Monday, July 2, 2018

Cuban "technological sovereignty" -- a walled garden strategy?

ToDus can be downloaded at Apklis
ToDus, a messaging application described as a "Cuban WhatsApp" and Apklis, a distribution site for Android mobile apps, were featured at the First Computerization Workshop held recently at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas (UCI).

One might ask, why do we need a Cuban WhatsApp and Apklis when we already have WhatsApp itself and the Google Play Store?

ToDus seems to duplicate WhatsApp's features. Users can send messages, photos and other files to individuals or groups of up to 250 members and, like WhatsApp, it is secure -- messages are encrypted and stored on users phones, not toDus servers. (ToDus users cannot speak with each other using this version of the program, but that feature will be added). Since toDus is a free app, I believe it could be listed on the Google Play Store as well as on Apklis.

The key difference between toDus and Apkis and WhatsApp and the Play Store is that the former run on Cuba's national intranet, not the global Internet. One could argue that this duplication is done to lower operating costs or improve performance. I don't know how Cuba's international access is priced, but it seems that the marginal cost of international traffic for a chat app used by 11 million people would be very small and the latency difference imperceptible. (If Cuba is trying to save on communication cost or cut latency, they would be way better off pursuing an undersea cable between Havana and Florida).

Yadier Perdomo, Director of Networks at UCI, may have alluded to a more significant motivation when he stated that toDus "guarantees technological sovereignty, something that similar products, such as WhatsApp and Messenger (from Facebook), do not do." I am not sure what he means by "technological sovereignty," but it seems consistent with an overall effort to focus on domestic as opposed to global communication and services. Furthermore, ETECSA is rolling out 3G mobile connectivity (and experimenting with 4G) and evidently planning to charge less for access to the national intranet than the Global Internet.

Does this point to a strategy of encouraging a Cuban "walled garden" that favors intranet communication and services (and El Paquete Semanal) over Global Internet communication and services?

That policy would have two negative side effects. For one, it would create two classes of Cuban users -- the relatively poor, mass population that predominantly uses mobile phones on the intranet and elite users with access to the global Internet using computers as well as mobile phones. The Internet-enabled users would have access to more information and more powerful application and be better able to create content.

Second, while Cuba can create and support a simple application like toDus on its own, they lack the scale and resources to create complex and mass-data dependent applications -- Cuba's Ecured will never be as comprehensive as WikiPedia, their Mapa service will never be as useful as Google Maps, there can never be a Cuban equivalent of Google Translate, etc.

One might justify favoring the intranet over the Internet as an interim step to what the Cubans call "the computerization of society," but it is a drain of resources in the short run and a dead-end in the long run. Cubans should focus on things in which they have a comparative advantage -- as the saying goes, "do what you do best and link to the rest."

Well, brings me to the end of this post, but I want to add two miscellaneous tidbits -- kind of a PS:

1. If you go to the Internet portal of Cuba's intranet, you see links to toDus and Apklis. Both are broken, but the Apklis link is to https://www.apklis.cu/es/ not to https://www.apklis.cu. What's up with that?

2. The names and logos of Apklis and toDus are completely goofy. The toDus logo is evidently a reference to the Cuban tody bird and I cannot guess the rationale behind the Apklis butterfly. One thing is clear -- neither name or logo says anything about the corresponding service, though one might guess that Apklis has something to do with APKs.


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Update 7/3/2018

The Internet portal of Cuba's intranet is unreachable and versions cached at the Internet Archive do not have links to toDus and Apklis.

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Update 7/5/2018

The link to the Internet portal of Cuba's intranet is working again, but the links to Apklis and toDus remain broken. I don't know whether they will be globally reachable in the future and since the link to Apklis is still in the .es top-level domain, I wonder if it was developed in Spain.








Monday, June 25, 2018

Will Cisco make a comeback in Cuba?

Is the recently announced Cisco Networking Academy at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas a belated drop in the bucket or the first step in a significant opening?

Laura Quintana, Cisco Vice President of Corporate Affairs, launching
Cisco networking training at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas
Cisco dominated the infrastructure equipment market in Cuba and elsewhere during the early days of the Internet, but Huawei replaced them in Cuba -- here is a timeline:
What does this mean?

It might be a belated drop in the bucket. UCI has only 19 trained CNA instructors while the CNA curriculum is being taught by over 20,000 instructors at over 10,000 institutions.

On the other hand, this might be the first step in a significant opening. The Castros are no longer in power -- might the US allow Cisco to sell equipment to Cuba and might the Cubans consider Cisco as a competitor to Huawei, SES, and other connectivity providers?

The Trump administration has cracked down on individual travel but has not curtailed the sales of communication equipment to Cuba. Trump would doubtless like to claim credit for any Cuban sales by Cisco and for Raúl Castro stepping down and he is indifferent to human rights violation, so my guess is that the US would allow Cisco to sell to Cuba.

Similarly, competition from Cisco would enhance Cuba's bargaining position with Huawei and, while much of their SNA material is generic, some is Cisco-specific, giving them an advantage. I don't know if Cisco is charging for their training or equipment, but they may be donating it as a marketing and international public-relations expense. (In the mainframe days, IBM gave significant discounts and subsidies to universities so students would be trained on their equipment. They even built the building to house the computers at the UCLA Western Data Processing Center where I was a student).

It's too soon to know if this is an important first step and it will be interesting to see how events unfold. A good start would be for the US to allow Cubans access to Cisco's online CNA courses and for UCI to expand their initial internal offering and to train CNA instructors at schools and organizations like the Unión de Informáticos, ETECSA, networks like Infomed, and the Joven Clubs.

