Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sprint connected Cuba in 1996, how about 2016?

Does Sprint have an advantage over other US companies?

Journalist Mark Walsh (@markfwal) sent me an interesting conjecture -- perhaps Sprint is well positioned to play a role in Cuba's mobile connectivity. He pointed out that Sprint already offers cell phone roaming in Cuba and their CEO, Marcelo Claure, seems like he might be a natural for dealing with Cuba. (Verizon also offers roaming in Cuba).

Claure was born in Bolivia and founded Brightstar, a Miami-based distributor of wireless devices in 1997. Today Brightstar designs, manufactures and distributes wireless equipment and offers services to 200 mobile network operators, 40,000 retailers, and 15,000 enterprise customers in over 50 nations, 20 of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Birghtstar was bought by SoftBank, which also owns 80% of Sprint, and Claure became CEO of Sprint in 2014.

So Claure is from Latin America, has done business in Cuba and other Latin American nations and has ties to Miami and, doubtless, the Cuban community there. On top of all of that, he is active in promoting professional soccer.

The final hint is historical. In the 1990s, the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) had an International Connectivity Program (ICP), which connected research and education networks in many developing nations.

The ICP provided access to the Internet by linking foreign networks to NSFNET, the NSF backbone network in the US. The ICP funded Cuba's first Internet connection, providing a link from the US to Cuba's National Center for Automated Information Exchange (CENIAI), which also had non-Internet links to Russia and Canada.

You may have guessed by now -- that link was provided by Sprint, under contract to the NSF. As Jesus Martinez, the head of CENIAI at the time, put it:
After so many days, years of sacrifice and vigilance, I have great satisfaction to announce that our beloved Cuba, our "caiman 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.
You might be surprised to read that Cuba was allowed to connect to a US network over a link provided by a US company -- what about the embargo? Steve Goldstein, who headed the ICP, says the program was authorized by the government:
In the case of Cuba, we applied for a license to route its traffic on the NSFNET backbone and in the (NSF regional networks) from the Department of the Treasury, which administers the Trading with the Enemy Act. Treasury coordinated it with State and other government agencies, as did Commerce when we asked for advisory opinions about Russia, for example.
Well, what do you think? Does Sprint have an advantage over other US companies? Would they be able to compete successfully against Chinese companies that are already in Cuba?

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure signing a roaming agreement with ETECSA

Update 2/27/2016

Armando Camacho has translated this post into Spanish on his blog Carpe Diem.

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