Friday, September 29, 2017

Cuba's (hopefully limited) ADSL expansion

Home ADSL is less important than other interim, stopgap measures like WiFi parks and El Paquete Semanal.

In 2015, ETECSA announced/leaked a plan to make ADSL service available in 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. I was skeptical. Doing so would mean investing a lot of money for obsolete technology between 2015 and 2020.

They just announced the availability of ADSL connectivity at homes in portions of seven cities and, by December, they say some home connectivity will be available in every province.

ETECSA first tested, then offered ADSL service in Old Havana. Only 600 customers opened accounts after the test period, leading me to speculate (and hope) that the ADSL project would end given the low acceptance rate. I was wrong, but I still don't think ADSL will or should reach anywhere near 50% of Cuban homes.

Let me digress a bit to explain why I think ADSL is a bad idea. ADSL requires a telephone line from one's home to a phone company central office where the DSL equipment is installed and the central office needs a fast enough connection to the Internet to handle the traffic of all the customers it serves. Deteriorated wiring, a long distance from a home to the central office or a lack of backhaul capacity from the central office to the Internet reduce connection speed.

For example, in my neighborhood Frontier offers ADSL service at speeds ranging from 1.61 Mbps to 6 Mbps. (The FCC defines "broadband" as 25 Mbps or more). My home is about two miles from my central office and it was built just after World War II, so the fastest speed they can offer me is 3 Mbps. That has not changed since I discontinued ADSL in the 1990s. ADSL technology has improved since that time, but Frontier has not invested in new equipment because their ADSL service is clearly inferior to that offered by cable TV companies.

Perhaps ETECSA has a commitment to their DSL equipment vendor, Huawei, or they are able to make a profit serving a few customers at the high prices they are charging today, but I can't imagine them making a large investment in this technology. (see prices below).

I don't have the details, but my guess is that only a few central offices will be equipped for ADSL in each new city and a relatively small number of people in served neighborhoods will choose to pay the prices they are charging for home Internet service. (I wonder what percent of their current Havana and Bayamo customers are businesses or homes of people who rent rooms or work at home).

As such, I don't see this slow, expensive, restricted service as very important. It should be considered an interim, stopgap measure, like WiFi parks or El Paquete Semanal, while ETECSA plans "leapfrogging" to next-generation technology and, more important, regulation and infrastructure ownership policy in the 2020s.

Cities served, prices and connection speeds

=====
Update 10/4/2017

ETECSA has released details on their recent ADSL expansion. There are answers to 85 frequently asked questions including this list the popular councils in which ADSL is available:


ADSL is now available in portions of 16 popular councils in addition to previous availability in Havana and Bayamo. Around 600 homes have subscribed in Havana.

In 2016 there were 764 central offices in Cuba (719 of them digital). I don't know if some central offices serve homes in more than one popular council or if there are some popular councils served by more than one central office, but even with this expansion, ADSL is only available to and affordable by a small portion of Cuban homes.

My guess would be that the central offices that have been upgraded to allow for ADSL are in relatively affluent neighborhoods and many subscribers are businesses or people renting rooms in their homes, but that is just a guess and it would be interesting to see a survey of ADSL subscribers.

=====
Update 10/16/2017

When ETECSA held a home connectivity trial in Havana last year, 868 people participated and over 600 contracted for the service. They are now extending the availability of home connectivity to portions of seven Havana municipalities: La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, Revolution Square, Havana del Este, San Miguel del Padrón, La Lisa and beach. (It had been available in only two up till now).

Note that all locations in those municipalities will not be covered -- I suspect that is due to distance from an ETECSA central office, a lack of backhaul capacity and/or the poor wiring condition.

They also announced a home service price cut -- 15 CUC per month will now get you 1 Mbps instead of 256 kbps. (The release said 1 megabyte, but I suspect that was a typo).

Perhaps ETECSA is able to recover the cost of their DSL and infrastructure investment at the speeds and prices they are offering, but this is clearly not the path to widespread home connectivity.


=====
Update 10/17/2017

ETECSA has released the number of Nauta Hogar subscribers outside of Havana: 232 in Pinar del Río, 225 in Holguín, 134 in Guantanamo, 79 in Granma and 142 in Las Tunas. Most of those are 1 or 2 Mbps.