President Obama announced the Cisco-UCI SNA plan over two years ago. Two years from now, we will know whether it is significant for either Cisco or Cuba.










Sunday, June 17, 2018

Cuba's forthcoming 3G pricing model -- protection and control

Zero-rating or other forms of subsidy are particularly problematic when the Internet service provider is a government-owned monopoly.

Jorge Luis Valdés Hernández
Jorge Luis Valdés Hernández, Director de Servicios Convergentes de la Vicepresidencia de Integración Comercial de ETECSA, described forthcoming changes to their mobile Internet service in a recent press conference. (He also has a very long job title).

To be honest, the press conference coverage left me a bit confused, but this is some of what he said as I understood it:
  • There are 5.1 million active mobile accounts today and of those 35% use 2G phones, 45% 3G and 20% 4G. (ETECSA will be selling a lot of 3 and 4G phones).
  • Fourth generation LTE service is being tested in Varadero and deployment will begin in 2019. (Armando Camacho has reported on the tests and found the preliminary speeds surprisingly slow).
  • I believe that access to selected sites will be free or subsidized -- zero-rated -- and others will be capped by the amount of data transferred. My guess is that the majority of the free sites will be on the national intranet as opposed to the global Internet.
  • He gave a hypothetical example in which a user on the 1 GB plan would receive .5 GB free access to sites on the national intranet, stating that international access was more expensive than domestic.
  • While not defining plans or prices, he presented two hypothetical paid plans -- one for "moderate" users at 500 MB per month and a second for "intense" users at 2.5 GB per month -- and showed typical data utilization for various applications:

The press conference hailed the "launch" of the mobile Internet, but Cuban 3G mobile access began in 2015 when it was made available to tourists in limited locations and it has steadily expanded. Today there are over 520 3G-compatible base stations covering 47% of the population and all of Havana.

This press conference was not about new technology, but about new pricing, which favors government-approved political content and protects local content and services from global competition.

Subsidized content delivery is an attractive consumer marketing tool, but proponents of network neutrality argue that it gives the Internet service provider (ISP) the power to pick winners and losers. For example, AT&T could begin zero rating -- delivering content produced by its recently acquired Time-Warner subsidiary -- at no cost to the user.

Zero-rating or other forms of subsidy are even more problematical when the Internet service provider is a government-owned monopoly, as it is in Cuba. If you live in the US, depending upon your point of view, you probably consider Fox News or MSNBC politically biased, but your ISP does not give you a discount on either. Will Granma.cu be zero-rated?

Going beyond political information, the new pricing continues the Cuban policy of favoring content or service on the national intranet over that on the global Internet. Valdés asserted that in addition to increasing the consumption of national service, this policy would help offset the increased cost of delivering international content, but that increase is marginal and the national intranet discount amounts to a protectionist tariff on foreign content and services. (And, I bet ETECSA will make a handsome profit even with this national-intranet discount).

Mobile connectivity, not WiFi hotspots or home DSL, is the focus of Cuba's current "universal Internet access" campaign and the new pricing plans will serve to protect local content and service providers and control political information.



Thursday, June 7, 2018

How about opening a YouTube video production space in Havana?

YouTube has video production spaces in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, New York, São Paulo, Berlin, Paris, Mumbai, and Toronto -- how about opening one in Havana?

In 2015 I wrote that Cuba was well positioned to produce Spanish-language entertainment and education content and suggested that they open a YouTube production space in Havana.

The idea of opening a production space in Havana makes even more sense today than it did in 2015.

Google Global Cache (GGC) servers are now installed and operating on the Island. That means Google content can be viewed and uploaded faster than in 2015 and the result is that YouTube has made substantial gains since GCC went online last April:

YouTube gains since GCC went online (source)

There is also a growing, enthusiastic community of young Cuban YouTubers, several of whom are profiled in this YucaByte article and you can "meet" a few others in this short (5:36) video from Periodismo de Barrio:


(The YucaByte article also contains a short video sampler showing enthusiastic YouTubers).

Not exactly being a millennial myself, I am not likely to become a follower of these youthful YouTubers, but they are inheritors of a rich history of Cuban music, cinema and education.

Google executives and Senator Jeff Flake just met with Cuban president Diaz-Canel and former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt who said “We already have an agreement signed that allows easier access to data. We would like to do more.”

How about opening a YouTube video production space in Havana?

Friday, June 1, 2018

Update on Cuban advances in the "computerization of society"

A recent televised roundtable enumerated advances in the computerization of Cuban society, including:
  • Telephone density is 58% with 6.5 million accounts, 5.2 million of which are cell phones.
  • 1.5 million people access Nauta mail with cell phones.
  • Over 1.7 million have permanent accounts.
  • There are 1,713 public-access spots: 709 WiFi locations, over 700 at ETECSA premises and the same number in third-party locations (but 709+1400 is 2109, not 1,713).
  • There are over 37,000 Nauta Hogar accounts, 22,000 of which were installed this year, and they hope to install another 30,000 by the end of the year.
  • Nauta Hogar is available in 136 municipalities and 22 percent of the Popular Councils.
  • They have installed a lot of fiber.
  • There are over 1,400 cellular base stations and over 520 of them are 3G compatible.
  • There are 935 ATMs, serving all provinces, but only 69 municipalities.
  • There are currently 11,500 point-of-sale terminals, mainly in retail stores.
  • UCI is working on "RED Cuba" a search service for all national intranet content.
  • UCI has a service for monitoring over 1,500 national intranet Web sites -- presumably monitoring traffic, not content.
  • Apklis, the online application center for Android devices, will serve as an alternative to the Google Play store for Cuban applications.
  • An e-government application for the collection and management of fines has been installed in 198 offices.
A few tentative observations come to mind. They are continuing to stress the national Cuban intranet with applications like Apkis and RED Cuba. Nauta Hogar is attractive to a subset of people and small businesses who can afford it and are located in served areas, but it will not reach the mass population -- for that, they are counting on 3G cellular and public-access spots.

