Saturday, January 19, 2013

Details of Alan Gross's "telco in a bag"

Tracy Eaton has written a terrific blog post on the project that landed Alan Gross in prison. Eaton has discovered and published documents that finally answer the question "what did Alan Gross actually do?"

The documents show that Gross smuggled in three backpack-sized "Telco's in a Bag," as shown above. He was paid $258,274 for that and had requested more money to continue the project, but was apprehended on his fifth trip to Cuba, before the project could be expanded. (On first reading, I did not see the total cost of the project to the US taxpayer).

The term "Telco in a Bag" is misleading. A better description would have been "a small local area network with a slow satellite connection to the Internet in a backpack."

"Telco in a Bag" no doubt sounded good to the people funding the project, but, as I have written earlier, it grossly overstates the power of the equipment Gross brought to Cuba. Had Gross succeeded, it would not have made a huge difference and, in failing, it provided the Cuban government with a propaganda "threat" that it has blown out of proportion.

Read the post and documents over and let us know what you think.


  1. Hi Larry,

    As I have mentioned on your previous posts, I insist that you are underestimating this kind of equiment. No one in Cuba will currently hope to have an internet link at home any better than 30-50kbps.

    According to the data that you posted previously, the porposed scenario was a 492kbps link, shared among 25-30 computers. Comparing to general situation in Cuba, this is a perfectly valid scenario.

    You can go to any hotel in Cuba, and you will see that they usually have a 128-256kbps link being shared among +-10 workstations for internet access + a few wifi users. You can go to any university and you will see a 2-4Mbps link being shared among 500+ computers.

    You cannot measure this situation with the same thermometer you would use at your home country.

    1. MG,

      I understand and totally agree that by Cuban standards the "Telco in a Bag" would be a great thing to have, but I still question how big a deal it would have been in terms of the overall political picture. I also think the term "Telco in a Bag," which I guess was catchy enough to convince the people funding the project to go ahead, is misleading. "Telco" implies something like Verizon or ETECSA.

      Let's dig deeper and see what we can agree on.

      First, Alan Gross delivered three systems, not just one and had proposed delivering three more, but was caught. That makes what he did even better.

      But, there were limitations in satellite bandwidth, data caps and the reach and fan-out of the local area network. Let me talk a bit about each.

      Satellite bandwidth:

      Alan Gross brought in three satellite modems -- 2 Nera and 1 Thrane & Thrane (T&T). (Since that time T&T has bought Nera). I do not know which specific models he brought in, but the figure you give of 492 kbps is possibly based on today's T&T Explorer 700 (

      My recollection is that fast link speeds were more like 256 kbps at the time of Alan Gross's trips. Satellite latency would also slow both file transfer and interactive applications, but that would also be the case on any other Cuban link.

      Data transfer caps:

      Alan Gross had a budget for 3GB per month total data transfer for the six systems he was planning to bring in -- .5 GB each. That would be a lot for someone with a regular Cuban account, but compared to the size of the movie and TV disks for sale on Revolico, it does not seem like a huge amount of data.

      LAN range and fan-out:

      Some users could have connected to the access point using Ethernet cables, but others would have been using 802.11g WiFi so the indoor range might have been a couple hundred feet. The further from the access point, the slower the WiFi speed and sharing access among several users would also have cut speed.

      Based on WiFi projects I have worked on, the user experience with 25-30 computers sharing that one access point would be bad.

      Again, I totally agree that this would have been a terrific thing for any Cuban with a dial up account or access in a hotel or university, but I don't see that it would have been of sufficient scale and capacity to make a big difference even if it had succeeded.

      Of course the Cuban government saw it as an existential threat, a "cyberwar" attack :-).


  2. It seems we have finally reached an agreement here. I understand and support your point now.

    Just one remark, the Cuban government was probably aware that the "scalability" of Gross' project was limited (even if they had to exaggerate it publicly in order to support Gross incarceration), but I think they were also afraid that something more "dangerous" could come after this if they allowed it.

  3. > It seems we have finally reached an agreement here.


    > afraid that something more "dangerous" could come

    Good point -- if they had let Alan Gross in, it may have emboldened others.


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