With a reported subscriber count of 600 in Havana, this brings the total number of homes with ADSL connectivity to a little over 1,400. As of 2015, there were 996,063 residential phone lines in Cuba. They clearly can not and should not count on using ADSL to reach the 50% availability level mentioned above.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Google global cache servers are online in Cuba, but Google's App Engine is blocked

This is a belated update. I had hoped to get more information before posting it, but difficult Internet access in Cuba and now the hurricane got in the way -- better late than never.

Cuban requests for Google services are being routed to GCC servers in Cuba and all Google services that are available in Cuba are being cached -- not just YouTube. That will cut latency significantly, but Cuban data rates remain painfully slow. My guess is that Cubans will notice the improved performance in interactive applications, but maybe not perceive much of a change when watching a streaming video.

Note the italics in the above paragraph -- evidently, Google blocks access to their App Engine hosting and application development platform. Cuban developers cannot build App Engine applications and Cubans cannot access applications like the Khan Academy or Google's G-Suite.


The last time I checked, Rackspace and Amazon allowed access to their hosting platforms from Cuba, but IBM Softlayer and Google did not. President Obama clearly favored improved telecommunication for Cuba, stating that
I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.
in his Cuba Policy Changes. While Trump claimed that he was "canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba," he made few changes and has said nothing about restrictions on access to Internet services by Cubans.

I wonder why IBM and Google do not follow the lead of Amazon and Rackspace.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Fact checking the recent news about Google in Cuba

The Cuban Internet is constrained by the Cuban government and to a lesser extent the US government, not Google.

Google's Cuba project has been in the news lately. Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote a Wall Street Journal article called "Google’s Broken Promise to Cubans," criticising Google for being "wholly uninterested in the Cuban struggle for free speech" and assisting the Castro government.

The article begins by taking a shot at President Obama who "raved" about an impending Google-Cuba deal “to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island.”

(The use of the word "raved" nearly caused me to dismiss the article and stop reading, but I forced myself to continue).

The next paragraph tells us "Google has become a supplier of resources to the regime so that Raúl Castro can run internet (sic) at faster speeds for his own purposes."

The article goes on to tell us that Brett Perlmutter of Google "boasted" that Google was “thrilled to partner” with a regime-owned museum, featuring a Castro-approved artist.

(Like "raved," the use of the word "boasted" seemed Trump-worthy, but I kept reading).

O'Grady also referred to a July 2015 Miami Herald report that Perlmutter had pitched a proposal to build an island-wide digital infrastructure that the Cuban government rejected.

Next came the buried lead -- it turns out this article was precipitated by blocked Cuban access to the pro-democracy Web site Cubadecide.org.

Perlmutter tweeted that the site was blocked because of the US embargo on Cuba.

Well, that is enough. Let's do some fact checking.

President Obama's "raving:" It is true that President Obama made a number of (in retrospect) overly-optimistic predictions during his Cuba trip, but the use of the word "raving" and the obligatory shot at President Obama were clues that O'grady might not be impartial and objective.

Google as a supplier of resources: This presumably is a reference to Google's caching servers in Cuba. While these servers marginally speed access to Google applications like Gmail and YouTube, it is hard to see how that helps Raul Castro. It has been reported that Cuba agreed "not censor, surveil or interfere with the content stored" on Google's caching servers. Furthermore, Gmail is encrypted and YouTube is open to all comers -- for and against the Cuban government.

Brett Perlmutter's boasting:
about partnering with a Cuban artist's installation of a free WiFi hotspot. I agree that the WiFi hotspot at the studio of the Cuban artist Kcho is an over-publicized drop in the bucket -- much ado about not much.

Google's rejected offer of an island-wide digital infrastructure: I have seen many, many (now I'm channeling Trump) references to this "offer," but have no idea what was offered. Google won't tell me and I've seen no documentation on the offer.

Google's blocking of Cubadecide.org: It is true that Google blocks access to Cubadecide.org. Furthermore, they block access from Cuba to all sites that are hosted on their infrastructure. Microsoft also blocks Cuban access to sites they host; however, Amazon and Rackspace do not. Cubadecide.org could solve their problem by moving their site to Amazon, Rackspace or a different hosting service that does not block Cuban access.

