to serve consumers, but Starlink could provide backhaul to cell towers, WiFi hotspots, and public access rooms in unserved areas. Cuban health care and education are arguably the best in the region and one can imagine every rural school and clinic connected to Starlink. Imagine providing those clinics with access to the resources at Cuba's globally-recognized health portal Infomed, which has been online since 1992.

The Cuban revolution sought to find a just urban/rural balance and years later the Internet reflected that. I did a study of the Internet in Cuba in 1998 and observed that relative to other developing nations, the Cuban Internet was geographically dispersed. Internet connectivity was only available in the capital city in 29 of the 44 African nations with Internet connectivity, whereas Infomed had a presence in every Cuban province and Cuba's 150 (at the time) Youth Computer Clubs, which provided computers for games and classes for young people and adults, had accounts in nearly every municipality. (The study is not cleared for publication, but I can send you a copy if you are interested). Starlink connectivity would help to achieve that sought-after just balance -- to shrink the digital divide.

Fidel Castro spoke at the opening of the Youth Computer Club headquarters in
Havana. His framed, handwritten inscription reads "I am jealous". (Source

What's in it for SpaceX?

Trained, demanding users are necessary for Internet growth, and with a population of over 11 million well-educated people -- about 25% of the Caribbean region -- Cuba has pent-up demand for Internet access. Furthermore, in spite of limited access to the global Internet, Cubans have had access to the domestic intranet at Youth Computer Clubs, school, and work and, recently, Internet access at the public access locations mentioned above.

Cuba also has the technical and content expertise needed to install and utilize enhanced connectivity. With little Internet connectivity, Cubans have improvised, developing

  • A thriving blogging community that has evolved into what Cuba-media scholar Ted Henken refers to as a "rich variety of independent digital journalism projects."
  • An entrepreneurial software startup community.
  • Self-employed computer programmers.
  • El Paquete Semanal (the weekly package), a compendium of news, entertainment, and software that has been distributed on hard and flash drives throughout the island for a decade by a well-organized, decentralized sneaker-net that is possibly the largest private employer in Cuba.
  • Hacker-built community networks including SNET in Havana which was the world's largest community network not connected to the Internet before it was taken over by the government.
Cuban ground stations could serve
much of the Caribbean
Cuba would also be a good location for Starlink ground stations serving Caribbean nations and ships in the Caribbean sea. One could be located at the ALBA 1 undersea cable landing point at Siboney Beach at the south-east end of the island. I have also argued that there should be another one 480 miles away at Cojimar, near Havana. I'm not kidding myself that anyone will pay attention to my recommendation, but someday there will be a cable landing near Havana and that would be a logical place for a second ground station. (Note that there is an existing Google Global Cache site in Cuba and a satellite ground station in Jaruco, about 25 miles from Havana, which was the site of the original Soviet Carib 1 ground station in 1974 and is now the site of the SES O3b middle Earth orbit (MEO) ground station).

What's in it for the US?

President Biden has promised to "reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and a Starlink presence in Cuba would be a noteworthy step toward fulfilling his promise.

Cuba's first connection to the Internet was as a participant in the National Science Foundation (NSF) International Connectivity Program (ICP), which connected research and education networks in many developing nations. The NSF provided Cuba and other nations connectivity to The US NSFNET, which was the major global backbone at the time. The link from Cuba to Florida was provided by Sprint and Cisco provided routers.

US and Cuban policy quickly closed the door on US-Cuba networking and collaboration and China filled the vacuum. Today, Huawei is the dominant provider of Internet infrastructure from the national backbone to the WiFi hotspots and even the central office equipment used in Cuba's lame DSL home connectivity offering. They also sell phones in Cuba. If the Biden administration would cooperate and SpaceX was willing, Starlink could provide a crack in China's dominance in Cuba. If Cuba does not go with Starlink, they have a number of non-US alternatives including SES, which currently provides MEO connectivity, Telesat, and OneWeb, but the most likely provider is China's GW constellation.

