Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Cuba claims new regulations expand Internet access to homes and businesses, but here's the downside

The new regulations establish constraints on private network transmission power and cabling that, if enforced, would put Cuba's cooperatively-owned community networks out of business.

New Cuban regulations regarding private WiFi networks went into effect yesterday, and the New York Times and others proclaimed that "Cuba expands Internet access to private homes and businesses." Yes, Cubans can legally import and install WiFi routers in their homes, small cafes, B&Bs, etc., but these regulations will make little difference in Internet access.

For a start, very few homes and small businesses in Cuba have links to the Internet. Furthermore, my guess is that most people in homes that are connected to the Internet have already installed registered or unregistered WiFi routers. (Resolution No. 65/2003 dated June 5, 2003, states the procedure for registering a private data network).

If that is the case, what do these new regulations change?

They establish constraints on private network transmission power and cabling that, if enforced, would put Cuba's cooperatively-owned community networks, the largest of which is SNET in Havana, out of business. Even if they are not enforced today, they will hang like the sword of Damocles over their heads.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the Ministry of Communication has postponed enforcement for 60 days while they negotiate with SNET.

SNET will remain up during 60 days of negotiation (source).

Why would the Cuban government want to eliminate community networks? Do they see them as economic competitors to the government Internet service provider, ETECSA? Is ETECSA embarrassed by the fact that community networks connect so many people at so little cost? Do they fear clandestine, anti-government communication? I really don't know.

If Cuba aspires to what the International Telecommunication Union refers to as fourth generation policy, which they characterize as "Integrated regulation – led by economic and social policy goals," they should regard the community networks as collaborators, not competitors. They should legitimitize SNET and the others, subsidize and work with them and provide them with Internet connectivity. SNET is the world's largest community network that is not connected to the Internet. Cuba should follow the lead set by Spain, where they have provided Internet connectivity to Guifi.net, the world's largest Internet-connected community network. Looking to the future, community networkers could play a valuable role in the installation of Cuba's 5G wireless infrastructure.

Cuba proudly proclaims (Trumpets) that they working toward the computerization of society. The outcome of these negotiations with SNET will shed light on the veracity of that claim.

Update 8/10/2019

The Cuban Ministry of Communications has refused to make an exception to their restrictions on wireless power and cabling and says SNET (and presumably other Cuban community networks) must shut down. Over one hundred people have gathered to protest the decision, allegedly without any call to do so.

This goes beyond the loss of a large community network -- it signifies Cuban government intransigence and belies the claim that they seek "computerization" of the society and a modern Internet.

I asked earlier, why they might want to eliminate rather than collaborate with community networks and suggested three possibilities:
  1. They see community networks as economic competitors to ETECSA, the state-monopoly ISP.
  2. They are embarrassed by the community networks' ability to connect so many people at so little cost.
  3. They fear anti-government communication.
Since they control the Internet and have seen the example of countries like China which use a ubiquitous Internet as a tool of control, I lean toward answers 1 and 2.

Update 8/11/2019

Ernesto De Armas <@RealErnesto95>, tweeted this positive update on the negotiations with MINCOM:
Hola a todos. Por esta vía transmito las buenas nuevas respecto a SNET, hoy en la tarde el grupo de trabajo SNET-MINCOM llegaron a favorables acuerdos mediante los cuales se determinó que Snet va a pasar todos sus servicios a través de los JCC, los JCC a su vez estarán conectados por fibra óptica entre ellos y los servidores que contienen nuestros servicios se montarán en ETECSA.

También se autorizó a que los nodos se conecten a los JCC utilizando equipos de alta potencia que son los necesarios para poder hacer esto, entre estos equipos se incluyen los equipos de Ubikiti, Nanostation, etc de alta potencia, no pondrán trabas para estas conexiones hacia los JCC. También hay otra buena noticia, los servicios de SNET pronto estarán disponibles ¡Para todo el país!

También advirtió el grupo de trabajo respetar estos acuerdos y no realizar nada que pueda atentar contra los mismos, nada de manifestarse públicamente (que a mí entender no hace ya ninguna falta, ya hemos logrado lo que queríamos) ni hacer declaraciones ofensivas contra MINCOM. En mi opinión hemos ganado está batalla por la subsistencia de #Snet, ahora debemos cooperar entre todos para hacer de este proyecto algo mejor, incluso, a lo que teníamos anteriormente. Estoy sumamente contento, alegre y agradecido de que nuestras instituciones estatales no hayan hecho oídos sordos a nuestra causa. Hoy comienza una nueva era en la Informatización de la sociedad cubana

TheCubanJedi <@darthdancuba> asked "Podrán abrir algo de sNet a internet??" and Ernesto replied "No. De momento nada de internet a través de Snet como siempre ha sido."

This is unofficial, but if it is accurate, SNET will be more widely available and faster, but not yet on the Internet.

Update 8/12/2019

Sad to say, the August 10th update was accurate. Ernesto De Armas <@RealErnesto95> has learned that MINCOM has ruled against SNET and the restrictions on transmission power and cabling will be upheld.

Needless to say, this is disappointing to the users of Cuban community networks and to the general population since it is an indication that ETECSA is determined to remain a monopoly.

A demonstration protesting the decision will be held next Saturday. Here is the announcement:

Here is Ernesto's English translation:

As we have the conviction that Revolution is to change everything that needs to be changed, on Saturday, August 17th, from 9am in the park located in front of the MINCOM, behind the bus station terminal, we make a call to all persons filiated to Snet from all the provinces of the country.

SNET, a community created more than 15 years ago, is being affected by the resolutions 98 and 99, we fight and demand to have an autonomous SNET that keeps the social project that we have had during all these years and that reaches so many homes and Cuban families.

To everyone who has the feeling for Snet, which has been created by everyone, this is the time to fight against resolutions 98 and 99 that are attacking the correct functioning of our community, created with everyone's sacrifice and with more than a decade of existence and acceptance by thousands of Cubans.