Perlmutter blames the embargo: I don't want to give Google a pass on this. The next question is "why does Amazon allow Cuban access and Google does not?" They are both subject to the same US laws. IBM is a more interesting case -- they did not block access at first but changed their policy later.

There may be some reason for IBM and Google behaving differently than Amazon and Rackspace. I asked both IBM and Google for an explanation, but neither replied.

It should also be pointed out that the Cuban government also blocks access to some Web sites so they could counter a move by Cubadecide.org if they wished.

Before publishing this post, I wanted to confirm my understanding of the situation and I found something I cannot explain. It turns out that the Khan Academy, an educational site with both Spanish and English versions that I would love to see available in Cuba, uses both Amazon and Google as hosts.

When I accessed them from the US, I was directed to Amazon for the English site and Google for the Spanish site, but I got strange results from friends in Cuba. One told me he was unable to access either site from a government enterprise but was able to access both from a WiFi park. Another told me he was unable to access either from a university, the medical network, Mednet, or a WiFi park. I had them try the Amazon IP address I was directed to in the US (23.23.224.106), but that did not work in Cuba either.

Well, that remains a mystery, which maybe some reader in Cuba can clear up.

Well, those are the "facts" as I see them. The bottom line for me is that the Cuban government, not Google, is constraining the Cuban Internet. (I've talked about Cuban constraints in several earlier posts, for example, here and here). The US embargo and Trump's policy have also set the Cuban Internet back. That being said, I would like to know why Google feels compelled to block Cuban access when Amazon does not.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Nearshore Americas throws in the towel

Previously optimistic Nearshore Americas says Cuban offshore IT is a lost cause.

In an earlier post, I asked whether the nascent Cuban software community would thrive. The offshore IT firm Nearshore Americas seemed to think the answer was "yes." Two years ago, I described their report on Cuba’s Readiness for ICT Transformation, which spoke of barriers to success but also documented Cuba's talent pool and the government agenda for improving connectivity.

That was two years ago. Today, they have given up on Cuba. Kirk Laughlin, Nearshore Americas founder and managing director, has written a post stating that
For those who continue to hope that Cuba will turn the corner, stop hoping. It’s futile. We know it first hand, and in this piece, I’ll explain as plainly as I can that Cuba is a lost cause, a basket-case for global services and easily the biggest disappointment ever in the short history of Nearshore information technology and business process outsourcing.
He goes on to describe his frustrating interactions with stubborn, paranoid Cuban officials and diplomats during the ensuing two years. He came to realize that "an American pitching technology in Havana is like a Russian selling satellite equipment in Washington, D.C. – suspicions are instantly raised."

Hopefully, things will change in the future, but Trump's presidency is not likely to diminish Cuban official's fear of expressing opinions that contradict the party line and Díaz-Canel's policy is uncertain.

The following figures show results of Nearshore Americas' poll of Cuban IT workers two years ago.



-----
Update 9/5/2017

Inspired by the Nearshore Americas post, Cuban blogger and professor Armando Camacho has written a post on the failure of Cuban outsourcing (in Spanish). He speaks of Cuba's potential as an outsourcing hub, Nearshore Americas' optimism after President Obama's liberal Cuban policy announcement in December 2014 and their disappointment with Cuba's response. As Camacho puts it "nobody likes to get a zero on an exam," and that is the grade he is giving the Cuban government.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Cuba's Digital Revoluton -- a flawed documentary

Most of Cuba doesn't have the Internet.
The Bertelsmann Foundation has produced a 25-minute documentary on Cuba's Digital Revolution (below). The video is divided into four parts:
While I agree with the editorial point of view that US Cuba policy should remain open, as it was during the Obama administration, the video is flawed.

There is nothing novel about the basic content -- it has all been covered in other videos, articles, and blogs like the one you are reading now.

More important, the video overstates the impact of the opening of the US to Cuba, concluding that "In the two years since the Obama administration engaged with the country, Cuba has taken remarkable steps towards a digital revolution" or stating that "in 2014, after the Obama administration extended an olive branch, the Cuban government began relaxing restrictions on internet use -- the government opened a series of WiFi parks."

Correlation is not causation. The first WiFi parks opened in July 2015, several months after President Obama's policy change, but Cuba had begun opening public access facilities in June of 2013 and the WiFi hotspots were built by Huawei, a Chinese company with a long standing relationship with Cuba.

Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush, went further saying "all the big telecomms -- AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon have roaming agreements with the Cuban government and that's what's enabled all these people to get WiFi." He does not understand the difference between mobile roaming and WiFi or who the roaming users are and I can't understand why that clip was not cut.

But, it's not all bad. The presentation is often engaging. For example, we follow the narrator around Havana as he buys a phone (on Revolico) and gets online at a WiFi hotspot and there is a good interview with a distributor of El Paquete. My favorite part was a conversation in which Cardenas is trying to recruit a contributor for his blog. He takes a thinly veiled shot at the US and goes on to say that he wants to improve and refine Cuban socialism, not abandon it. He criticises the government in order to improve it.

If you still want to watch the video, focus on the vignettes, not the hyperbole. Here it is:

Monday, August 21, 2017

A new undersea cable -- landing in Cuba?

Having two landing points in western Cuba would significantly reduce the load on today's backbone.

Phase 1 routes around Cuba, phase 2 connects Cuba.
As shown here, Deep Blue Cable is planning a Caribbean cable. Phase one, the solid line on the map, bypasses Cuba but phase two shows two Cuban landing points. The phase two cities are not shown, but one appears to be near Havana and the other near Playa Girón. The phase one route survey is underway. Cable installation will begin in September 2018 and it is scheduled to be ready for service in December 2019.

They did not give a schedule for phase two, but having two landing points in western Cuba would significantly reduce the load on today's backbone. Traffic from Camagüey, Holguín, Guantánamo, and Santiago de Cuba could continue being routed over the current undersea cable at the east end of the island and traffic from Havana, Cienfuegos and other western locations would be routed through the new landing points, increasing speed and freeing Cuban capital for connecting smaller cities.

After leading a delegation to Cuba in January 2016, Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, said there were at least a half-dozen proposals for cables between Cuba and the US, but that is the last I have heard of those proposals.

The cable connecting the US base at Guantanamo to Florida could one day be turned over to Cuba, but even if that were to happen it would not alleviate the backbone load since it lands at the east end of the island.

I have long advocated Cuba investing in interim, stopgap Internet connectivity in the short run while planning to leapfrog current technology using next-generation technology when it becomes available. This cable could be a major component of that next-generation Internet.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Laptops for Cuban professors

Late last year, we learned that China's 90,000 employee Haier Group would be producing laptops and tablets in partnership with GEDEME, a Cuban manufacturer that will assemble the machines using Haier parts, equipment, and production processes.

Last week, a friend who is a professor at the University of Havana told me that he and other professors have been given GDM laptops. He said UCI, ISPJAE and Univerisity of Havana faculty were the first to receive the laptops, but eventually all professors at all universities would get them.

When Haier announced they would be producing laptops in Cuba, they said would be Core i3, Celeron and Core i5 CPUs with up to 1 TB of memory. The processor in my friend's machine is a 1.60GHz Celeron N3060, which Intel announced April 1, 2015. The N3060 is a system on a chip with two processor cores, a graphic processing unit, and a memory controller. His laptop has 4 GB of RAM, a 97.31 GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive and a 1,024 x 768 pixel display with 32-bit color depth. It has a wired Ethernet port, but no WiFi or Bluetooth.

The machine came with UCI's Nova Unix operating system, but my friend has installed Windows in its place and he says most people do the same. (Cuban officials say they can achieve software independence using Nova, but Cuba is not large enough to support its own software, services, and standards).

These are low-end laptops, but they represent a significant step up over phones and tablets for content creation. They are also power-efficient, making them suitable for portable use, but for some reason, they do not have WiFi radios.

A laptop without WiFi is striking today. I don't know what the marginal cost of WiFi would have been, but Alibaba offers many chips for under $5 in relatively small lots. Why don't these machines have WiFi radios? Is the government trying to discourage portable use at home or public-access hotspots?