Here is the roundtable video:




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Internet in Cuba -- a Periodismo de Barrio anthology

Periodismo de Barrio has edited a collection of 13 articles on the Cuban Internet in collaboration with the Internet Policy Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. The articles cover the history of the Cuban Internet, the legal framework, services, communities, and projects. It is a diverse collection -- something for everyone. Here are thumbnail summaries of each article:
¿Puede Estados Unidos conectar a Internet a los cubanos? – Elaine Díaz Rodríguez
A critical look at US efforts to enhance Cuban connectivity, from the Clinton administration through the recent formation of the Cuban Internet Task Force by Trump
La ruta de Internet en Cuba – Anidelys Rodríguez Brito
A survey of Cuban networking from the pre-Internet days through today's 3G, home DSL, and public access points
Internet en Cuba: ¿limitada por la política o la economía? – Eloy Viera Cañive
A survey of the political and economic factors that curb Cuban access and content
¿Quién eres, ETECSA? – Mabel Olalde Azpiri
A history of ETECSA and its role in serving Infomed and other networks as well as the general public
Variaciones sobre la wifi – Lianet Fleites
A portrait of WiFi hotspot users and uses
Te quiero, mi sangre – Geisy Guia Delis
People connecting with expatriate family members
Nauta Hogar: nueva herramienta para emprendedores cubanos – Julio Batista Rodríguez
Nauta Hogar: a new tool for Cuban entrepreneurs
El color verde en la palabra Sígueme – Jesús Jank Curbelo
A look at Sígueme, the SNET "Facebook" application
Se venden héroes a diez pesos – Carlos Melián
Kids playing multiplayer online games
Tecnología y cambio social en Cuba: en busca de hipervínculos – Mónica Baró Sánchez
An interview of Yohana Lezcano Lavandera, who advocates computer literacy education
El Callejón de los Milagros – Rogelio Serrano
An interview with professor and researcher Juan Antonio García Borrero about his project The Alley of the Mircales
Ocho aplicaciones contra la desconexión – Mónica Baró Sánchez
Descriptions of eight mobile phone apps that can be used offline
¿Qué podría hacer el gobierno cubano en el escenario virtual? – Jessica Domínguez Delgado
Potential e-government applicatioins in Cuba
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this collection is not any one of the articles, but the fact that they were pulled together and edited as an innovative online "dossier" -- an anthology of articles on the Internet in Cuba.

Finally, the editor, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez. asked me for feedback on her opening contribution ¿Puede Estados Unidos conectar a Internet a los cubanos? and I might as well share my comments.

Elaine covered several US efforts to influence the Cuban Internet, most recently Trump's Cuban Internet Task Force. I've written a couple of posts on the Task Force, which I see as a political act. That being said, the Task Force participant's hearts are in the right place for the most part and we can hope that genuine aid and investment might be possible in the future if Trump is defeated and Diaz-Canel adopts Internet-friendly policies.

Elaine also drilled down on the Alan Gross fiasco. I've written many posts about Alan Gross, including several on what he actually did, how little difference he would have made had he succeeded and how much the Cubans overstated the impact it would have had.

I agree with Elaine that nothing happened as a result of President Obama's trip to Cuba. That being said, Google has worked diligently, before and after President Obama's trip, to establish relationships in Cuba. The only concrete result has been their caching server (GCC) in Cuba, but the relationships they have built may pay off in the long run. (GCC has resulted in a noticeable increase in YouTube traffic relative to Facebook).

I've also written posts on La ruta de Internet en Cuba -- including one on the initial Cuban Internet connection over a link provided by Sprint with a subsidy from the US National Science Foundation and several on pre-Internet networking in Cuba.

I've speculated on the question raised in the essay Internet en Cuba: ¿limitada por la política o la economía?. From the early days of the Internet, it has been both the economy and politics, but I would add vested interests and bureaucracy today.

Another post asks ¿Quién eres, Etecsa?, a question I've also asked, but can't answer.

The post Te quiero, mi sangre shows WiFi hotspots being used to communicate emotion and presence, in the tradition of the pioneering Hole in Space performance art project.

I've also looked at Nauta Hogar, and, while I agree that it is useful for some tech and other small businesses, it is a dead end on the road to home connectivity.

The articles include photos and other images as well as original illustrations.

=====
Update 5/31/2018

Periodismo de Barrio is also experimenting with short video documentaries about the Cuban Internet. Here are links to their first five videos:

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Five million mobile accounts

Active mobile accounts
Cubans now have 5 million mobile accounts. The five-millionth account was recently opened Guanabacoa, in the eastern part of Havana and we see here that growth slowed last year, but has resumed -- perhaps due to increased 3G availability.

Most Cubans have 2G phones, which are used primarily for making calls and sending text messages that may have attached images. As of June 2017 there were 856 2G base stations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population.

Cuba is rolling out 3G connectivity and ETECSA reports that 47% of the population is now covered and, as of last June, there was some coverage in all provincial capitals and tourist resorts.

