Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cuba's first Internet connection

Jesus Martinez (l) and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf
Cuba's first Internet connection was made in September 1996. CENIAI, the National Center of Automated Data Exchange, installed and managed the link. As was the custom in those days, CENIAI Director Jesus Martinez sent an email to his colleagues in the networking community announcing the connection. It read:
From: Director CENIAI/ Jesus Martinez/IDICT
Date: Mon, 9 Sep 1996 20:22:41 -0300 (EDT)

Dear friends,

After so many days, years of sacrifice and vigilance, I have great satisfaction to announce that our beloved Cuba, our "Cayman of the Indies," has been connected to the Internet as we had desired. We have a 64 Kbps link to Sprint in the U.S.

Many friends helped us and it would be unfair to mention some because of the risk of overlooking others. To be honest, major recognition goes to the Forum of Latin American and Caribbean Networks, first convened in Rio and most recently held in Lima. The Forum gave us the opportunity to meet, share strategies and estimate the size of our tasks to better plan our work. The Forum helped us achieve our connection to the Internet through technical teaching and solidarity.

Our greatest thanks go to my young colleagues at CENIAI, who had full confidence in our ability to make this historic connection.

A new era has just begun for us. We will soon announce our Web site and value-added services to do as much as we can to help develop our region and our culture.

A good Caribbean greeting,

(The Forum Martinez refers to was a group of network leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean who held annual meetings sponsored by the Organization of American States and the US National Science Foundation).

I'm posting Martinez' announcement because it conveys the spirit of the small, international networking community he belonged to. He thanks The Forum for their assistance and solidarity. They did more than meet annually -- they collaborated year around using their new tools like email, threaded discussion, file transfer, Gopher (a limited, text-based precursor to the Web), remote login and eventually the Web. They were among the first to form what networking visionary J. C. R. Licklider had predicted thirty years earlier -- a community "not of common location, but of common interest."

Martinez was clearly proud of Cuba, but he also shared the values and enthusiasm of the international networking community, who believed, correctly, that the Internet would profoundly impact individuals, organizations and society. Cuba (CENIAI) had been among the leaders in pre-Internet networking. They came to the Internet a little late, but were confident of their ability to help develop the region and culture.

That ambition has been achieved to varying degrees around the world, but Cuba has fallen far behind. That's the bad news. The good news is that times are changing, and Cuba has a well educated population ready to use, shape and be shaped by the Internet. When the time comes, they will bring a Cuban perspective to the task, and will develop and use it in Cuban ways.

For example, Cuba has invested in medical education and health care for years and they are poor -- might that prepare them to invent new applications and devices for low-cost, decentralized medicine? Or, might they show us ways to fund the development of the Internet without heavy reliance on advertising and consumer sales?

Yes, I know I am being a Pollyanna, but humor me -- Martinez' vision will eventually be realized.

Much of the early history of Latin American networking is captured at the Network Pioneer site. You can browse the site or focus on The Forum or on Martinez' contribution. Links to reports of the seven annual Forum meetings are here.

For a short article on CENIAI written four years before their Internet connection, see Press, L. and Snyder, J., A Look at Cuban Networks.

Here is Martinez' email in Spanish.
From: Director CENIAI/ Jesus Martinez/IDICT 
Date: Mon, 9 Sep 1996 20:22:41 -0300 (EDT)

Queridos amigos;

Despues de tantos dias, annos, de sacrificio y desvelo, tengo la gran
satisfacion de comunicarles que nuestra querida Cuba, nuestro caiman
antillano ha podido ser conectada a INTERNET como habiamos deseado.
La conexion a 64 Kbps por el momento, se realiza a Sprint en E.U.

Muchos son los amigos que nos han ayudado, apoyado y seria injusto el
mencionar a alguien sin correr el riesgo de olvidar algun nombre, creo que
para ser honesto mi mayor reconocimiento lo voy a dirigir al FORO DE REDES
LATINOAMERICANAS Y DEL CARIBE,desde Rio hasta Lima. El FORO que nos dio la
oportunidad de conocernos, de compartir estrategias, de dimensionar
nuestras tareas, de proyectar mejor nuestras misiones y nos ensenno que
lograr conectarse a Internet no se hace solo con la tecnica, tambien se
hace con solidaridad.

Nuestro mayor agradecimiento a mi joven colectivo de CENIAI, que ha
confiado plenamente en nosotros y que ha sabido concretar este hecho.

Una nueva etapa acaba de comenzar para nosotros, pronto comenzaran ha
conocer de nuestros WWW y de nuestros servicios de valor agregado, de
nuestra realidad y de lo mucho que podemos ayudar al desarrollo de
nuestra region y de nuestra cultura.

Un saludo bien Caribenno.


Update 4/4/2016

In a chat with some friends last week, Jesus described events surrounding that first Internet connection. Their goal was to connect on his birthday, July 22, but finalizing the agreement with Sprint and testing took longer than expected. The actual connection was made on the afternoon of August 22. Jesus was out of the office in the morning and when he returned the workers were waiting with the news that they were online -- it was a "great thing that one can never forget."

Update 4/7/2016

My friend Luis Germán Rodríguez found a Wired Magazine article on the Cuban Internet, published about a year and a half after their connection was established. It includes a visit to CENIAI and an interview with Jesus Martinez (below) in which he says that "The problem of the Internet in Cuba has never been technical or economic. As in any country, it's 70 percent political."

Update 8/23/2016

Jesus Martinez has sent a note commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Cuba's connection to the Internet. In it he notes a number of achievements during that time, but he acknowledges the connectivity gap between Cuba and other nations in the region and calls for the use of technology by and for the benefit of all -- "the last mile is not the business, home or individual, these are the very first mile".

You can download a copy of Jesus' 20th anniversary note (shown above) and his original Internet connection announcement twenty years ago, here.

Update 8/25/2016

Jesus sent me a couple more dates leading up to the 20th anniversary.

In November 1994 He and a colleague spent a month in Montevideo, where, among other things, they set up a Gopher server with Cuban information -- they were "on the Internet" without being on the Internet.

Jesus requested a class B address block in late December, 1994.

On January 12, 1995 Internic assigned Cuba the block, with CENIAI as the administrator.

One more point -- ETECSA, not the US National Science Foundation (NSF), paid Sprint for the initial satellite connection. As I recall, NSF solicited bids for their international connection program and Sprint won. I would not be surprised if NSF subsidized the program, reducing the cost for ETECSA and all others. Regardless, there was no charge for peering with the NSF backbone.

Finally, Jesus sent me a copy of the (undated) letter he sent to Sprint saying that they had been awarded their IP address block.

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