Regardless of the reason, WiFi dongles are a low-cost fix. There are not a lot of WiFi dongles for sale on Revolico today and their prices are high, but I bet the offerings pick up if these laptops roll out.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Internet status report from Cuba's Minister of Communication

Communication Minister Mesa Ramos
Last month, Minister of Communications, Maimir Mesa Ramos spoke to the Cuban Parliament on the current state of the Internet and reviewed some recent achievments. I've listed some of the points he made (bold face) along with my comments.
  • They are working on a new regulatory and legal framework.
  • The International Telecommunication Union describes four generations of regulatory evolution. Cuba is one of the few nations remaining at level 1. Might they leapfrog a generation or more?
  • They are assembling tablets and laptops running the Cuban operating system, Nova.
  • We discussed this work here and it is my understanding that the laptops are being rolled out to university professors.
  • A computer science professional society was created.
  • We covered this topic here.
  • In 2016, 3,330 new data links were established to national agencies and institutions and the bandwidth to these organizations increased by 72 percent.
  • I can think of many follow-up questions to drill down on this one, but it is good to hear that domestic infrastructure is improving.
  • There are now 879 mobile base stations in Cuba, 358 of which support third generation (3G) mobile service.
  • The percent of the population with mobile coverage has not changed, so the main activity has been 3G upgrades. It would be interesting to know how many Cubans have 3G phones and if backhaul capacity has been added to 3G base stations. Also for context -- 5G networks are forecast to cover around a third of the global population by 2025. Is Cuba planning on leapfrogging to 5G mobile technology?
  • There are over 630 public access navigation rooms and 370 WiFi access points.
  • It is good that they are able to expand public access, but it is an interim, stopgap measure.
  • There are 4.3 million mobile "lines.”
  • I assume this means 4.3 million mobile accounts.
  • Four million users have access to the “Internet,” roughly one million through permanent accounts.
  • The four million figure must include those with access to the domestic Cuban intranet, but not the global Internet. Perhaps the one million permanent accounts belong to people who have accessed the global Internet. Regardless, the term "user" is not defined.
  • Their home broadband service has about 600 subscribers and they realize that it is not the solution for mass access to the Internet.
  • I've been following this home broadband project for some time and have consistently said it made no sense. It seems that the Cubans now agree, but it is hard to understand how such a bad idea was ever considered. I hope different people are making decisions today.
  • Mass deployment will come from wireless services.
  • I wonder what they mean by this. Today's 3G mobile, WiFi hotspots and unofficial streetnets are clearly interim stopgap measures. I hope he was referring to studies of forthcoming 5G wireless and high-speed point-point wireless links to leapfrog current wireless technology. While I am dreaming, I'd love to see Cuba talk with OneWeb and SpaceX about their forthcoming satellite networks. OneWeb is committed to first deploying over Alaska -- how about talking with SpaceX about first covering Cuba?
  • International bandwidth doubled in 2016 from 4Gb/s to 8 Gb/s.
  • That is good to hear -- they need to balance international bandwidth with domestic backbone and access networks, but it should also be kept in context. My small university has a symmetric 10 Gb/s to the Internet.

There was some discussion after the presentation, in which representatives encouraged the production of Cuban content and expressed concern about affordability, cyber crime, and the migration of computer scientists to the non-state sector.

Wilfredo González, vice minister of the Ministry of Communication, said their principle computerization asset was over 25 thousand professionals, trained by Cuban universities.

Miriam Nicado, Rector of the University of Computer Sciences, where the Nova operating system was developed, said its widespread use would allow Cubans to surf with security, independence and technological sovereignty. I wonder if Cubans who get those new Nova-based laptops are installing Windows on them. China, with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, can support their own software, services, and standards, but not Cuba.

This talk was given shortly before Cuba released their 2016 ICT statistics report, which covers some of the same ground. Check this post for further discussion of that report.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cuban ICT statistics report for 2016

I look at the ICT statistics reported annually by ONEI, the Cuban Office of statistics and information, every year. This table shows the Internet-related statistics from the latest report:


And this table shows the percent changes over the years:


The first thing I noticed was that the number of "Internet" users increased by 15.8%. I assume that much of that increase and that of the previous year was due to the opening of public access navigation rooms and WiFi hotspots.

I put "Internet" in quotes because the index is not defined. Given its magnitude, I assume that it combines users with access to the internal Cuban intranet and those with access to the global Internet. Furthermore, it is not clear who they are counting as a "user." Does it include anyone who has purchased access time once during the year, people who theoretically have access to the intranet at work or school, etc.? It is customary for statistical agencies to publish appendices with definitions of their indices, but I have not seen one for these statistics. (I'd love a copy of the index definitions if someone has it).