The only speed data I have seen was gathered by Armando Camacho who ran a number of 3G speed tests in Havana (near the corner of Patrocinio and 10 de Octubre) and observed ping time to a server in Miami as ranging from 91 to 127 milliseconds, upload speed from .48 to 1.58 Mbps and download speed from .85 to 10.42 Mbps. The latter is fast enough to allow Web browsing and other applications, particularly those like YouTube Go, that are designed for use over slow, expensive connections in conjunction with offline SD-card storage.

Armando observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources and performance would be frustrating at times. (Have others run similar tests)?

I don't have any statistics, but many Cuban phones are incompatible with ETECSA's 3G service, so users will be stuck with 2G until they get new 3G phones.

Upgrading to 3G technology when 4G is common in many nations and 5G is close on the horizon may sound discouraging, but it makes sense as a stopgap strategy for Cuba since it keeps backhaul load down and phones are cheap. That being said, I hope they are evaluating the possibility of leapfrogging to 5G technology when it matures and they can afford it.

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Update 4/21/2018

For the 26-year history of mobile phones in Cuba see this post.

Monday, April 2, 2018

A 5G, community network strategy for Cuba (and other developing nations)

In a previous post, I suggested that Cuba might be able to leap over 4G to 5G wireless infrastructure using satellite and terrestrial networks for backhaul. While that would require political and policy change, it would be a good fit with Cuban culture and skills.

Before talking about Cuba, let me say a bit about wireless generations.

Each mobile technology generation used new technology and enabled new applications:
  • 1G: Voice calls
  • 2G: Digital data for text and sending small images
  • 3G: Smartphones for low-quality video, Web browsing, and GPS
  • 4G: High speed, lower latency communication for video streaming and chat and interaction with complex Web content
Fifth-generation wireless will be faster than today's 4G and latency is expected be on the order of 1 ms within the 5G network. Radios will be capable of beamforming -- rapidly switching focused beams among large numbers of devices -- and simultaneous two-way (full duplex) transmission at a given frequency. This will enable real-time applications like control of autonomous vehicles, remote medical procedures and augmented and virtual reality as well as fast file transfer and streaming and other, un-imagined applications.

Do not think of this as the evolution of the cell-phone network; think of it as a discontinuity in wireless communication to mobile and fixed users.

In addition to enabling new applications, each mobile computing generation uses different frequency bands and 5G is being designed to use very high frequencies. High-frequency radio waves enable high-speed transmission and small antennas. Being able to fit multiple small, cooperating antennas in a phone or other device (multiple inputs and outputs (MIMO) increases transmission range and speed. However, there is a high-frequency tradeoff -- low-frequency waves travel farther and are better able to penetrate obstacles like buildings and trees than high-frequency waves.

Small cell on the terrace
of a building in Bangalore
High-frequency networks will require a multi-tier architecture. With the current cellular network, phones and other devices communicate with a relatively distant base station that is connected by fiber or high-speed wireless to the Internet. Fifth-generation wireless will require many "small cell" radios that communicate with those high-capacity base stations.

Now back to Cuba (and other developing nations).

As of last year, there were 879 cellular base stations in Cuba, 358 of which had been upgraded to support 3G communication. As of 2016, 85.3% of the population was covered by 2G cellular and 47% of the population had 3G coverage. (Note that 2G coverage has barely increased since 2010 and it has been flat since 2012). If they continue rolling out 3G, it should reach the 85.3% fairly soon, but new base stations will have to be added to cover the entire population.

Upgrading from 2G to 3G requires new equipment and also more backhaul capacity between a base station and the Internet because 3G transmission speeds are greater than 2G and 3G applications use more data. For most Cubans, it would also require the purchase of a new phone. High-speed, 5G service would require much more backhaul capacity and new phones.

In densely populated areas it will be economically feasible to provide that backhaul using fiber, but fiber to support 5G capacity throughout the island would be very expensive. In many locations, satellite connectivity may turn out to be a better backhaul medium than fiber. SES Networks (O3b) will be offering connectivity using their middle-Earth orbit satellites before Cuba is ready for 5G and by the time they are ready, low-Earth orbit satellite connectivity from vendors like OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink will be available.

But what about the large number of small-cell radios that be feeding 5G base stations?

Like today's WiFi radios, they will be installed and maintained by community members and users. Cubans are known for do-it-yourslef innovation, for example in keeping old cars running and installing motors on bicycles and they have built community networks in places like Gaspar, Camagüey and Pinar del Río. Havana's SNET, is said to be the largest community network in the world that is not connected to the global Internet and there are over 8.000 amateur radio operators and over 1,400 active, self-employed programmers in Cuba.

Small cell radios will be semi-automatically configured and simpler to install and maintain than the WiFi radios used in today's street nets, but that is the easy part. Decentralized technology calls for decentralized decision making. Local people who are locally elected should decide questions like how many small cells to deploy in a neighborhood or rural area, where they should be located and how to pay for them. Would the current municipal electoral districts (from 200-3,000 inhabitants) be an appropriate locus of network control?

ETECSA would cede local control but be responsible for acquiring international bandwidth and providing backhaul over fiber or satellite from their base stations. They would also serve as consultants to local communities and could negotiate high-volume discount purchases of locally-owned equipment.

Note that I am still assuming a major role for ETECSA in spite of the fact that historically, nations like Cuba have privatized telecommunication and licensed foreign operators in exchange for investment in infrastructure. In previous posts I have suggested that vested interest and bureaucracy at ETECSA and uncertainty over control may be stifling Cuban Internet expansion. To the extent that that is the case, the new administration would have to change the organizational culture to focus on Cuba's stated economic and social policy goals -- leapfrogging current regulation and policy along with the technology. That may be wishful thinking, but if they are able to do so, they will have an advantage over nations in which private company profit trumps (no pun intended) social goals.

