Monday, January 4, 2016

Year end interview of the president of ETECSA

"The people want to be connected."

ETECSA president, ingeniera Mayra Arevich Marín

Mayra Arevich Marín has been president of ETECSA for four years. The following are a few points from a recent year-end interview.
  • Internet access was improved through the rollout of Nauta rooms, WiFi hotpsots and improved connectivity at institutions that are important to the society.
  • By the end of the year, there will be 65 WiFi hotspots and they will add 80 more during 2016.
  • Today there are over 700 public access points in navigation rooms, cyber-cafes, hotels and airports.
  • Average daily access is over 150,000 people -- double last year.
  • They are encouraging the move to permanent Nauta accounts and hiring agents at WiFi hotspots to stop resellers. They are also experimenting with having people at the WiFi hotspots to assist customers. (It takes time to train support and marketing people).
  • They are also working on a system to let people buy time online rather than through an agent. (It seems they could have done this from the start -- send a 2 CUC text message to ETECSA in return for a 1-hour passcode).
  • They are working on infrastructure to support this access. They have expanded the capacity of their existing data center and will build two new data centers and augment backbone access to the international undersea cable in 2016. (She did not mention it, but the bulk of Cuba's international traffic shifted from satellite to cable this year, enabling the increase in access).
In addition to access, she mentioned new applications and improved connectivity in several government sectors:
  • There are now 40 thousand doctors who connect from their homes to the Internet via Infomed. They also improved the connectivity of health institutions.
  • The Ministry of Justice is putting applications like access to municipal records online.
  • Fiber connectivity has been provided at over 25 higher education facilities. By the end of the year, all Cuban universities were connected.
  • An interbank network was created and banking applications implemented. There are now 773 ATMs in Cuba, 150 of which were installed this year.
  • The Attorney General's office, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Institute of Water Resources and BioCubaFarma business group have improved fiber connectivity.
  • She said they are preparing new service offerings for 2016, but did not say what they were.
Entertainment is one critical application that was not mentioned. Today digital entertainment is being handled off line by El Paquete, but normalization of relations with the US will at some point eliminate the piracy subsidy upon which it is based, leaving a cost gap.

Finally, Arevich Marín said that since they must pay for infrastructure and equipment with convertible currency, they need to continue generating revenue through expensive service, foreign recharging, exportable services, international voice and roaming charges and government subsidy.

In a way, this was a typical year-end summary by any CEO -- mentioning achievements for the year past and hinting at some plans for the coming year, while ignoring problems.

Viewed from the perspective of the Internet in a developed nation, I am saddened by how little connectivity Cubans have, but I am more interested in where Cuba will be five or more years from now, so, for me, the key point in this interview was the last one -- citing the need for convertible currency. It is an indication that, at least for now, Cuba has decided to be relatively self-sufficient with respect to the Internet, but can they afford a self-sufficient Internet?

The conventional wisdom is that if Cuba wants to expand the Internet quickly, they should privatize and regulate the Internet in return for foreign investment. For example, Doug Madory has suggested licensing mobile providers, an approach that has led to rapid improvement of the mobile Internet in Myanmar, another "green field" nation. Cuba is seeking foreign investment in industries like mining and oil production, but the Internet is basic domestic infrastructure that might reasonably be kept independent. They should consider alternatives for infrastructure ownership and regulation along with foreign investment.

Update 2/5/2016

ETECSA officials held a press conference yesterday. Here is some of what they said. (My comments are in parenthesis).

At the end of the year there were 3.3 million mobile accounts. (Mobile Internet access is primarily used for personal communication and entertainment, not content creation or productivity applications).

They acknowledge and are working on peak load problems.

Rates have been reduced. (But they remain high enough to create a digital divide within Cuba).

They cautioned that the Old Havana pilot study was only a trial.

There are now agents selling telecommunication cards and recharge coupons (but not satellite access, which US operators are now allowed to provide).

They acknowledged that some of the public access hotspots were in inappropriate locations.

100 cellular base stations will be upgraded from 2G to 3G during the first half of 2016. (How many base stations are there altogether, what percent of the population will have 3G coverage at their homes and offices and why 3G)?