Note that the user increase is only a little over half the increase during the previous year. My guess is that is because a large portion of the first-year WiFi users were highly motivated "early adopters" who continue to use public access points. They were joined this year by people who did not log on until a location opened up near them, they heard about the Internet by word of mouth or perhaps only got a WiFi equipped device this year.

The number of computers increased by 7.6% with 15.1% more of those on the network. "Computer" is not defined, but this increase might reflect laptops, tablets and perhaps phones which people have acquired in order to use the WiFi hotspots.

The number of mobile accounts increased sharply, but, as with network users, the rate of increase was substantially lower than the previous year. The percent of the population with mobile coverage is unchanged, so the total number of mobile base stations has probably remained abourt the same as it was last year. That being said, we know that there are 879 mobile base stations in Cuba and 358 of them have been upgraded to support third generation communication. The number of users with 3G compatible phones is unknown.

The number of names registered under the .cu top-level domain actually decreased, an inidication that new enterprises are registering under top level domains like .com or .co.

For further discussion of the trends noted in this year's report, check our summary of last year's report.

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Update 8/5/2017

For further discussion of related topics, see this post on a talk on Internet status by Cuba's Minister of Communication. In the post, I comment briefly on the following points made by the Minister:
  • They are working on a new regulatory and legal framework.
  • They are assembling tablets and laptops running the Cuban operating system, Nova.
  • A computer science professional society was created.
  • In 2016, 3,330 new data links were established to national agencies and institutions and the bandwidth to these organizations increased by 72 percent.
  • There are now 879 mobile base stations in Cuba, 358 of which support third generation (3G) mobile service.
  • There are over 630 public access navigation rooms and 370 WiFi access points.
  • There are 4.3 million mobile "lines.”
  • Four million users have access to the “Internet,” roughly one million through permanent accounts.
  • Their home broadband service has about 600 subscribers and they realize that it is not the solution for mass access to the Internet.
  • Mass deployment will come from wireless services.
  • International bandwidth doubled in 2016 from 4Gb/s to 8 Gb/s.









Thursday, July 20, 2017

DSL Internet available in some Bayamo homes

Nahta home user in Havana (source)
In February, I heard that ETECSA was testing home DSL in Bayamo. They are now offering the same home DSL plans in Bayamo as in Havana.

The announcement said that, as in Havana, access would be limited to homes within a limited area -- probably within a specified distance from the central office(s) that are equipped for DSL. I have heard about similar projects underway in Santa Clara and Las Tunas, so we can expect the service to eventually be rolled out to limited areas there as well.

ETECSA says they will be making this service available in 38,000 homes during 2017. If they are serious about their avowed plan to make DSL available to 50% of homes, they have a long way to go (but I doubt they are serious about doing so).


Saturday, July 1, 2017

What does Trump's Cuba policy memorandum say about the Internet?

Trump orders the Secretary of State to create a Cuban Internet task force.

Last week I reviewed Trump's Cuban policy speech and its implications for the Internet. The speech was accompanied by a national security memorandum on strengthening US Cuba policy, which was sent to the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries, and heads of various departments.

The first thing that struck me about the memorandum was that it was a "national security" memorandum. Does Trump think Cuba poses a threat to our national security and how does his policy improve the situation? That is a topic for another discussion, but what does the memorandum say about the Internet?

The memorandum addresses the Internet in its purpose, policy and implementation sections.

The purpose section states that in Cuba "the right to speak freely, including through access to the internet, is denied, and there is no free press." One of the purposes of the memorandum is to restore the right to speak freely on the Internet. The Cuban government censors and sometimes punishes dissent and uses the Internet for propaganda, but it is not clear that Trump's policy and attitude will improve the situation. Furthermore, freedom of speech online is often abused and it is ironic that Trump should lecture anyone on this issue.

In the policy section, Trump says he will "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of Internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel." This sounds good, but, at best, it is inconsistent with the policy he outlined last month in Saudi Arabia when he promised that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust." At worst, he could be considering actions like the failed smuggling of satellite equipment into Cuba, Zunzuneo or the Alan Gross affair.