This is the time to make MINCOM understand that true democracy is conceived and defined by the people and that we must be heard because we are the youth of this country, the new generation and as the future that we are we demand to be considered.

We urge and summon every teenager, young, adult or old person, without any difference who feels identified with our cause, either has enjoyed or not with our network and our services to support us from every place and every spot because WE ALL MATTER, WE ARE ALL SNET. On this depends the end of the beginning of a new dream, a new path that we want to follow, so we can accomplish our acknowledgment before the authorities and a happy ending to keep ourselves being what we are. Snet...

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Havana can have 5G before Miami

(Click here for a Spanish translation of this post).

Havana needs 5G more than Miami does.

Compared to Miami, Havana is an Internet desert, but Havana may have 5G wireless connectivity before Miami. 5G architecture, US politics and policy, and the 5G timetable favor Havana. Let's start with 5G architecture.


Small cells (source)
5G will require many "small cells" because it uses high-frequency radio signals that don't travel as far as 4G signals and are more easily blocked by obstructions like trees and buildings. For example, there are about 154,000 cell towers in the US today and the CTIA, an industry association, estimates that there will be 800,000 small cells by 2026.

In Miami, small cell radios will be installed by professional employees of and contractors to the large mobile phone companies. Havana has only one telecommunication company, ETECSA, but it is home to SNET, the world's largest community network that is not connected to the Internet. Today, SNET is illegal but tolerated, and if ETECSA were willing to legitimize and collaborate with SNET, SNET members could play a role in siting and installing small cells. SNET's legal status is currently being reconsidered and by the time Havana is ready to deploy 5G, SNET could play a major cost and time-saving role. (Note that Cuba's new constitution de-centralizes executive governance by reducing provincial government and strengthening municipal government, possibly increasing the likelihood of local control of Internet infrastructure).

Havana's population is about 4.5 times that of Miami, but the population density is about one-tenth of Miami's. Low population density lends itself to citizen installation -- antennas will be relatively easy to site and install. Furthermore, obtaining permission to install them in Havana will be easier than Miami. Wire-line Internet service providers have already installed broadband infrastructure throughout Miami and, since 5G will offer a fixed-broadband alternative, the incumbents will resist it politically. On the other hand, 5G will fill a near-vacuum in Havana -- Havana needs 5G more than Miami does.


Average 4G download speed, Mbps (source)
Wireless standards are complex and evolve over time. The Third Generation Partnership Project was established in 1998 to define 3G mobile standards and is now defining 5G standards. Thousands of people from equipment manufacturers, telecommunication companies, national and international standards organizations, and professional societies are involved in the process and the technology and standards evolve over time. (For example, between February of 2016 and January 2019, average 4G download speed doubled in the US).

While we will see an ad proclaiming that Miami "has 5G" this year or next, the capability and applications will be marginally improved over 4G and only available in limited parts of the city. Perhaps five years from now 5G standards and equipment that can support novel applications will become available.

In the interim, neither city will see much 5G impact, but it will give Havana time to continue with their current program of stopgap measures like 3G mobile access. If the price of 3G is significantly reduced, Cuba will develop trained, demanding Internet users and app developers who are ready to embrace 5G once it is available.

Stopgap measures like 3G, public WiFi, and home DSL will not close the fiber gap between Miami and Havana, but in five years improved terrestrial wireless and low and medium-earth orbit (LEO and MEO) satellite connectivity will be available for 5G backhaul. Cuba is already a customer of MEO Internet-service provider O3b and in five years O3b will have significantly improved capacity and performance. Additionally, LEO providers SpaceX, OneWeb and China's Hongyun Project all plan to be offering service over Cuba in five years. SpaceX is based in the US and OneWeb in Great Britain, so Hongyun may have the inside track here, although they will have less capacity than their competitors.

Politics and policy

Trump's trade war with China favors Havana over Miami. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel points out: "levying new tariffs on everything from semiconductors to modems to routers is not going to make it any easier to deploy 5G wireless service. In fact, it will make it much more expensive."

His ban against Huawei further advantages Havana since Huawei is the world's leading producer of telecommunication equipment for service providers with a comfortable lead over their 5G competitors Nokia and Ericsson. They are also the number 2, in unit sales, and number 3, in revenue, smartphone manufacturer. If the ban persists, Miami will not have access to Huawei equipment.

By contrast, Huawei has supplied nearly all of Cuba's Internet infrastructure from its backbone to WiFi hotspots and home DSL and they are almost certain to be Cuba's 5G vendor. It is likely that China will contribute financially if they see Cuba as a strategic ally in their effort to extend the Digital Silk Road to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The US government was instrumental in funding the development of the Internet and could adopt positive 5G policies like investing in R&D or providing incentives to participate in the global 5G standards process, but Trump eschews global cooperation and Chinese companies are playing a leading role in the definition of 5G standards, which will solidify Huawei's leadership. Chinese telephone companies with 1.58 billion mobile phone subscriptions, will also influence standards as large 5G equipment customers.

Rather than seeing 5G as a cooperative global effort, Trump sees it as a competitive race and his 5G policy focuses on spectrum allocation (which is going poorly) and a call for State and local governments to improve "access to land, infrastructure, and property that will support new wireless networks, including rural America." [sic] That call sounds like it was drafted by a lobbyist for the incumbent mobile telcos or perhaps an ex-Associate General Counsel at Verizon like FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and it will meet resistance. (China has no such conflict).

I used the word "can" instead of "will" in the title of this post because the outcome depends upon the will of the Cuban government and ETECSA.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Cuba's new WiFi regulations -- a step forward, backward or sideways?

Cuba has legalized WiFi access to public Internet hotspots from nearby homes and small businesses, but SNET and other community networks remain illegal under the new regulations. Does this signify a significant policy change?