DSR IT infrastructure projects as of 12/2018 ( source)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated recently that China poses a threat to the current international order and is America's "biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century." The foreign relations impact of Starlink in Cuba would be more important than opening a market for a single US company. The US embargo is unpopular in most Latin American and Caribbean nations and a Starlink presence in Cuba would improve our standing. It would also be a roadblock in the way of Chinese expansion of the "Digital Silk Road" portion of their global Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

There is a good chance that he would be turned down, but I hope Elon Musk takes a shot at offering Starlink in Cuba. Hopefully, he would have the support of the Biden administration as well as Google, a SpaceX investor that has been persistently active in Cuba since 2015. Cuba has gone its own way since 1958 and that has been good and bad, but it means that Cuba is somewhat unique and we could all benefit from improved access to Cuban art, science, medicine, music, etc. Starlink in Cuba would be a win for the world.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A simple suggestion for President Biden regarding the Cuban Internet

President Biden has a lot on his plate, but having someone pursue a Cuban undersea cable would be simple and benefit both Cuba and the US.

The Cuban backbone (source)
Last September I asked what had happened to the proposal for a branch connecting the ARCOS undersea cable, which has a landing point in North Miami Beach, to Cojimar, Cuba. The consortium that operates the cable had applied for permission to connect Cuba in July 2018 and the FCC granted a request for streamlined processing, which should have taken less than 45 days, but nothing happened until September 2020 when the application was referred to a Justice Department committee for the assessment of foreign participation in the telecommunication services sector, that Trump had established in an executive order on April 4, 2020.

On October 26, 2020 -- shortly before the election -- the application was withdrawn without explanation. I asked the FCC officials involved why the processing had taken so long and why the application was withdrawn, but received no answer. I also filed Freedom of Information Act Requests with the FCC and Justice Department, but my questions were not answered. (Justice did not even reply).

But that is history -- spilled milk. During the campaign, President Biden said he would "try to reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families" and he has taken steps to liberalize travel and remittances. He has a lot on his plate beside Cuba, but having someone pursue a Cuban undersea cable would be simple and benefit both Cuba and the US.

The first step would be to contact the operators of the ARCOS cable to see if they are still interested in the Cuban branch. If not, other options should be pursued. Daniel Sepulveda, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, in the Obama administration said there were at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. There had also been discussion of one day allowing Cuban access to the US cable at Guantanamo, GTMO-1.

An undersea cable to the US would be a boost to the Cuban Internet. Nearly all Cuban international traffic is carried over the ALBA-1 cable, which lands at the south-east end of the island so traffic from heavily populated areas like Havana must traverse the national backbone. An undersea cable from Cojimar, which is near Havana, would reduce latency, free backbone capacity, save capital investment and provide a backup path in case of an outage.

Note that even Trump would agree with this proposal. His policy was to "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services" and he directed government departments and agencies "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba." He also established a task force "to examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba" and did nothing to reverse any of President Obama's Cuba telecommunication policies.

President Biden might be concerned that such a move might be politically damaging since Cuban-American voters in Florida favored Trump in the last election, but that is not a sure thing. The 2020 Florida International University Cuba Poll showed that among south Florida Cubans, young people are most liberal on issues like the embargo and all except those over 75 consider Cuba policy less important than the economy, health care, race, immigration, and China policy. Demographics and Trump's impeachments may have shifted Cuban voting patterns by 2022 or 2024.

Supporting an undersea cable between the US and Cuba would also enhance our reputaion in the region and encroach upon China's near monopoly as a vendor of Cuban Internet infrastructure. It would also strengthen the US's strategic position vis-a-vis China's expansion in the region.

President Obama sought rapproachmont with Cuba and several Internet-related proposals followed, but the result was disappointing. Trump and Raúl Castro are now ex-presidents so the ARCOS cable may stand a chance. (It would not be unprecedented -- Cuba's first connection to the Internet was through the US National Science Foundation International Connections Program for research and university networks in developing nations).

Update 4/5/2021

In March 2019, Google and ETECSA signed a memorandum of understanding committing to cost-free interchange of traffic between their networks once Cuba was able to connect to a new undersea cable that would be laid, presumably to Miami "sometime in the future." That cable has not yet been laid and I got no answer when I asked Google what the project status was last week.

Google has persisted in an effort to improve Cuban Internet connectivity and access for years but the effort has yielded very little. They have installed Google Global Cache servers in Cuba, enabling ETECSA to serve some Google content from within its own network, and established one public WiFi hotspot.

