Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Internet is "dumb" and micro-management is dumb

In my report on the state of the Cuban Internet, I characterized the Cuban Web as being stuck in the mid 1990s. I cited quite a bit of evidence for that conclusion -- let me give you one example here.

I went to the Web site of the Ministry of Informatics and Communication (MIC), which one would expect to be relatively sophisticated and modern, but the site is definitely "Web 1.0" with little information and no interaction. It is a poorly designed online brochure.

Drilling down I found something that may be more telling about the Ministry -- one must apply to establish a WiFi network. Not only is permission required, one is expected to print out an application form and fill it in rather than apply online. (If you have trouble downloading the form, click here for a mirror copy).

Needing permission to set up a WiFi network is startling. The success of WiFi in other nations was due to its being an open standard in a license-free spectrum band. The industry has thrived and WiFi has become an important part of our communication infrastructure because one can walk into a store, buy a low-cost access point, and set it up at home or work. In Cuba it seems that one must fill in a form stating the make and model of every WiFi access point.

Judging from past comments, some readers of this blog will see this registration requirement as a draconian attempt to control access to information and curtail freedom. Others will say it is necessary because Cuba is at war with the US and has to take appropriate protective measures.

Let me offer another possible explanation. Might it be a reflection of a sort of "bureaucratic Alzheimer’s disease" -- an attempt to keep control and find a meaningful role for a fearful bureaucracy during hard times? It is reminiscent of Cuba’s recent decision to privatize government jobs, in which they list permitted occupations.

This sort of micro-management seems more desperate and dysfunctional than evil. Bureaucrats being bureaucratic -- that's what they do. My intuition says this is a more plausible explanation of WiFi regulation than those of the left or right, but I could be wrong. Regardless of the explanation for the registration procedure, it is discouraging, and micro-management will stunt the growth of the Cuban Internet.

The Internet was intentionally designed to be a "dumb" network. The network would only move data as fast as possible between "smart" terminals connected to it. That design decision led to decentralized innovation and capital formation. University students were able to launch software like the Linux operating system or start companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Dell without permission from the government or a network operator. It was an open network and millions of people were free to experiment with novel hardware and applications. The same can happen in Cuba.

Will the new MIC minister make significant changes?

P. S. The application form contains what is probably an inadvertent error in that it refers to the 2456 – 2482 MHz frequency band, whereas the standard low-frequency WiFi band is 2412-2484 MHz. They do not even mention the 5GHz WiFi band – that may be an oversight or it may be illegal in Cuba. Does anyone know about Cuban WiFi frequency regulations?
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