Soon after Cuba's state monopoly telecommunication company ETECSA began rolling out WiFi hotspots for Internet access, people began linking to them from homes and community street nets. These connections and importing the WiFi equipment they used were illegal, but generally tolerated as long as they remained apolitical and avoided pornography. Regulations passed last month legalized some of this activity in a bid to boost connectivity by allowing Internet access from homes and small private businesses like restaurants and vacation rentals that are located close enough to a hotspot to establish a WiFi connection.

The added convenience may generate more revenue for ETECSA and it will give the Ministry of Communication (MINCOM) some small fees and, more important, registration data on the local-area network operators. (If you license a connection, you have the power to rescind the license). It will also generate some additional network traffic, which may strain network capacity. There are two WiFi frequency bands -- 2.4 and 5 Ghz -- and a friend told me that currently only the 2.4 Ghz band is being used. The new regulations allow use of the 5 Ghz band as well, which will add capacity from homes and businesses to the hotspots, but backhaul capacity from the hotspots to the Internet may become more of a bottleneck and exacerbate quality of service problems.

So much for small networks, but what, if anything, will be the impact of these regulations and their enforcement be on larger, community networks, the largest of which is Havana's SNET? The new regulations bar cables that cross streets and radio transmitter power over 100 mW. SNET uses cables and higher-powered transmitters, so, if these regulations were enforced, they would put SNET and smaller community networks out of business.

However, community networks have been illegal and tolerated since their inception, so it may be that they will continue to be ignored. If that is the case, the new regulations don't really change the status quo, but what if these new regulations foreshadow a policy change? What if ETECSA were willing to collaborate with community networks following the example of Guifi.net in Spain?

SNET topology. Red dots are pillars;
others are second-level nodes (source).
If that were the case, ETECSA could take steps like providing high-speed wireless or fiber Internet connections at the locations of the central SNET backbone "pillars" and allowing cables and faster wireless links to and within second-level networks that serve up to 200 users. They could also cooperate with SNET administrators in purchasing supplies and equipment and network management and they could do the same for smaller community networks outside of Havana.

So, which is it -- a step backward with cracking down on SNET and other community networks, a slightly positive step adding locations from which one can access a WiFi hotspot, or a positive indication of a policy change and a step toward incorporating community networks into the recognized and supported Cuban Internet infrastructure?

We will know the answer after the new rules go into effect on July 29, but my guess is that it will be the middle choice, a slightly positive step. Cracking down on SNET would be disruptive -- eliminating jobs and depriving thousands of users of services they value and I don't think the government would want those problems. At the other extreme, full cooperation with community networks would mean ETECSA giving up control and the dilution of their bureaucratic and financial monopoly, which seems unlikely.

But, to end on a more upbeat note -- a friend tells me that he has heard that SNET community representatives are talking with the government. Could ETECSA and MINCOM have different views and, if so, who is in charge?

Update 6/15/2019

Two things. First, the friend I mentioned above commented on my speculation that MINCOM and ETECSA might have different views, saying "ETECSA and MINCOM are so tight together that is hard to say where one starts and the other one begins."

He also pointed out that the administrators of four of the SNET sub-nets posted a statement telling users to remain respectful and calm while they negotiate with MINCOM to protect the interest of SNET and other community networks. They have had one meeting in which they talked about spectrum and the statement refers to the "regulatory framework," suggesting that MINCOM is open to high-speed wireless links. They say the first meeting was productive and they will have future meetings.

This increases my confidence that SNET will survive under these new regulations and, if MINCOM allows high-speed links between the sub-nets, SNET performance will improve. It would be even better if the talks go beyond SNET's survival and move on to ways they can collaborate with ETECSA.

You can follow the negotiation progress on the SNET Facebook page.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Does China's Digital Silk Road to Latin America and the Caribbean run through Cuba?

China will not ignore Latin America and the Caribbean forever and Cuba is a logical place to start.

DSR IT infrastructure projects as of 12/2018 (source).
China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious, long-term, global investment and development program. It was launched in 2013 with a focus on infrastructure -- roads, railroads, pipelines, undersea cables and ports. Since then China has invested $80 billion and signed 173 BRI agreements with 125 countries and 29 international organizations.

Building a Digital Silk Road (DSR) is a BRI subgoal. The DSR was added in 2015 under the name "Information Silk Road" with the goals of improving international communications connectivity and fostering the internationalization of China’s rapidly growing tech companies. The DSR plan addresses technologies like security, machine learning, 5G wireless, chip design and manufacturing and applications in areas like e-commerce, e-government, and smart cities. It also encompasses infrastructure in space -- the BeiDou satellite navigation system, the Hongyun low-earth orbit broadband Internet project and the Digital Belt and Road Earth observation program.

Huawei's Caribbean cables (source).
China Unicom and Camcom installed an undersea cable between Cameroon and Brazil with Huawei doing the engineering and installation. Previously, Huawei had installed the underwater cables shown here, but the DSR project has focused primarily on Eurasia and Africa. However, China will not ignore Latin America and the Caribbean forever and Cuba is a logical place to start.

Cuban delegates attended the thematic-forum on the DSR at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April and Cuba's digital ties to China date back many years:(Breitbart reported that Cuba has agreed to bring the BRI to the west, but I am not sure if that is evidence that they will or they won't :-)

Cuba's first connection to the Internet was subsidized by the US National Science Foundation and used Cisco equipment, but it's been downhill ever since. President Obama made a sustained effort to establish a connection with Cuba, but little has come of that and Trump's policies on trade, immigration and Cuba have moved us further from many Latin American and Caribbean nations, creating an opening for China and the DSR.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Google and ETECSA will agree to exchange Internet traffic without charge

This agreement telegraphs a change in Cuban policy -- now we need the cable.

Google and ETECSA have signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to negotiate a peering agreement that would allow cost-free data exchange between their networks once an undersea cable physically connects them.

