Blog “The Internet in Cuba” By: Larry Press February 22, 2017
I’ve followed Cuba’s home-connectivity “plan” from the time it was leaked in 2015 until the recent Havana home Internet trial. I thought the plan was a bad idea when it was leaked — it calls for installation of obsolete DSL (digital subscriber line) technology — and now that the Havana trial is complete, I question whether the plan was real.
ETECSA denied the validity of the leaked presentation at the time and their definition of “broadband” was “at least 256 kb/s.” Furthermore, the goal was stated as “Alcanzar para el 2020 que no menos del 50% de los hogares disponga de acceso de Banda Ancha a Internet.” My Spanish is not very good, so I am not sure whether the plan was for connectivity in 50% of homes or connectivity being available to 50% of homes. Either way, slow DSL will be a joke in 2020.
But, the free home-connectivity trial in Havana used the DSL technology described in the leaked plan — might it be for real? I don’t think so.
At the end of the free trial, a friend told me that around 700 of the 2,000 of eligible Havana homes agreed to pay to continue the service. He also said that around 12 homes have been connected in Bayamo and the same was going to happen in Santa Clara and Las Tunas. If this home connectivity roll-out has been planned since 2015, why is it going so slowly? Why aren’t other parts of Havana open? Why aren’t they doing large-scale trials in Bayamo, Santa Clara and Las Tunas?
The quality of a DSL connection is a function of the length and condition of the telephone wire running between a home and the central office serving it. If they had really planned to bring DSL to many Cuban homes, they would have understood the necessity of investing heavily in wiring as well as central office equipment.
My guess is that the Havana trial and the installations in Bayamo, Santa Clara and Las Tunas are not part of a national home-connectivity plan, but ends in themselves — interim measures aimed at bringing slow DSL connectivity to small businesses and self-employed people in the most affluent parts of selected cities. That makes more sense to me than a plan to spend a lot of money upgrading copper telephone wires and central office equipment in order to be able to offer obsolete connectivity to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. (I’ve always hoped Cuba would leapfrog today’s technology, opting for that of the next generation).
If the DSL “plan” was never a plan, what might we expect? (The following is highly speculative).
My hope is that Cuba regards efforts like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, Street Nets and El Paquete as temporary stopgap measures while waiting for next-generation technology. If that is the case, we might see progress when Raúl Castro steps down next year.
Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who is expected by many to succeed Castro, acknowledged the inevitability of the Internet in a 2013 talk, saying “today, news from all sides, good and bad, manipulated and true, or half-true, circulates on networks, reaches people — people hear it. The worst thing, then, is silence.” (I think Donald Trump may have been in the audience :-).
In a later speech, Díaz-Canel recognized that the Internet is a social and economic necessity, therefore the government has the responsibility of providing affordable connectivity to every citizen, but there is a caveat — the government must be vigilant in assuring that the citizens use the Internet legally. Here is a clip from that speech:
In 1997, the Cuban government decided that the political risk posed by the Internet outweighed its potential benefit and decided to suppress it. At the same time, China opted for a ubiqutius, modern Internet — understanding they could use it as a tool for propaganda and surveillance. It sounds to me like Díaz-Canel has endorsed the Chinese model and will push for next-generation technology with propaganda and surveillance.
(Again, my Spanish is not so great and I may have mischaracterized Díaz-Canel’s statements. I would welcome other’s reactions to the clip shown above or other statements he has made).
If Cuba does decide to install next-generation technology, can they afford it?
I can’t be certain, but I doubt that they have the expertise or the money to quickly deploy a next-generation Internet.
Cuba has many information technologists who have become proficient at improvisation and working with outdated technology. I expect that they can quickly learn to work with modern technology if it is available.
Funding is tougher. Cuba is a “green field” and a timely move to modern infrastructure will require their being open to foreign investment and partnership, which may be a hard sell for Díaz-Canel or whoever replaces Castro. They need to adopt next-generation regulation and infrastructure ownership policy if they are to obtain next-generation technology. That will not be easy, but there are cultural and historical reasons to believe that Cuba may be able to do so. (If they succeed, we can all learn from them).
Who might Cuba partner with?
As a customer of an Internet service provider (ISP) that has a monopoly in my neighborhood, I fully understand the pitfalls of the wrong partner and would be cautious in dealing with large ISPs. I don’t know who the likely vendors will be, but Google has the inside track. (Huawei is well established in Cuba, but is more narrowly focused than Google).
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt traveled to Cuba in June 2014, accompanied by Brett Perlmutter, who is now their Head of Cuba Strategy & Operations. Google’s progress has been slow, but they seem to be patiently investing in relationships for the long haul. Their most technically significant achievement has been securing permission to install servers that cache their content on the Island, but their production of a tribute to Cuban arts and culture on their online Cultural Institute, including the following VR video on Jose Marti, may be more important for its political and cultural significance:
Google has much to offer Cuba — experience with fiber infrastructure in developed and developing nations, content development and future technologies. Perhaps more important, they can profit by simply having more users in Cuba without having to sell them service or equipment — they can profit by collaborating with ETECSA rather than competing with them.
Cuba should consider other partners, but Google seems to be in a strong position. As Perlmutter said when asked about home connectivity in a recent intverview, “We’d love to do that. We’ve put everything on the table and I’m really optimistic about this because everything is still on the table. We’re holding talks and discussing about all these matters.” (For a Spanish version of the interview, click here).
Perlmutter also said that “ETECSA has a plan and our goal is to work hand in hand with them and assist them with the vast experience we have piled up around the globe doing this same thing.” It doesn’t sound like the plan is to bring 256 kb/s DSL to Cuban homes.