The implementation section says he will "support the expansion of direct telecommunications and Internet access for the Cuban people" by having the Secretary of State convene
a task force, composed of relevant departments and agencies, including the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and appropriate non-governmental organizations and private-sector entities, to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba, including through Federal Government support of programs and activities that encourage freedom of expression through independent media and internet freedom so that the Cuban people can enjoy the free and unregulated flow of information
I contacted the State Department to see if they could tell me more about the task force, but they offered no details at this time. I'll follow up on this.

I cannot end this post without commenting on the writing style of the memorandum. It is written in the first person, implying that Trump actually wrote it. I am sure it was drafted and revised by staff, but gratuitous adjectives as in "dissidents and peaceful protesters are arbitrarily detained and held in terrible prison conditions," sounded Trumpian to me and the call for the establishment of a task force, quoted above, reminded me of James Joyce. I also found the organization confusing in places. Some policies seemed more like goals and one of them is to "not reinstate the 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' policy." One wonders why he did not also vow not to reinstate limits on the value of rum and cigars travelers are allowed to bring back from Cuba.



Friday, June 23, 2017

Mobile coverage in Cuba -- mixed 2G and 3G

Cuba us rolling out 3G mobile service rapidly, but capacity remains a question mark.

In an earlier post, I raised a few questions about Cuba's current and planned mobile coverage. I've now found answers to one of my questions -- what is the current mobile coverage?

Hilda María Arias Pérez, Central Director of ETECSA’s Mobile Services Division, reports that there are 4,220,000 mobile accounts and 856 2G locations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population. They began the 3G rollout April 10 and by May 10 had 343 3G locations covering 13 % of the territory and 47% of the population.

Mobile accounts, May 10, 2017 (source)

2G and 3G access points, May 10, 2017 (source)

Map of 2G and 3G service areas (source)

The map shown above is consistent with this crowdsourced coverage map:

Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB,
Weak: RSSI < -99dB

The rapidity of the rollout indicates that cell tower upgrades were simple, but it does not answer the question of radio and backhaul capacities. Third-generation users will transfer more data than 2G users, who mainly use their phones for calls and text-based applications. On the other hand, ramping up of 3G usage will be limited by phone incompatibility, service cost and Trump's ban on self-directed, individual travel. (I'd be curious to know what percent of 3G traffic is used by roaming tourists).

The anecdotal reports I have seen indicate that 3G performance is good today, but the future remains unclear. Hopefully, ETECSA is planning to install backhaul capacity to deal with 3G loads in the short run and 5G loads in the future.

Engineer Arias Pérez discusses ETECSA's mobile coverage in this interview:


-----
Update 7/30/2017

Minister of Communications, Maimir Mesa Ramos announced that there are 879 mobile base stations in Cuba and 358 of them support 3G.He also said there were about 4.3 million mobile accounts, but did not comment on the percent of mobile phones that were 3G compatible.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trump's Cuba policy and its impact on the Cuban Internet

Overall, I don't see anything in Trump's policy that will directly impact the Cuban Internet, but it will have an indirect impact by delaying the eventual rapprochement between the US and Cuba.

On June 12th, I speculated on Trump's forthcoming Cuba policy and its impact on the Internet. He outlined his policy in a June 16th speech (transcript) and the Treasury Department published a FAQ on forthcoming regulation changes. It looks like my (safe) predictions were accurate.

I predicted he would attack President Obama, brag about what he had done, make relatively minor changes that would not upset businesses like cruise lines, airlines, and telecommunication and hotel companies. I also said he would criticize Cuban human rights, while hypocritically ignoring the issue in other countries.

For example, he slammed President Obama and bragged that "I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

This does not come close to passing a fact-check. He said he was going to restrict people-to-people travel and stop people from doing business with companies owned by the Cuban Military, but that is far from canceling President Obama's "deal," which included little things like establishing diplomatic relations, reducing constraints on remittances, dropping the wet-foot-dry-foot policy, allowing US companies to do business with self-employed Cubans, allowing US companies to sell telecommunication equipment and services, agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices in Cuba, taking Cuba off the list of state-sponsors of terrorism, etc. You get the idea -- he canceled none of this, not even President Obama's lifting of restrictions on rum and cigar imports for personal use.

His statements on Cuban human rights are either 100% hypocritical or he has changed his mind since his speech in Saudi Arabia last month. At that time, he promised that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust."

If he really has changed his live-and-let-live human-rights policy, we can expect a spate of new sanctions, from Manila to Moscow.