Google has worked hard to establish a relationship with ETECSA and the Cuban government. In recent years, Cuba, not the US, has limited the Cuban Internet. This agreement telegraphs a change in Cuban policy.

Today, nearly all of Cuba's Internet traffic is carried over an undersea cable at the south end of the island. A cable from the Havana area to Florida would reduce the load on their inter-city "backbone" network that today carries Internet traffic to the cable landing in the south. That would result in a faster Internet and save ETECSA money. The next generation of low-earth and medium-earth orbit satellite connectivity can have a similar effect.

ETECSA could use the savings from an undersea cable or next-generation satellites to cut prices, increase investment in infrastructure or increase profit. That would depend upon who is actually calling the shots at ETECSA.

Over three years ago, Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, said he knew of at least a half dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba.

The cable has been stopped by politics, not economics or technical difficulty. It looks like Cuba is willing to relent on the politics. Trump's fighting this cable would solidify Cuba's political and commercial ties with China and Russia.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

4G mobile trials have begun in Cuba -- what is their 3/4/5G strategy?

Early 4G speed test Source
During the first month of 3G mobile service, Cuban Internet use increased substantially. At the end of January, ETECSA had 5.4 million mobile users, 35% of which use the Internet and they are adding 5,000 new data customers per day. According to Eliecer Samada, head of ETECSA's wireless access group, the company is now at 160% of the expected capacity.

As a result of that unexpected demand and damage due to the tornado that hit Havana in January, both data and phone service have been slow and unreliable.

To alleviate these problems, ETECSA announced last week that they were accelerating 4G mobile trials along the north coast from Mariel through Havana to Varadero. That is a distance of about 100 miles with 44 4G base stations. The trial will be open to about 10,000 high-volume users who have 4G-compatible phones and have been using at least 2.5 GB of 3G mobile data per month in that area. (ETECSA reports that 7% of 3G network users account for 52% of the traffic).

Andy García ran a speed test using his neighbor's account and recorded a download speed of 5.52 Mbps, upload speed of 1.18 Mbps and a 24.17 ms latency, but a few days later, he observed slower rates and Armando Camacho recently recently reported a speed of 3.2 Mbps download and 5.8 Mbps upload and he has posted the locations of 21 base stations in Havana. We can't draw conclusions about the post-trial speeds from a few tests, but they will surely be faster than current 3G speeds and considerably slower than the US LTE speeds reported last month by Tom's Guide.

Current US 4G speeds (source)
ETECSA expects this trial to divert enough traffic to improve 3G and voice service. If that is the case, it seems the current congestion is at the base stations rather than in backhaul from them. Regardless, I expect that backhaul capacity from faster 4G base stations will constrain 4G rollout in this and other regions.

I don't know what ETECSA's mobile deployment strategy is -- what the balance will be between 3 and 4G capacity and pricing -- but I have suggested that they will gain trained, demanding users if they focus on bringing the cost down as quickly as possible. That would argue for cheap or even free 3G service.

The average price of 1 GB of mobile data in Cuba is higher than that in 184 of 230 nations. (The price in ten of the 28 Caribbean nations is higher than in Cuba and India is the lowest-price nation). The source does not indicate the speeds of these services and it would be interesting to see them normalized for per-capita income as an indication of affordability, but there seems to be room for price cutting in Cuba.

Regardless of the deployment and pricing of 3 and 4G mobile Internet access in Cuba, both should be regarded as stopgap measures and plans should be made for 5G deployment.

Update 3/21/2019

ETECSA initially restricted 4G access to those with 2.5 GB per month data plans. 14Ymedio reports that they have now opened 4G up to those with 1.5 GB per month plans in spite of having temporarily run out of the USIM cards that are required for 4G access. (USIM cards obsoleted SIM cards, which were used in 2G phones and could be used, with the loss of some features, in 3G phones).

The article also states that they are adding 50,000 new mobile accounts per month, as opposed to the 5,000 per day reported above. They say that 40% of those users generate some sort of data traffic -- for Nauta email, MMS messages or Web browsing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The first month of Cuban 3G mobile Internet service

Oracle DNS server query rate.
(Plot by Matt Prosser).
ETECSA, Cuba's government monopoly ISP, is offering a number of stopgap Internet services -- navigation rooms, home DSL and public WiFi hotspots, but the recently rolled out 3G mobile service is the most important. The plot to the right shows the normalized rate of Cuban domain name requests to Oracle servers during the first full month of operation -- a surrogate estimate of Internet traffic volume. During the limited 3G rollout period of December 4-6, DNS hits were roughly double the previous level. When the full rollout was complete, Oracle DNS queries doubled again -- roughly 4 times that of the pre-rollout level.

ETECSA released 3G mobile sales data for the first month at the recent National Workshop on Computerization and Territorial Cybersecurity and the results were impressive -- there were nearly 2 million transactions and the revenue was over 13 million CUC.

I have argued that as soon as they have the capacity to handle the traffic, ETECSA should cut 3G mobile prices and eventually make this slow, obsolete service free. Doing so would expand and train their user base and lead to the development of new applications. For example, a month after the service was introduced, Sube, a taxi application similar to Uber, but with cash payment directly to the driver, is available.

While free 3G would cut into ETECSA revenue in the short run, Cuban Internet policy should be determined by social and economic goals, not ETECSA profit.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Cuba censors SMS messages ... for now

What could the Cuban government do with Russia-style access to Facebook data? What sorts of fake news could they create and circulate on YouTube and Pinterest? What can be done to control the dark side of the Cuban Internet?

Cuba is about to hold a referendum on a proposed constitution that the government supports and Eduardo Sanchez posted a test showing that SMS messages with anti-referendum terms like #YoVotoNo, #YoNoVoto or abstención are being blocked.

This form of censorship is not new. In 2016, 14Ymedio posted a story documenting the blocking of SMS messages containing terms like "human rights" or the names of certain dissidents.

