Saturday, June 4, 2011

A conversation with a Cuban telecommunication engineer

I asked for input and test runs from people in Cuba in a recent post, and I've had an interesting email conversation with a telecommunication engineer who says he has never worked in that field. He asked me not to share his name or email address.

We talked about Internet access. He says only foreign people with permanent resident visas, foreign students, and business with foreign capital can get Internet accounts, and that those dial up accounts have all ports open.

Enterprises throughout the country can get DSL connections, but they are limited to Web (HTTP) applications. He has also heard rumors that pro-government bloggers get DSL connections.

He told me that Cubans are not allowed to connect to the Internet from their homes so they pay an illegal fee of 1.50 to 2.00 CUC per hour to buy time from foreign students and others who have dial-up accounts. (One CUC = US$1.08 and the average wage is 20 CUC per month).

It is legal to buy a WiFi card (if you can find one in stock) and connect at one of a few hotels in Havana or Varadero with WiFi connectivity. They charge 8 CUC per hour for access to a 128 kb/s link that is shared by all of the hotel users at the time. The second legal option is to go to a Cyber-Café or hotel which charges 2 CUC for 15 minutes of access to PC with "veeery slow" connectivity.

Education centers like universities and medical schools are connected by fiber. Within the organizations they have 100 mb/s LANs behind NATs. He recalls a time when the university he attended (I won't say which one) had only 512 kb/s connectivity for approximately 1,000 PCs. That was eventually stepped up to 2 mb/s.

He is on point-to-point Ethernet connection to, and is able to trace the route from his dial-up connection to Google via a Newcom International satellite link. Average ping time to Google was 683 ms. Ping times to other machines at averaged 110 ms.

He did not want to run many tests, because he feared surveillance by CuCERT. Like their counterparts in other nations, CuCERT is charged with responding to network security incidents, but he characterizes them as being like "cyber-cops, who can enter your house, pick up your HDs and walk away without previous notification."

(I tried to reach, but could not from the US -- not sure if it is blocked or down or both).

He gave me the IP address of a university server that was running network monitoring software. I could see graphs of traffic on the links to the university, the internal Ethernet LAN, temperature, and disk utilization on several servers. I could also reach the help desk, but resisted the urge to submit a help desk ticket request :-). You see a sample traffic graph above (click on it to enlarge it). The green line is incoming traffic and the blue outgoing. As you see, the 2 mb/s link is pretty well saturated -- surfing must be slow.

It feels cool to see the graphs, and I bet they would be upset to know that they were visible, but they are not of much practical value except to the network administrators at that university. If one could get similar statistics from all Cuban universities, one could begin to stitch together a picture of the backbone networks.

He also confirmed that bootleg satellite TV from the US is common and found in almost all parts of the country. People buy a satellite receiver from a local supplier who gets an account from the US. Some of those people sell service to their neighbors using coaxial cable, although he thinks that activity is decreasing after several antenna seizures. The service costs around 10 CUC per month, and the viewers cannot change channels themselves.

There are "muyyyy" few people with HughesNet Internet links, and they are heavily prosecuted and can go to jail if caught. He said WiFi is everywhere, and is mainly used to share music and videos and play games. He said the government is concerned about that, but I don't understand why since WiFi is local, and I doubt that they are concerned with copyright violation on the music and video :-).

We talked a bit about the Alan Gross case. He thinks the trial and sentence were for political reasons, and the government hopes to do a prisoner exchange. Gross got a long sentence, but a Cuban could get 3-5 years for having a satellite link to the Internet. He said there are some people with satellite connection who provide service to others using WiFi access points and repeaters and homemade antennae, but, as mentioned above, that is risky business.

If you are in Cuba, how does your experience compare to what I've just described?


  1. As a former network administrator in Cuba I can confirm this information is 1000% accourate (the extra 0 is intentional). Congratulations, this is a great post.

    One more piece of information that could be added is the fact that not only dial-up internet accounts are sold in the black market, it is even more common to find intranet-dial up accounts with just international email.

    These accounts are usually provided by the government to relatives of health professionals that are serving abroad, and to health professionals serving in the country. The accounts are limited to 20-30 hours per month, but part of this time is usually (and illegaly) shared with other for a fee of 20$-30$.

    Email in Cuba is extremelly important if you have relatives outside the country. It is a "cheap" mean of communication when compared to phone calls, which cost around 1$-2$ per minute.