The technology is also ill-defined and unproven. While the standard for the first version of the 5G radio interface between a device and base station is complete, other hardware and software standards are still being developed and 5G is based on technologies that have been tested in trials, but not in large scale practice. The first deployments are not expected until next year, user and network equipment prices are not set and competing technologies like Starry may impact pricing and deployment.

Novel, unproven 5G wireless technologies (source)

In spite of this policy and technology uncertainty, ETECSA can start the ball rolling today by cooperating with and providing Internet gateways to SNET and other street nets, possibly in conjunction with support of the Internet Society and the Organization of American States. They can also learn from the experience of others like Gufinet in Spain and a variety of community networks in the US and elsewhere. At the same time, they should be following the 5G standards process directly and through their vendors, primarily Huawei and SES Networks (O3b), in order to plan for the future.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Statistics and predictions from Informatica 2018

The 2018 Informatica conference and trade show concludes today in Havana and Mayra Arevich, executive president of ETECSA, gave some Internet-related figures and predictions during a panel session.
  • ETECSA's objective is "to reach more Cubans."
  • There are 673 WIFI hotspots, 207 fixed navigation rooms and 771 navigation areas in hotels, Joven Clubs and post offices.
  • As an indication of capacity, she said they had achieved up to 124,400 simultaneous connections.
  • They plan to add 150 new wired and wireless areas in 2018, bringing coverage to 44% of the Popular Councils.
  • They installed DSL in 14,634 homes last year and expect to add 52,500 this year. They've installed 12,682 so far this year.
  • Ninety-five percent of the home DSL accounts are at the slowest speed of 1 mb/s. I wonder how much of that is due to poor wiring that will not allow higher speeds in an area and how much is due to cost. The 1 mb/s service costs 15 CUC for 30 hours online.
  • Three G wireless is available throughout Havana and she estimated 47% of the population was covered.
  • In 2017, more than 3,992 new data links to institutions of 23 national organizations and entities were installed and they plan to install 5,000 new data services to them this year. I assume she was referring to 5,000 new links and wonder what their speed will be.
(Click here for previous updates by Ms. Arevich).

Maimir Mesa Ramos, Minister of Communications, also gave a few statistics during his opening speech.
  • There are now 614 Joven Clubs throughout the island.
  • The Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas has graduated over 14,400 engineers since it was founded.
  • There are 4.6 million Cuban cell-phone subscribers and that number is expected to exceed 5 million this year. (I wonder how many of those use 3G data and how many 3G-compatible handsets Cubans own).
  • He referred to the development of "modest" content and services like Infomed, Ecured and Cubarte -- Cuba could do much more as a producer and distributor of educational and entertainment content for the Spanish-speaking world
(Click here for previous updates by Mr. Mesa).

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cuba's mobile-Internet strategy?

This post is speculative, but I think Cuba may use satellite for 3G backhaul and, when the technologies are ready, leapfrog over 4G to 5G mobile connectivity and next-generation satellite. ETECSA began rolling out 3G connectivity for Cubans about a year ago and a few things have led me to believe they will continue:
  • Miguel Díaz-Canel, who many expect to replace Raúl Castro, has stated that "The State will work to make [the Internet] available, accessible, affordable for all." He also cites problems and responsibilities but seems on balance to favor connectivity.
  • WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms and home DSL cannot scale to bring "accessible, affordable" connectivity to all, but mobile phones can.
  • During 2017, ETECSA, Cuba's government telecommunication monopoly, installed 279 3G base stations, bringing the total number of base stations to 409 and reaching 47% of the population
  • Mobile connectivity is becoming available in low-population areas.
  • Last December, ETECSA began routing international traffic over the O3b medium-Earth orbit satellite network and now about 5% of their international routes are carried by O3b. (O3b is a subsidiary of SES an established geostationary satellite company).
  • O3b added four satellites to their constellation this month and plan to add four more next year, but they will have a much more significant upgrade when they deploy mPOWER, a new generation of satellite technology, in 2021.
The following crowd-sourced maps show Cuba's mobile rollout. (Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB).

Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, February 2017 (Source)

Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, November 2017 (Source)

Given the choice, people would prefer the flexibility, convenience and comfort of mobile or home access over access at a fixed location like a WiFi park or navigation room. Cuba cannot afford the infrastructure upgrade to make home DSL "available, accessible, and affordable for all" and if they could it would require an enormous investment in obsolete technology.

But, could they provide widespread 3G mobile? Doing so would require more base stations and more backhaul from those base stations to the Intenet. I have been told that O3b currently has a satellite-Internet gateway in Jarusco, near Havana, but my guess is that they will install others to provide 3G backhaul. This would not be unprecedented -- for example, O3b provides mobile backhaul for Digicell, which has over 40,000 LTE accounts in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Could Cuba employ a PNG-like strategy for a portion of their mobile backhaul?

Cuba is not identical to PNG. PNG's population is only about 72% of Cuba's, but Cuba has several advantages over PNG. The area of PNG is more than four times that of Cuba and Cuba has superior, universal education, a GDP per capita about 3.5 times that of PNG and more terrestrial Internet infrastructure.

But, shouldn't Cuba install modern 4G technology instead of 3G?