While this blocking appears to occur only on SMS messages, as opposed to Internet texting, one can imagine similar screening of Internet traffic. The 3G mobile connectivity that Cuba began deploying last month appears to have significantly increased Internet activity, making this rudimentary censorship more significant.

But screening texts for key words could be just a start. As shown here, Cubans are already users of Facebook, YouTube and other social media services.

Cuban social media market shares, January 2018-19 (source)

I have long advocated improved Internet access in Cuba -- most recently suggesting several reasons for making 3G mobile access free as soon as capacity would allow, but what might the Cuban government do with Russia-style access to Facebook data? What sorts of fake news could they create and circulate on YouTube or Pinterest?

In the early days of the Internet, we naivly saw it a force for Good, but China, which came online in 1993, showed us (& Cuba) the dark side. Like China in the 1990s, Cuba is a near "green field." What can be done to control the dark side of the Cuban Internet?

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Cuban 3G speeds in context

I have seen mobile speed tests in Havana ranging from .5 to 1 Mbps and want to put that in context.

In the 1990s, the ITU specified a minimum speed of 2Mbit/s for stationary or walking users and 348 kbit/s in a moving vehicle. Commercial service began rolling out in the early 2000s.

I have seen anecdotal reports putting 3G speed in Havana as being between .5 and 1 Mbps.

I had a hard time finding any actual 3G performance data since service providers have nearly all converted to 4G LTE, but I found two sources.

One, from 2014, reported 3G speeds ranging from 384Kbps to 2Mbps, but they gave no explanation of how they gathered their data.

The other is recent and better documented. Professor Peter Heinzmann the University of Applied Sciences, Rapperswil Switzerland sent a report on 3G speeds in Switzerland for the year between December 16 2017 and December 16 2018. They took 16,942 download measurements from 1,762 devices and 16,766 upload measurements from 1,757 devices. The median download speed was 4 Mbps and the mean was 6 Mbps. The median and mean upload speeds were 1 Mbps.

Here are the cumulative upload (green) and download (blue) speed distributions:

These speeds are well above those reported so far in Cuba. Since the Cuban towers were installed recently and some in Switzerland might be quite old, I suspect that the difference is due to congestion at the towers or in backhaul. Only ETECSA really knows what is going on.

#Internet #Cuba #mobile #ICT4D

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The case for making 3G mobile Internet access free in Cuba

The economic and social benefits of free 3G Internet connectivity would easily outweigh the cost.

Last week ETECSA began offering 3G mobile access to Cuba's national intranet and the global Internet and President Diaz-Canal tweeted the news:

His tweet has received 216 comments so far and reading through them, many are effusively positive, like:

"This is without a doubt a breakthrough that will benefit millions of Cuban families!! Congratulations!!" and "Excellent news comrade!"

Others were critical, noting that the prices are high relative to Cuban incomes (one said "absurd") and the technology is obsolete -- "Congratulations, but they're 20 years late."

I cannot agree with the de rigueur/obligatory congratulations -- third generation mobile is over 15 years old, only 66% of the population is covered, the price is very high relative to Cuban salaries (access to the national intranet is cheaper than global Internet access) and performance is unknown -- but this is a faltering first step and, like WiFi hotspots, street nets, El Paquete Semanal, navigation rooms and home DSL, it should be seen as an interim, stopgap measure. Hopefully, the Cuban Internet will eventually leapfrog over current technology to next-generation technology -- in the meantime stopgaps are better than nothing.

The next stopgap goal should be to make ubiquitous 3G mobile Internet access free -- like free streets, sidewalks, education, etc. Doing so would create a nation of trained, demanding users leading to the development of innovative, practical applications.

ETECSA, Cuba's government monopoly ISP and phone company, may complain that they do not have the infrastructure to support the traffic that free 3G would generate and can not afford to build the capacity. I have no information on the specifications of the 3G base stations they are installing, but it is probably safe to assume that there is spare capacity since 3G data rates are far below those of today's LTE technology. (A friend just told me that he was seeing 1 Mbps in Havana).

The traffic from free 3G would also require backhaul capacity from the base stations and that can be provided by satellite as well as terrestrial fiber and wireless infrastructure. Cuba currently uses SES's O3b (other three billion) medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellites for international connectivity and they could also use the O3b network for mobile backhaul. (Note that O3b capacity will increase dramatically in 2021).

O3b is operating MEO satellites today, and they will be joined in the early 2020s by low-Earth orbit satellite constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, which are also potential mobile backhaul providers.

Both ETECSA and the Cuban society can justify the investment needed to provide free 3G Internet access. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, coined "Metcalfe's Law" saying that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. While not a precise mathematical statement, there can be no doubt that the effect of a network on society and its value to whoever owns it increases rapidly as it grows.

As noted, 3G technology is obsolete and one day Cuba will be rolling out modern technology. When they do, people who have been using 3G will understand its value and the value of the applications they have been using and many will be willing to migrate to and pay for faster service.

In addition to trained users, free 3G would generate application developers and Internet entrepreneurs. They would develop 3G applications and content for Cuba and other Spanish speakers around the world and would transition to modern infrastructure when it becomes available.

I've been talking about free 3G from the standpoint of ETECSA and application developers and Internet entrepreneurs, but consider the social benefit of reducing the digital divide and improving government, education, health care, entertainment, tourism, finance, and other businesses, etc.

This has been a back-of-the-envelope case, but it seems clear that the economic and social benefits of free 3G Internet connectivity would easily outweigh the cost. Let's flesh the proposal out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Cuba rolls out 3G mobile access

What if it were free?

After several months of trials, ETECSA announced the availablity of third-generation mobile access to their national intranet and the global Internet in a televised "round table."