  2. When I lived in Cuba, I was fortunate enough to have an ISDN connection in my home. It was faster than many connections in the country, but slow compared to broadband in the U.S.
    I hated it when Microsoft would prompt for software or browser updates. That would take hours and hours.
    Sometimes I'd leave the update going all night, hoping it would be done by morning. Sometimes that worked. But more often I'd wake up to find out that the connection cut off or the update had failed and I'd have to start all over again.

  3. Tracey Eaton said:

    > When I lived in Cuba, I was fortunate enough to have an ISDN connection in my home.

    I have come across several domain names containing ISDN. ISPs in the US pretty well skipped over ISDN, going straight from dial-up to DSL. Does anyone know how prevalent ISDN is in Cuba and who gets it?

  4. muchas gracias said:

    > Congratulations, this is a great post.

    Thanks for the kind comment :-).

    > Email in Cuba is extremely important if you have relatives outside the country. It is a "cheap" mean of communication when compared to phone calls, which cost around 1$-2$ per minute.

    How about SMS? It was my understanding that receiving an SMS message is free, sending a domestic message is CUC$.16 and an international message is CUC$1.00. Is that the case? Is SMS also important?

  5. Yes, SMS are also important, and yes, those are the current prices. However sending SMS TO Cuba is much cheaper, I use a service that costs me around 0.03 per SMS. But because of the high prices of SMS sent from Cuba they become kind of a "one way road" :)

  6. For Cubans without email access wanting to stay in touch with a loved one abroad, SMS is indeed useful. Rather than using a Cuban SIM card it makes sense to import a foreign card for this purpose, for example from the target country or a specialised international one. Usually the foreign partner will pay for a prepaid top-up account, as practised by thousands of Cuban-foreign couples. For example, in 2007/2008 I kept in touch from Germany with my fiancée in Cuba for months on EUR 0.35 per outgoing message from Cuba, paying nothing for messages from Germany to Cuba via the (Latvian) SIM card provider's web page.

  7. Larry -
    I don't know how many people had ISDN connections, but I think it was fairly common among foreign journalists. Big bureaus - like the AP - would have DSL, I suspect. But small news offices had ISDN connections. As I recall, it cost $100 per month per connection. I had one connection in my office and one at home. It was nothing like DSL in the U.S., but I was grateful to have it in Cuba.

  8. @Tracey $100 per month per month? I am sure it was a lot more than that. I used to have a dial-up in Cuba (etecsa/enet) from a friend of mine (a foraigner of course) and he was paying 100$ for 160 hours, per month. He asked once in etecsa how much it would cost a 64kbps dedicated link, and it was around 300$ at the time (this was +-3 years ago).

  9. Larry,

    Come on.. you've been writing about information networks in communist countries since at least the early 90s. You presented at Cuba's annual Informatica conference. What's with this feigned naivete?

    How believable is it when you get e-mails from 'Average Cubano' who is going out of their way to spend time talking with you about how repressive Cuba is. If it is, as you write, "risky business" ... why are they risking things for you? Do you run a particularly high-traffic blog where they are assured exposure? Do you have something to offer them ... even if it is just security in communications (like, how do they know you aren't one of the horrible undercover agents we hear so much about)?

    Your average Cuban doesn't read/speak English and they aren't interested in what you have to write about them and usually even less interested in defending themselves or their culture to you (given the choice).

    1. Manuel,

      I am not sure what you mean by feigned naivete. Do you think the person who sent this information is lying? I have no idea why he or she took the risk -- I guess he or she trusted that I was not a Cuban agent. As you say, I've been to Cuba, presented at Informatica -- does that make me suspicious in your eyes?

      Finally, my guess is that many Cubans who are on the Internet and interested in technology do read English. During the trips you refer to, I met many Cubans who spoke English.

  10. @manuel piñeiro

    "Your average Cuban doesn't read/speak English"
    This is so not true, half of the Cubans I know who are still living in Cuba speak English at some degree. English is mandatory in the Cuban educational system since 3th year of secundary education.

    "and they aren't interested in what you have to write about them"
    Wrong again, I do have friends who read this blog, but this blog requires authentication for commenting, something that frighten away most Cubans.

    "and usually even less interested in defending themselves or their culture to you (given the choice)"
    And yet here I am, your average Cuban, defeding myself and my culture against your comments.

    1. > this blog requires authentication for commenting, something that frighten away most Cubans.

      That is really disturbing to me -- I was worried about spam. I just changed the comment permissions to allow anonymous comments! Try it -- and let me know if it works.

    2. @Larry It seems to be working. Thanks!

    3. Great -- it was really dumb of me not to think of it before!


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