They will establish 80 new public WiFi hotspots this year and offer a variety of handsets for sale. (Is ETECSA the sole vendor for handsets)?

Update 3/31/2016

ETECSA executives held a round-table discussion on Internet services and WiFi hotspots and you can read the transcript here.

A couple of items caught my eye:
  • They will be upgrading access points to accommodate both 2.4 and 5 Ghz connections since 82 percent of today's connections are at 2.4 Ghz and today's laptops and tablets can utilize the 5 Ghz band.
  • Approximately 200,000 users connect daily at WiFi hotspots -- up from 150,000 reported in December.
  • They plan to upgrade 100 radio base stations (RBS) in Havana to 3G mobile. (Note that "RBS" is a term used by Ericsson, not Huawei).
  • Details of what will be a very expensive home connectivity project have not been ironed out, but they plan to upgrade equipment to provide a capacity of 1.2 million ADSL land lines. (That is fewer than the goal of nearly 2 million private homes that was stated in a home-connectivity presentation that was leaked last year).
They said a lot more, so you might want to read the transcript for yourself.

In general, I was struck by their reiteration of commitment to already obsolete equipment like ADSL to homes and 3G mobile. I hope they consider this and the WiFi hotspots stopgap technology and are making plans for leapfrogging today's technology and today's infrastructure ownership and regulation policies.

Update 8/16/2016

Last month, vice minister of communications Wilfredo González Vidal reportedly announced that they planned to have 655 public access locations in ETECSA "navigation rooms, Youth Computer Clubs, hotel and airports by the end of this year. He also said they now have 125 WiFi hotspots.

But, at the end of last year, Mayra Arevich Marín, president of ETECSA said there were already 700 public access points in navigation rooms, cyber-cafes, hotels and airports (see above).

Perhaps I misunderstood -- my Spanish is bad at best -- maybe the vice minister was saying they would add 655 new public access points. Here is the quote: "Los planes para ampliar el acceso público a internet prevén el aumento de capacidades con un total de 655 instalaciones a finales de este año" (my italics).

Regardless, proud announcements of such low numbers are discouraging. It is reminiscent the highly publicized offerings of the artist Kcho. What he did was fine, but it is an inconsequential drop in the bucket in a nation of over 11 million people.

By the end of the year, two years will have passed since the beginning of rapprochement between the US and Cuba. The Internet related announcements made at the time of President Obama's visit to Cuba have turned out to have been little more than public relations. Citmatel is embarrassingly out of touch with their goofy software and content offerings. Etc.

If I saw evidence of serious long range planning for "leapfrogging" today's technology and policy, I would understand a slow, stop-gap approach to public access, but I don't.

Update 8/22/2016

I noted inconsistency (above) in the number of public access points claimed by the Cuban Ministry of Communication and ETECSA, so I checked the ETECSA connectivity page for clarification. They list 259 public access rooms with a total of 921 computers, as follows:

ETECSA and the Ministry of Communication seem to agree that there will be at least 655 public access spots in ETECSA navigation rooms, Youth Computer Clubs, hotels and airports by the end of this year. I don't know how many are in hotels and airports, but the navigation rooms and Youth Computer Club installations shown here are well below that target.

The Ministry of Communication also said they now have 125 WiFi hotspots, but ETECSA lists 178. (They are silent on the characteristics of each -- for example, on whether the backhaul capacity from each is the same).

Some time ago, I noted that the roles of ETECSA and the Ministry of Communication with respect to the Internet are unclear. So are the statistics.

Update 9/11/2-16

Juventad Rebelde reports that there are now 1,006 public access locations in Cuba -- 200 WiFi hotspots, 193 “navigation rooms” and 613 other locations at Youth Computer Clubs, hotels, Health Ministry and Postal offices and airports. The article also says there are 250,000 WiFi connections daily -- 80% at 2.4Ghz.

ETECSA lists the locations of the WiFi hotspots here and the following map shows the number of WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms and other access locations in each province.

Update 9/23/2016

ETECSA has plans to install WiFi hotspots along a five mile stretch of the Malecon by the end of this year. They did not release details on the number of access points or their distribution or backhaul plans, but it will be a really nice touch if all goes well.

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