As shown below, they have upgraded 789 mobile base stations to 3G reaching 66% of the population:

Pricing can be by the megabyte (1 CUC≈$1):

or in monthly packages:

The prices are quite steep for a typical Cuban and I suspect there would be relatively few subscribers among the 34% of the population that is not yet covered. Furthermore, many users will have to buy new phones to use the service. (There are still 1,084 second-generation mobile base stations in Cuba).

Network performance during the trials mentioned above was poor -- connections were unreliable and slow. Part of that may have been due to the fact that access was free, but it remains to be seen how fast and reliable the mobile access will be. That will be determined by demand and infrastructure -- the capacity of the base stations and backhaul.

Access to the national intranet costs less than access to the global Internet. While local access saves some congestion on Cuba's international links, it also encourages a Cuban "walled-garden." Cuba is developing local content and services, but they cannot compete with what is available globally. Cuba should open to the world and also aim to be a provider of Spanish-language content and services.

There is also a political dimension. Cuba's president, Miguel Díaz-Canel hinted at a walled-garden strategy when he addressed the Parliament saying "We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online," adding that Cubans could thus "counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content." I can't argue about banal and vulgar content (and worse), but the cure of a walled-garden in a nation with a government-monopoly Internet service provider is worse than the disease.

(Access to the national intranet portal has been blocked in the US -- I'd be curious to hear from others who can access it).

If performance is good enough, mobile access will be more convenient and comfortable than the current WiFi hotspots or navigation rooms so it will become the way most Cubans go online. That would be an improvement, but far from ideal. As I have said many times, 3G mobile, WiFi hotspots, home DSL, public navigation rooms, street nets, and El Paquete Semanal are stopgap measures and Cuba should be planning to leapfrog current technology in the future.

We should not forget that 3G mobile technology is around 15-years old. Another interim step could be to augment Cuba's current O3b satellite and terrestrial connectivity to significantly increase backhaul capacity and offer free 3G mobile access. Doing so would lead to a population of trained, demanding users and enable many innovative, practical applications. That may sound crazy at first, but we take free sidewalks, roads, firefighting, etc. for granted and a few cities offer free public transport -- why not ubiquitous, free 3G connectivity?

Coming back to Earth — ETECSA promised to make 3G mobile access widely available by the end of the year and they did it. You can watch the video of the televised announcement here:

Update 1/10/2019

Oracle reported a significant increase in Cuban DNS queries immediately following the 3G rollout and, in spite of high prices, the increase persisted through mid-December. It would be interesting to know what portion of Cuban's new 3G access is paid for by ex-pat families and friends as opposed to Cuban nationals.

Update 1/12/2019

The DNS query rate reported by Oracle continued through the end of the year. It dropped off on December 13th and again on Christmas day, but remained much higher than during the limited activation period which was double the pre-rollout rate. (What happened on Thursday, December 13th)?

Oracle reports DNS queries and other statistics here and you can view a plot for the previous week for a nation. (Click here for Cuba last week).

DNS queries last week in Cuba are shown here:

There was a dip last Thursday as well -- coincidence?

Update 1/17/2019

There may be some confusion about 3G accounts -- ETECSA posted a tweet stressing the fact that charges are per amount of data rather than time online as at the WiFi hotspots and their Web site warns users that they need phones with 900 Mhz radios. I bet ETECSA is selling a lot of new phones, many of which are purchased with remittances from abroad.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Rural home connectivity in Cuba

Last month Cuba's government monopoly ISP ETECSA announced special home connectivity rates for some of the poorest towns in rural Cuba. The monthly charge for 30 hours of 512/256 Kbps DSL access in those towns will be 5 CUC. In other areas where home connectivity is available, the minimum monthly charge is 15 CUC for 30 hours of 1,024/256 kbps service and faster, more expensive, plans are available.

(The setup fee of 10 CUC was also dropped for the rural areas, but users are still required to purchase a modem).

This is better than nothing, but it seems more like a business decision than a universal-service policy.
  • The condition of the wires and the distances of homes from central offices may explain the rural speed limit of 512/256 kbps.
  • The demand curve for connectivity in poor, rural areas is different than in urban areas.
  • The slow speed means users will accomplish less during their 30 hours online. (Surfing modern Web sites at 512 kbps would be tedious at best).
  • The lower speed will enable ETECSA to get by with less backhaul capacity.
  • The number of users who are able to get the service will depend upon the number of central offices ETECSA upgrades. There was a sharp increase in the number of digital central offices in Cuba during 2017, but we don't know how many will be upgraded to provide DSL connectivity to homes where this low-cost service will be available:

In 1998 I noted that by the standards of the developing nations at that time, Cuban networks and telecommunication infrastructure were atypically dispersed. I attributed that to their revolutionary history and values, but this offer seems like a small drop in the bucket -- more PR than substance.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Google -- kill Google Plus but save G+ Communities.

Last March, Google discovered a bug that exposed around 500,000 Google Plus profiles. Only static, optional profile fields like name, email address, occupation, gender, and age were exposed -- no other information like post content, Community memberships, viewing history, etc.

They discovered and immediately patched the bug last March and spent six months investigating it before going public yesterday. They say their investigation found "no evidence that any developer was aware of the bug or abusing it" and "no evidence that any profile data was misused." In spite of their assurance that no harm was done, Google stock dropped 2.6% last Thursday morning, when the news may have leaked out, and it is down about 4% for the last five days.

In the same post as they announced the bug, they announced they would "sunsetting" the consumer (free) version of Google Plus (but not the paid, enterprise version). Google or any other company has the right to discontinue an unprofitable product or service and, as they point out in their post, the "social network" portion of Google Plus was a failure, but there is more to Google Plus than social networking.

I quit reading my Google Plus feed long ago -- it was filled with spam and fake news based on my (faked) political interests, but I have found Google Plus Communities to be valuable and useful. While Google could not compete with Facebook's social networking feed, the features and interface of their Communities are superior to Facebook Groups. (Even if you like Facebook Groups, there is no way to transfer the members and history of a Google Plus Community to a Facebook Group).