There were hopes for progress when President Obama visited Cuba, but the Cuban government under Raúl Castro was unwilling and Díaz-Canel was met by Trump. President Biden has a lot on his mind these days, but I hope Google is hanging in.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What became of the ARCOS undersea cable connection to Cuba?

Will Trump kill the proposal before the election?


Proposed 56km link between the
ARCOS undersea Cable and Cuba
Cuba's primary connection to the global Internet is through the ALBA-1 undersea cable linking landing points on the south-east shore of the island to Venezuela and Jamaica; however, the bulk of Cuban traffic originates in Havana which is on the north-west coast. Traffic from Havana and other cities in the west travels over a backbone to reach the cable landing points. A landing point near Havana would reduce the load on the backbone, speeding connections, providing redundancy, and saving capital investment.

At one time, there seemed to be bipartisan support in the US for improving Cuban Internet access. During his second term, President Obama pursued detente with Cuba and much of that effort was focused on the role of the Internet and undersea cable connectivity was part of the plan. Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, who led two US government delegations to Cuba during the Obama administration, said there were at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. There had even been discussion of one day allowing Cuban access to the US cable at Guantanamo, GTMO-1.

At first, Trump seemed to agree -- consider the following timeline:

  • October 20, 2017, The State Department issued National Security Presidential Memorandum, NSPM-5, stating that it was our policy to "Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services" and directing government departments and agencies "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba."
  • January 22, 2018, The State Department established a Cuba Internet Task Force "to examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba." (Disclosure -- The Task Force formed two sub-committees and I was a member of both).
  • July 23, 2018, The consortium that owns the ARCOS cable applied to construct a branch from the cable to an ETECSA supplied cable landing spot in Cojimar, Cuba.
  • August 10, 2018, The FCC found the application "to be acceptable for filing and subject to the streamlined processing procedures" obligating them to take action "within forty-five (45) days" unless upon "further examination" the application is "deemed ineligible for streamlined processing."
Well, it seems the application must have been deemed ineligible since as far as I know nothing happened until earlier this month when The Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector (CAFPUSTSS), which Trump established in an executive order on April 4, 2020, notified the FCC that it is planning to conduct 120-day security reviews of the ARCOS application.

I reached out to the FCC and the attorney who filed the request for the cable branch to ask why the application had not been acted upon but got no reply. I can think of two possible explanations:
  • Trump changed his policy with respect to Cuban Internet connectivity without, as far as I know, telling anyone.
  • Trump held this application up in order to grab a Florida headline between now and the election when the CAFPUSTSS rejects the application showing how tough he is on Cuba in an effort to win Cuban and Venezuelan votes.
I'm unfamiliar with FCC procedures and workflow -- is there another explanation?

Finally, note that on March 15, 2018, Deep Blue Cable Inc. applied for a Caribbean cable with 19 landing points. While none of those were in Cuba, they planned a second phase with two Cuban landing points, but the Deep Blue application was withdrawn on November 11, 2019.

Update 11/30/2020

Denise Coca, FCC Division Chief, informed me that the ARCOS-1 application had been withdrawn on October 20, 2020, about two weeks before the election. When asked why the FCC had taken so long to process the application, she did not answer.

I wonder whether this might be re-submitted to the Biden FCC. Since the administration sought Cuban rapprochement during his time as Vice President, I imagine Biden would favor the link. One can argue that doing so would be a net political win among Florida voters. Would Cuban president Díaz-Canel approve it? It would reduce traffic on the Cuban backbone and improve international connectivity, but might be construed as a security threat and neutralize one of his complaints against the US.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

¿Existe un futuro para los emprendimientos tecnológicos privados en Cuba?

This is a guest post by Cuban professor Armando Camacho Costales.  It is a continuation of a previous postArmando is interested in the self-employment sector in Cuba and writes about the Internet on his blog Cuba 2.0.