I have long advocated a strategy of relying on stopgap measures like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms, street nets, El Paquete Semanal and 3G mobile service while planning to leapfrog over current technology. Third generation mobile is significantly slower than 4G/LTE, which means much less backhaul and international bandwidth is required. Furthermore, Google, industrious Cubans and other are developing applications that are tailored to work on slow connections and offline on low-cost handsets. (There were 1,432 active, self-employed programmers in Cuba as of last April).

If 3G is a stopgap while waiting for 5G wireless technology to become available, what might the future look like?

As mentioned above O3b plans to deploy their next-generation mPOWER satellite constellation in 2021. MPOWER will be a major advance. Their current satellites can link to 10 edge terminals, but mPOWER satellites will be capable of over 4,000 links each and O3b will offer several terminal models, ranging from very cheap and small (perhaps suitable for an individual cellular base station) to very large. While we may see a limited 5G rollout in advanced nations in 2019, it will not go mainstream for a year or more and will still be maturing and too expensive for either Cuba, PNG or other developing nations for some time after that, so mPOWER will be ready by the time Cuba is ready to "leap" to 5G.

Seven satellites, each with over 4,000 steerable, fully-shapeable beams

It is noteworthy that 5G terrestrial wireless is expected to be used for fixed as well as mobile access, further reducing the need for investment in terrestrial infrastructure. When we speak of 5G connectivity to fixed locations, we are moving beyond the mobile phone as a user terminal. Handheld computers work well for conversation and consuming media but not for content creation. I could have written this blog post on a laptop with a 5G connection, but not on a mobile phone.

At an mPower press conference (video), Steve Collar, SES Networks CEO asked himself a rhetorical question -- "If we wanted to deliver all of the capability that PNG would require for the next 15 years, could we do it on mPOWER without having to use any sort of meaningful terrestrial infrastructure?" and his answer to that was "yes." He went on to say that "If we can deliver the international and domestic traffic for a country on this system ... then we've got something that is genuinely unique." (Collar's comment is roughly 6 minutes before the end of the video).

Several years ago, I suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not go for that idea. Last month, I suggested that they consider low-Earth orbit satellite Internet service. This post splits the difference by suggesting medium-Earth orbit service from O3b. Since ETECSA is already an O3b customer and SES is a European company, this one may be closer to reality -- I'll save those political considerations for a future post.



Tuesday, February 20, 2018

SpaceX Starlink and Cuba -- a match made in low-Earth orbit?

I've suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit (GSO) satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not pick up on that stopgap suggestion, but how about low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite Internet service as a next-generation solution?

SpaceX, OneWeb, Boeing and others are working on LEO satellite Internet projects. There is no guarantee that any of them will succeed -- these projects require new technology and face logistical, financial and regulatory obstacles -- but, if successful, they could provide Cuba with affordable, ubiquitous, next-generation Internet service.

Cuba should follow and consider each potential system, but let's focus on SpaceX since their plan is ambitious and they might have the best marketing/political fit with Cuba.

LEO satellite service will hopefully reach a milestone this week when SpaceX launches two test satellites. If the tests go well, SpaceX plans to begin launching operational satellites in 2019 and begin offering commercial service in the 2020-21 time frame. They will complete their first constellation of 4,425 satellites by 2024. (To put that in context, there are fewer than 2,000 operational satellites in orbit today).

SpaceX has named their future service "Starlink," and, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer Cuba service as early as 2020 and no later than 2024 depending upon which areas they plan to service first.

What has stopped the Cuban Internet and why might LEO satellites look good to Cuba?

Cuba blames their lack of connectivity on the US embargo, but President Obama cleared the way for the export of telecommunication equipment and services to Cuba and Trump has not reversed that decision.

I suspect that fear of losing political control -- the inability to filter and surveil traffic -- stopped Cuba from allowing GSO satellite service. Raúl Castro and others feared loss of control of information when Cuba first connected to the Internet in 1996, but Castro is about to step down and perhaps the next government will be more aware of the benefits of Internet connectivity and more confident in their ability to use it to their advantage.

A lack of funds has also constrained the Cuban Internet -- they cannot afford a large terrestrial infrastructure buildout and are reluctant (for good and bad reasons) to accept foreign investment. SpaceX is building global infrastructure so the marginal cost of serving Cuba would be near zero.

They say that the capital equipment for providing high-speed, low-latency service to a Cuban home, school, clinic, etc. would be a low-cost, user-installed ground-station. I've not seen ground-station price estimates from SpaceX, but their rival OneWeb says their $250 ground-station will handle a 50 Mbps, 30 ms latency Internet link and serve as a hot-spot for WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connectivity.

Since the marginal cost of serving a nation would be small and they hope to provide affordable global connectivity, I expect their service price will vary among nations. Prices would be relatively high in wealthy and low in poor nations -- there would be no point in having idle satellites flying over Cuba or any other place.

Expansion of the Cuban Internet is also constrained by bureaucracy and vested financial interest in ETECSA and established vendors. While I do not endorse Cuba's current monopoly service and infrastructure ownership policy, it could remain unchanged if ETECSA were to become a reseller of SpaceX Internet connectivity.

In summary, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer affordable, ubiquitous high-speed Internet, saving Cuba the cost of investing in expensive terrestrial infrastructure and allowing ETECSA to maintain its monopoly. The only intangible roadblock would be a loss of control of traffic. (But Cuban propagandists and trolls would be able to reach a wider audience :-).

That is the rosy picture from the Cuban point of view, what about SpaceX?

OneWeb plans to offer LEO satellite Internet service in Alaska in 2019 and hopes to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020.

How about SpaceX starting by serving Cuba?