Google should save Google Plus communities. There is a precedent for such a move. When it was launched, Google Plus included a service called Hangouts on Air (HoA). HoA enables video "chats" among up to ten people. That is not unique, but the chats can optionally be broadcast online and archived on YouTube. HoA was and remains a unique, valuable service that I and many others use. In 2016, Google removed HoA from Google Plus and integrated it into YouTube so it will not be affected by the elimination of Google Plus.

The decision to zap Google Plus provides a good example of the danger of dependency. There is an Internet saying -- "do what you do best and link to the rest." That makes sense and it has facilitated the rapid proliferation of Internet-based services, but it also leaves one vulnerable. The cost of using a service you depend upon may rise or one day or, like Google Plus, it may disappear.

I use HoA and Communities in my teaching and other professional work. Google saved me when they moved HoA out of Google Plus and I hope they do the same with Communities.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Google signs memoranda of understanding with four Cuban organizations

What might those memoranda call for?

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel addressed the first annual meeting of Cuba's IT professional society, the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba.

In his talk, Díaz-Canel announced that four Cuban organizations -- the Havana City Historian’s Office, the University of Computer Sciences (UCI), Infomed, Cuba's medical network, and the Ministry of Culture had signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Google.

The Granma article on the talk (English, Spanish) did not say what the topics of those memoranda were, but Lorena Cantó of Agencia EFE told me she thinks the MOU with the Havana Historian's Office will have something to do with Havana's 500th anniversary and she reminded me of Google's previous multimedia tribute to José Martí.

Canto also suggested that Google might be giving UCI access to Google Code and other tools. That would be cool, but involving them in an undersea cable project would be even better. Last June Senator Jeff Flake said Google was close to reaching an agreement with the Cuban government on a submarine cable, presumably from Havana to Florida. That would be of significant benefit to Cuba since their current fiber backbone connects to a cable landing point at the east end of the island, far from Havana and other populated areas. A second cable would improve performance today and reduce the future need for backbone infrastructure.

What about the MOU with Infomed? Cuba has focused on medical research, training, and practice since the time of the revolution and Infomed, their medical network, predates Cuba's connection to the Internet. Could Google be offering hosting service or high-speed connectivity to Infomed? That would not only benefit Cubans but would facilitate access to Infomed's research, databases, and community from all Spanish-speaking and developing nations. An augmented Infomed could also be a valuable medical education resource.

Infomed, 2013 (source)

Finally, might the MOU with the Ministry of Culture call for Google to establish a YouTube production space in Havana? It would be close to the US and a natural place for Cuban artists, filmmakers and musicians to produce content for the Spanish speaking world. (They currently have YouTube Spaces in ten cities, none of which is in a Spanish-speaking country).

Here is a look inside Google's Los Angeles production studio:

This post has been 100% speculative -- we'll have to wait to see what these four MOUs call for.


For a Spanish translation of this post, click here.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel's meeting with tech company executives

Who was at the meeting, who wasn't at the meeting and who else should the Cubans meet with?

While Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel was in New York to address the United Nations, he met with members of Congress and executives from the agriculture, travel and information and communication technology (ICT) industries. The ICT meeting was at Google's New York office and ten other companies attended. In addition to Díaz-Canel the Cuban ministers of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment and Communications were at the meeting.

Since the only report I have seen of the meeting was a short article in Granma (Spanish), I don't know what was discussed or decided -- I can only guess.

The following is a list of the companies at the meeting with a little speculation.

Google: Perhaps they talked about their latest, rumored, unspecified deal to expand Internet access in Cuba. Another possibility would be bringing their African broadband infrastructure company CSquared (begun as Google Project Link) to Cuba.

VaynerMedia: I'd not heard of them, but they seem to be an Internet-savvy PR agency that has done work for many companies, including Google. Perhaps they would like to promote Cuban tourism, ICT or biotech companies or Cuban offshore development services. Or, they might be interested in a Cuban production facility. (Google has production spaces in ten cities -- how about Havana)?

Connectify: They are already in Cuba -- their software is widely used by Cubans who share connections at WiFi hotspots.

Mapbox: I bet this map of Cuba uses their geographic information system tools. Perhaps they will develop something for the Cuban tourism industry?

McKinsey and Company: They might be looking for a strategic ICT planning engagement. (Others will work for less -- see below).

Virgin Group: This is a capital investment company with experience in travel, telecommunication, media and other areas where Cuba has both needs and assets -- might they invest in Cuba, S. A.?

AirBnB: They are already doing a robust business in Cuba by providing a good deal for both Cuban renters and tourists. (I wonder whether Trump's clamp-down on tourism has hurt them).

Revolution: I assume this is Revolution Ventures. If so, they may be interested in investing in Cuban startups.

Twitter: Cubans already use Twitter -- what more can they be thinking of?

Microsoft: Pirated Microsoft software is common in Cuba -- might they be talking about some sort of licensing or royalty agreement in return for support? (I recall long ago visiting a government-run storefront where you could bring floppy disks and order copies of all major US software, including Microsoft's). Microsoft might also be looking for tech employees, offshoring or opening a Cuban development center.

Bloomberg: Did they attend as financially-oriented journalists?

Cresta AI: might they be looking for developers or to build intelligent applications?

Those were the attendees. Who not there?

I was relieved to notice that none of the large US wireless or wireline ISPs were at the meeting. I would not want to wish my experience with Verizon and Spectrum on Cubans.

I was surprised that Cisco did not participate. Cisco supplied Cuban networking infrastructure in the early days of the Internet, but Huawei has replaced them today. Still, Cisco is the only US ICT company I can think of besides Google that has made the effort to build relationships in today's Cuba, enabling them to begin offering their Cisco Networking Academy training at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas. Cisco-trained students may be willing to purchase their equipment once in the workforce.