Cuba posee una cantidad abrumadora de normas y barreras burocráticas que obstaculizan el desarrollo del sector privado de la economía. Sector mayoritariamente orientado hacia los servicios. Restaurantes y cafeterías, hostales, alquiler de casas y habitaciones y transporte de pasajeros representan más del 40% de las licencias activas al cierre del primer semestre del 2020. Otro 30% corresponden a trabajadores que constituye “fuerza de trabajo contratada” por esos “emprendedores”. Aproximadamente 25% lo constituyen trabajos artesanales o casi folclóricos (por ejemplo, desmochador de palmas); solo un 5%, 32 699 trabajadores, pueden ser considerados emprendimientos tecnológicos.    

Estos “negocios privados” tienen en el turismo, o en menor medida a los cubanos residentes en el extranjero, como sus principales clientes y fuente de ingresos. Una encuesta señala que el 75% de sus ingresos provienen de esos dos mercados. La escasez de productos de primera necesidad ha impulsado a las autoridades una cruzada de acciones policiales y judiciales en contra de las “actividades de la economía sumergida” por lo que a la pérdida del 75% de sus ingresos también enfrentan el desabastecimiento de insumos. En la antes citada encuesta los “cuentapropistas” declaran que su cadena de suministro proviene en un 21% del “mercado negro” o la “economía sumergida”. A lo anterior se le agrega los desajustes macroeconómicos y estructurales pendientes por resolver de la economía cubana.

Todo ello hace que el “trabajo por cuenta propia” (TCP) y sus “emprendimientos empresariales” enfrenten en la actualidad un colapso estructural solo comparable al “periodo especial” acontecido en la década de los noventas del pasado siglo.

De 632 557 “trabadores por cuenta-propia” (TCP) activos en febrero del 2020, 243 203 (38%) a finales de marzo solicitaron suspensión temporal para no operar a consecuencia de la pandemia del SARS COV2. Los más afectados resultaron los trabajadores contratados con 60 318 (25%), transportistas 42 213 (18%), arrendadores de habitaciones 21 714 (9%) y servicios gastronómicos 14 464 (6%); de acuerdo a cifras oficiales.

La situación empeora con respecto al pequeño y dinámico número de emprendimientos en el sector info-telecomunicaciones; la autorización de nuevas licencias está suspendida desde 2017 a la espera que el Ministerio de las Comunicaciones actualice el alcance de la actividad. Hasta la fecha se mantienen las tres (3) actividades aprobadas hace ya más de una década:

  • Agente de telecomunicaciones y agente postal
  • Reparador de equipos electrónicos
  • Programador de equipos de cómputo.

Al cierre del primer semestre del 2020 trabajan como "Agente de telecomunicaciones y agente postal” 27 888, “Reparador de equipos electrónicos” 3 747 y “Programador de equipos de cómputo” 1 064 trabajadores. Un total de 32 699; 5% de todas las licencias activas al cierre del primer semestre del 2020.

“Agentes de telecomunicaciones” la actividad comienza a desarrollarse a partir del 2014 cuando se les permitió a los cubanos el acceso a internet y representan el 85% del total y no requiere conocimiento técnico alguno al ser los encargados de gestionar la venta y el cobro de los servicios de ETECSA percibiendo por ello una comisión por estas ventas. La edad promedio de estos trabajadores sobrepasa los 45 años y constituye un ingreso suplementario para muchos pensionados. Por su parte ETECSA disminuye personal, costos de oficina, salarios y al mismo tiempo acercan sus servicios a las comunidades, muchas de ellas pequeñas comunidades rurales, las 24 horas del día los siete días de la semana.

“Reparador de equipos electrónicos” sus titulare son los empresarios de la mayor parte de los talleres de reparación e instalación de aplicaciones para los teléfonos inteligentes, computadoras personales y demás dispositivos. Desde el 2016 se encuentran en el entorno de los 3740 trabajadores activos; con muy pocas nuevas incorporaciones; la edad promedio 35 años. De las tres actividades es la que más empleo crea pues el 50% de los titulares declara emplear al menos a otro trabajador por cuenta propia.

“Programador de equipos de cómputo” representa el 3% con 1 064 licencias, cifra inferior a la repostada en nuestro primer análisis.  Es la más dinámica y volátil de las tres; con estudios universitarios y edad promedio 30 años.

Desde el 2017 no se han incorporado nuevos programadores; pero 745 han abandonado la actividad desde igual fecha. Las licencias se encuentran en su mínimo en los últimos cinco años. La de mayor concentración geográfica, el 67% (712) residen en La Habana.  