I don't know the SpaceX constellation rollout plan, but satellites that serve Cuba would also be capable of serving the eastern US and FCC licenses are conditional upon providing US service in a timely manner.

Since Cuba is an island nation, portions of the footprint of satellites serving Cuba would fall on the uninhabited ocean. That would reduce population destiny in the satellite footprint area, freeing capacity for use by customers in relatively urban areas.

Selecting Cuba as their initial service market would be an audacious move, but Elon Musk is not a conventional, conservative businessman. SpaceX would get a lot of publicity from a Cuba opening and, like the roadster they just launched into orbit, first offering Starlink service in Cuba would have symbolic value -- marking an opening to Cuba.

There is pent-up demand for Internet access in Cuba since they have very poor Internet access given their level of education and development.

Cuba is 166th among the 176 nations the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranks on access to telecommunications. Haiti, ranked 167th, is the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (LA&C) that ranks below Cuba, yet Cuba ranks 9th in the region on the ITU telecommunication-skills index. Cuba ranks tenth in LA&C on the United Nations Development Programme's human-development index and their mean years of schooling is the highest in the region.

Cuba's relatively high human-development and IT-skill indices reflect their emphasis on free public education at all levels. This is exemplified by the curriculum at Cuba's Information Science University, where students pay no tuition but are required to work on useful applications in education, health, sport, and online government.

But, perhaps the biggest contributor to pent-up demand is El Paquete Semanal, a weekly distribution of current, pirated Internet content that is distributed throughout the nation. I've heard the claim that 95% of Cubans see El Paquete content each week. That sounds high, but it is very popular and has been alleged to be Cuba's largest private employer.

The political situation is the elephant in the room. The US has formed a Cuba Internet Task Force and Trump is following President Obama's lead in seeking to strengthen the Cuban Internet, so it unlikely that the US government would object to SpaceX offering Starlink service to Cubans.

That being said, such a move would be unpopular among some members of Trump's Cuban "base." While there might be some domestic political cost to SpaceX, an opening to Cuba would be seen as extremely positive in Latin America and the rest of the world and SpaceX and Tesla are global companies. (Only Israel supports the US embargo of Cuba).

If you guys want to talk about this, DM @RaulCastroR and @elonmusk.

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Update 2/27/2018

Two years ago, Google invested $900 million in SpaceX, stating that they expected the acquisition would be used “to keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery and, over time, improve Internet access and disaster relief.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Google began providing mobile phone and Internet connectivity in Puerto Rico using their Project Loon balloons and today they are serving 200,000 Puerto Rican users. They have learned from this effort and demonstrated the ability to provide Project Loon connectivity. How about using Starlink when it is available?

Starlink envisions low-cost, user-installed terminals at homes and other end-user sites, but their satellites will also have to connect to ground-stations and it turns out that Google has a lot of terrestrial points of presence on the Internet. Some of them are shown on the following map:

Google Global Cache locations(source)

Note that one of those points of presence is in Havana and two others are in Puerto Rico.

SpaceX rocketry, Starlink satellites and service plus Google's terrestrial infrastructure sounds like a formidable combination -- perhaps too formidable. A part of me would love to see such a combination succeed and eventually provide a truly global Internet, but I am also afraid of the market and political power that enterprise would have. Would this or any other global Internet service provider require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

If a global ISP monopoly (or even an oligopoly) doesn't worry you, what about adding strong AI -- is the Earth beginning to grow a nervous system -- with us as biological components (for the time being)?

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?





Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Cuba Internet Task Force -- a win for Trump, Castro and Putin

President Obama began working on Cuban rapprochement during his 2009 presidential campaign. After over five years of thought and negotiation, the Whitehouse announced a major shift in Cuba policy, which included allowing telecommunications providers "to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba."

When President Obama's trip to Cuba was announced, I speculated on possible Internet-related advances but was disappointed by the results. While in Cuba, the President held optimistic public meetings and several Internet-related projects were announced, but, as far as I know, none of them materialized. Can we expect more from Trump?

Last summer, Trump said he would be changing our Cuba policy and I speculated on how it might affect the Internet, but could not think of anything reasonable. When he published his Cuba policy memorandum, one of its purposes was to restore Cuban's "right to speak freely, including through access to the Internet" and one of its goals was to "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services."

Trump said he was "canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba," but his Internet policy sounded a lot like Obama's. The only concrete difference I saw was that Trump had ordered the State Department to convene a task force "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba."

Last week, the State Department issued a public invitation to attend the first meeting of that Cuba Internet Task Force on February 7th.

I called the State Department to ask whether the meeting would be streamed or archived and was told that it would not. I asked if they had any information on the meeting agenda, the charge of the task force and who the members were. They referred my questions to the Press office, but they did not answer.

We will hopefully learn more after the meeting, but what might Trump do? Will we see the laissez-faire Trump who promised Saudi Arabia that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others" or some sort of digital Bay of Pigs like the failed smuggling of satellite equipment into Cuba, Zunzuneo or the Alan Gross affair?

My guess is that not much will happen -- that this task force and the rest of Trump's Cuba policy is for domestic political consumption by anti-Castro politicians and voters. The Cuban government is also using the task force for domestic political consumption. Their reaction to its formation was predictable -- saying that Cuba is being attacked by a powerful, hostile nation. Within a few days of the formation of the task force, many articles like this one were published by the Cuban government and allied publications like China's Xinhua and Russia's RT. (Perhaps rekindling the Cold War is part of making America great again).

Ironically, this task force is a political win for both Castro and Trump -- autocracy thrives on fear and mistrust.