I was also surprised that no one from ETECSA was there, although there may have been ETECSA representatives seated in the periphery of the room behind the conference table as is often the case in such meetings.

Finally, who was not there that I would advise Díaz-Canel and Cuban ICT decision makers meet with?

I would urge the Cubans to consider a broad set of advisers and collaborators as they plan the future of their Internet, for example:
  • Organizations like the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations Development Program and the Internet Society, which have expertise in networking in developing nations, national broadband planning, regulation, and policy. Cuba needs to consider next-generation infrastructure ownership and regulatory alternatives as well as next-generation technology.
  • ICT ministries of nations like Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information, which has been an ICT planning leader for many years.
  • Municipal networking experts like The Baller Group and a representative of Stockholm's successful municipal network AB Stokab.
  • Representatives of citizen networks like Havana's SNET and Spain's Guifi.net. Cubans are well educated and have a culture and tradition of innovation and self-sufficiency (thanks in part to the US embargo). SNET (and El Paquete Semanal) are providing much of what people use the Internet for. Might ETECSA look upon these organizations as collaborators (or customers) rather than extra-legal competitors?
  • Consultants and consulting firms with deep expertise in networking in developing nations like the Network Startup Resource Center, the Association for Progressive Communication (which provided UUCP connectivity to Cuba in the pre-Internet days) or Steve Song in Africa.
  • People from companies working on future technologies which will not be available for a number of years, for example, representatives of low-Earth satellite companies like OneWeb and SpaceX or engineers working on Ericsson's long-run 5G mobile products.
  • To keep the technology and policy experts honest, I would also include some people concerned with the social impact of the Internet, for example, Yuval Noah Harari, Zeynep Tufekci and Elon Musk.
Don't get me wrong -- I think meeting and establishing relationships with companies from the US and other nations is a positive step for the Cubans, but I hope they broaden their contacts and meet with an eclectic group of people and organizations thinking about long-range planning for leapfrogging to future technologies as well as stopgap interim measures like WiFi hotspots, home DSL and 3 and 4G mobile connectivity. One can imagine a most interesting Cuban Internet-advisory committee.

Update 10/12/2018

For a Spanish language translation of this post, click here.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Cuba's 3G mobile access trial -- is the glass half full or half empty?

On August 14 at 11 AM ETECSA, Cuba's monopoly ISP, began a 9-hour, nationwide test of 3G mobile Internet access -- anyone near a 3G-equipped cell tower with a compatible phone and a prepaid mobile telephony account could get free access until 8 PM

As far as I know, the only notification was this post on the ETECSA Facebook page, but word of the test and instructions for getting online spread by word of mouth.

Instructions for joining the free trial (source)

The word spread rapidly. Oracle-Dyn continuously monitors the Internet and Doug Madory, their director of Internet analysis, noted a two-peak spike in Cuban DNS server queries during the test period:

Oracle DNS query rate

(Note that the service became unavailable for half an hour around 2:30).

Paul Calvano, a Web performance architect at Akamai, also observed a roughly 25% increase in their HTTP traffic to Cuba during the trial period:


The rapid spread of the news of this unannounced test and the existence of a Cuban hacker culture born of years of keeping old cars and everything else running in spite of poverty and the trade embargo attest to a pent-up demand for connectivity.

My friend Huxley enthusiastically noted that
The news ran like incendiary gunpowder on the Island. Hundreds of thousands of ETECSA customers trying to get access to IMO, to Facebook to Google while walking down Calle 23, the Malecón or from P2.
However, he went on to describe slow (.5 Mbps) unreliable service.

Is the cup half full or half empty?

The signs are not promising. Tourists and some officials and journalists have had 3G Internet access for some time, but the speed and reliability have been underwhelming. Now ETECSA says they will provide nationwide service to anyone with a compatible phone by the end of the year. Have they the capacity to handle the volume?

They say the service will be available "nationwide," but mobile coverage is not available throughout the nation.

Crowd-sourced 2-3G availability map, November 2017 (source)

As of June 1, 2018, there were over 1,400 cellular base stations and over 520 of them were 3G compatible. For example, there are only 19 3G base stations in Las Tunas and 10 of those are in the capital.

Upgrading a base station from 2 to 3G requires both new equipment and a faster link between the base station and the Internet -- a large investment will be needed to upgrade all 1,400 base stations.

They say there are over 5 million mobile customers in Cuba, but how many of them have 3G-compatible phones? ETECSA will sell a lot of new phones when 3G service becomes available.

Okay -- enough with the half-empty news. Let's assume that ETECSA eventually installs the infrastructure to provide 3G mobile connectivity at an affordable price in the most populated areas in Cuba and they have the capacity to meet the 1-3 Mbps speed alluded to on their Web site.

Would that constitute a half-full glass?

Not really. Mobile connectivity at speeds of 1-3 Mbps is obsolete -- too slow for today's modern Web sites, which are designed with faster speeds in mind. The speed mismatch is exacerbated by the relatively low speed of the phones that are affordable in Cuba. A slow phone with a slow connection is useful for consuming and sharing content, but not for creating it.

I've discussed the possibility of differential pricing and government policy encouraging Cubans to use their national intranet rather than the global Internet in previous posts and that plus the inability to run modern Web applications will encourage the formation of a Cuban walled garden.

Before he became Cuba's president, Miguel Díaz-Canel hinted at a walled garden strategy when he addressed the Parliament saying "We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online," adding that Cubans could thus "counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content." I can't argue about banal and vulgar content (and worse), but the cure of a walled garden in a nation with a government-monopoly Internet service provider is worse than the disease.

I'm willing to credit the forthcoming 3G rollout as a half-full glass if the Cubans regard it as a temporary stopgap while they plan for a truly modern Internet with the goal of providing affordable, next-generation connectivity to the Global Internet. I'd call it 3/4-full if they'd commit to making 3G mobile connectivity free in the long run.
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