Las tres actividades por cuenta propia se encontraban paralizadas desde finales del 2016; mucho antes del cierre por la pandemia de la COVID-19; la consecuente depresión económica, solo ha amplificado la tendencia a la baja de los últimos cuatro años.

Los negocios particulares resurgieron en la Isla como una necesidad, más que una opción, para enfrentar el colapso económico del 1994 y el subsiguiente desplome de industrias tradicionales como la agro-azucarera; la que no logrado recuperar sus niveles de exportación anteriores a 1989.


El trabajo por cuenta propia constituye uno de los sectores más dinámicos y volátiles de la economía nacional, representa entre un 7% y 15% del PIB y ha creado más de 600 mil nuevos empleos.

Su reto hoy será encontrar los mecanismos internos y externos mínimos para sobrevivir el colapso del 2020 y para las autoridades gubernamentales y reguladoras la urgencia de establecer políticas agiles y realistas acordes a la nueva realidad que impida le ocurra algo similar con las exportaciones de azúcar refinada.  

¿Es posible reconvertir el trabajo por cuenta propia en pequeñas y medianas empresas más orientadas a la nueva economía digital?

Para ello es necesario establecer cuanto antes un paquete de ayudas crediticias-fiscales y reformas operativas y de gestión que detenga la actual tendencia al decrecimiento, después adelantar el proyectado cronograma legislativo que permita promulgar cuanto antes las anunciadas nuevas leyes de: empresas, de inversión extranjera o fiscales.  

Las actuales normas vigentes para el sector tecnológico privado han sido modificadas dos veces entre el 2018 y el 2019, las cifras demuestran que han fracasaron; ahora bajo las actuales circunstancias económicas están obsoletas.

¿Existe un futuro para los emprendimientos privados tecnológicos en Cuba?

El futuro para los emprendimientos privados en el sector tecnológico es sombrío, difícil de predecir, y a los efectos prácticos se encuentra prácticamente detenido; podría llegar a mínimos históricos o desaparecer la actividad de programadores para el 2021.   Para evitar esta posibilidad urge:

  • Otorgar cuanto antes nuevas licencias. Aumentar o diversificar el número de licencias en sectores con mayor valor añadido como las del sector tecnológico; con ello se al menos se podría detener la actual tendencia decreciente y el éxodo de un personal altamente calificado.
  • Aprobar un mayor alcance para los programadores se les permita la posibilidad legal de comercializar nacional e internacionalmente sus productos, servicios o bienes; asociarse en cooperativas o espacios de “coworking” de acuerdo a las mejores prácticas internacionales e importar equipos o servicios de alta tecnología.
  • Modificar o eliminar las actuales estructuras verticales por otras más dinámicas de conformidad con la actual revolución tecnológica del siglo XXI.
  • Reformar la actual política fiscal para el sector privado. Identificada por el sector como la mayor barrera que impide su desarrollo. La política tributaria debería establecer impuestos similares al sector privado o estatal; la actual estructura fiscal afecta el flujo de caja, la creación de nuevos empleos e incita a la elusión y evasión fiscal.
  • Facilitar la reconversión de estos negocios personales en pequeñas y medianas empresas con oportunidades análogas a las otras formas de propiedad en la economía nacional.

Proyecciones de la Organización Mundial del Turismo (OIT)  prevé  una caída entre el 60% y el 80% del sector, y una lenta recuperación en el 2021 (condicionada a que se pueda detener la pandemia). Con estas proyecciones tampoco se prevé una recuperación a corto plazo de la economía cubana. Permitir que desaparezcan 300 mil empleos privados junto al 10% del PIB en dos años no debería ser una opción para la sociedad cubana.    

La actual recesión económica podría funcionar como una ventana de oportunidades a mediano plazo que permita la transformación de los actuales (y la creación de nuevos emprendimientos privados) más orientados al sector productivo para satisfacer las demandas básicas de una sociedad desde la perspectiva de una nueva economía digital” y una sociedad del conocimiento al servicio de otros emprendimientos en los sectores primario y secundario. Estos negocios tecnológicos proveerían herramientas y conocimientos para incrementar la calidad, la rentabilidad y la productividad de toda la estructura económica nacional.   

 

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