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Update 2/2/2018

Last night I saw The Final Year, a documentary on the final year of the Obama administration. In it, former Whitehouse staff member Ben Rhodes says it took them time to realize that Putin was not motivated by the interests of Russia, but by self-interest. That may be true to some extent for nearly all politicians, but it seems to fit Castro and Trump well in this case.

(As an aside -- Rhodes was one of the two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba).

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Update 2/3/2018

Following up on Ben Rhodes' comment on Putin -- establishing this task force or any other act that drives a wedge between Cuba and the US benefits Putin as well as Trump and Castro.

While Castro and Trump use the rift between their nations for domestic political advantage, Putin uses it for international political advantage and commerce.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused an economic crisis in Cuba, sharply cutting trade and cooperation with Russia and other Soviet republics, but in the last few years, trade and cooperation have picked up. In 2014, Russia forgave 90 percent of the $35 billion debt Cuba incurred during the economically difficult "special period" of the 1990s, with the remaining $3.5 billion to be settled by giving preferential treatment to Russian investments on the island.

Cuba and Russia are also cooperating on oil exploration, extraction and refining and Cuba is importing oil, cars, trucks, and railway infrastructure and equipment. Trade between Russia and Cuba rose 73 percent in the first half of 2017 to $176 million. There has even been talk of Russia reopening it's cold war Signals Intelligence base, which once had a staff of 1,500 in Cuba.

While Russia is building commercial and political ties with Cuba, China remains their largest trading partner and a major supplier of Internet and computer equipment. (For more on Cuba-China trades, click here). Even Iran is allying with Cuba.

Russia is also on the "right side" of public opinion of the Cuban embargo. The embargo is unpopular in Latin America and the rest of the world. (The US and Israel support the embargo in the UN and the remaining 191 UN member states oppose it).

Evidently making America great again entails having a hostile ally of Russia and China 90 miles from Florida -- sound familiar? Putin may be the biggest winner from our Cuba policy shift and the Cuban and American people the biggest losers.

Castro and Putin meeting at the UN (source)

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Update 2/7/2018

Reuters reports that Cuban independent media outlets oppose Trump's Cuba Internet policy.

Elaine Diaz, founder of Periodismo de Barrio, José Jasán Nieves, director of El Toque and Miguel Alejandro Hayes who writes for La Joven Cuba are all quoted as opposing the Trump initiative.

Nieves said civil society initiatives had "flourished" after the Obama-Castro detente and Diaz said she would refuse any money the Trump program might award and stressed that they are independent media "independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government." Hayes does not agree with Trump's goal of toppling the Cuban government.

Of course, these are only three of many independent journalists in Cuba and they are not extremists.

I suspect that this Task Force will be given a budget and, if independent journalists are not interested in assistance from the US, they may end up funding secret projects like those mentioned above. That will allow Trump to claim to be tougher than Obama and the Cubans will discover the projects and overstate their significance -- propaganda wins for Trump and Castro. Putin will smile quietly.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cuba's year-end progress report -- emphasis on the national intranet

In 2014, Cuba embarked on a program for the "informatization" of society and "advances in the informatization of society" was the theme of the short videos by ETECSA president Mayra Arevich Marín and Vice Minister of Communications Wilfredo González, which are at the end of this post.

The following are some of the points they made:
  • Some e-government -- paying taxes, recording of births and marriages, court information, etc. is now online.
  • Mobile banking and bill paying has been tested by 20,000 users and will be rolled out this year.
  • Cuban content continues to be developed.
  • There are now 11,980 home DSL subscribers. (This is a drop in the bucket, but more than I would have expected).
  • Connectivity at hospitals and medical facilities have improved -- 200 clinics and 190 pharmacies now have connectivity.
  • School connectivity at all levels has improved and all universities have fiber links.
  • They will offer mobile phone access to the Internet this year.
I was struck by the emphasis on the Cuban national intranet, as opposed to the global Internet, in nearly all of this. This emphasis is reflected in the relatively low price of intranet access and the continued development of Cuban content and services.

Popular Cuban national intranet sites

The speakers mentioned Cuban services like the Ecured encyclopedia, Redcuba intranet portal and search engine, Reflejos blog site, CubaEduca teaching site and Andariego maps, which are somewhat like Cuban counterparts to Internet sites like Wikipedia, Google, Wordpress, the Khan Academy and Google Maps respectively. González even mentioned Mi Mochila, the state-sanctioned offline competitor to El Paquete, which is arguably the largest private employer and most pervasive source of digital information in Cuba.

Comparison of Wikipedia and Ecured
articles on José Martí, Cuba's national
hero.
I say these Cuban services are "somewhat like" corresponding Internet services because, given Cuba's population and resources, they can never hope to match the scope and functionality of their global counterparts. For example, Ecured is the closest of these services in design and function to its global counterpart, Wikipedia (both are based on the same software), but the number of Wikipedia articles and size and variety of its editor community are not comparable. Similarly, Redcuba is limited to the national intranet rather than the global Internet.

Copyright considerations also limit the eventual scope of the national intranet. For example, El Paquete distributes pirated Internet material. Some intranet services may also depend upon pirated software. For example, Andariego uses ESRI's ArcGIS geographic information system software -- do they pay for it?

Well, that is what jumped out at me -- you can watch the videos for yourself and see what strikes you.

President of ETECSA, Mayra Arevich Marín:


Vice Minister of Communications, Wilfredo González:

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Update 1/12/2018

Here are links to two more year-end summaries that are also based on the videos of Arevich and González and richly illustrated with images and charts:

The big picture



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