I had one surprise -- his singling out hotels and other businesses operated by the military-run conglomerate, Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA). Officials say existing hotel deals will not be effected, but the detailed regulations have not yet been released. This change will cut Cuban worker's jobs and GAESA's profit, but I guess the ban is good news for AirBnB and any future Trump hotel or resort in Cuba.

How about changes affecting the Cuban Internet?


I read the Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy, looking for changes that would affect the Internet, and did not find much.

The first "key policy change" is "allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba." Someone should let him know that President Obama made such changes some time ago, for example in allowing software imports from the private sector.

In fact, someone should read him President Obama's 2009 Fact Sheet - Reaching out to the Cuban people. That document introduced many changes which enhance the ability of Cuban private, small businesses to "develop ties to the US," for example by authorizing "greater telecommunications links with Cuba to advance people-to-people interaction at no cost to the U.S. government." The fact sheet lists seven concrete telecommunication policy changes, none of which were "canceled" by Trump.

He has canceled none of President Obama's changes to encourage private Cuban business and added nothing new himself.

One change he did make is stopping "self-directed, individual travel" to Cuba. That will force would-be tourists to join fake groups and fake their travel reports or go to Aruba instead of Cuba, but it will not slow the deployment of Chinese telecommunication infrastructure.

I hope Trump's policy will not undo the progress made by Google in establishing a relationship with Cuba and gaining permission to install Google Global Cache servers on the island. The servers are not yet in use, and when they go online they will have a small practical impact, but they indicate that Google has built trust and a relationship with the Cuban government and Internet community. I bet representatives of Google and other companies who have established relationships with Cuba are trying to reassure their counterparts that this is a temporary, unpopular change in US policy.

Overall, I don't see anything in Trump's policy that will directly impact the Cuban Internet, but it will have an indirect impact by delaying the eventual rapprochement between the US and Cuba. The Cuban government will enjoy a few more years of claiming their economic problems are the result of the US embargo, the integration of the Cuban and American people will be slowed and The Chinese, Russians, and Iranians will have more time to establish political and business relationships in Cuba with diminished competition from the US.

Trump's speech did not change much practically -- its intent and impact were symbolic. It let him say he had carried out a campaign pledge, which was music to the ears of the Cuba-hardline audience at the Manuel Artime auditorium, named for a leader of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The talk lasted about 39 minutes with 53 applause breaks (50 for Trump, 3 for others) and a violin rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Add to that the fact that Trump speaks slowly and repeats a lot of words and phrases, you realize that the speech was 90% political cheerleading and 10% content. You can watch the speech below, but reading the transcript is a lot quicker.


For a more comprehensive critique of Trump's Cuba policy see this article by Ben Rhodes, who was one of two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba. I also recommend the podcast interviews of Rhodes and Dan Restrepo, who served as a top Latin America advisor to President Obama and wrote a Cuban-rapprochement roadmap for candidate Obama before he was elected President. The interviews reveal President Obama's strategy and describe the negotiation process.

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Update 6/22/2017

Airbnb has published a report on their Cuba rentals. The following table summarizes their activity since they began Cuban operations in April, 2015:


Airbnb specializes in people-people rentals and contact so my guess is that the majority of their Cuba business has been "self-directed, individual travel," which Trump has banned. Thus, one of the two major changes he has introduced will work against his "key policy change" of "allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba." It will also cut the goodwill and mutual understanding resulting from home-stay tourism. But, I bet he got a round of applause when he announced it in his speech last Friday.

For further discussion of the Airbnb report in Spanish, click here.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Speculation on Trump's forthcoming Cuba policy speech and its impact on the Cuban Internet

Trump has a dilemma. He has to take some executive action that will allow him to ridicule President Obama and show that he is punishing Cuba for its human rights violations and the confiscation of businesses and property after the revolution, but not harm US telephone companies, hotel chains, airlines and cruise lines.

Trump is expected to announce his Cuba policy next Friday in Miami. There can be little doubt that he will reverse some of President Obama's executive orders in order to brag to his base supporters and try to make the Cuban diaspora hardliners happy. He will say the President was weak and made a terrible "deal," which the world is ridiculing. He may even take yet another shot at Hillary Clinton.

Cuban people trust and like President Obama. He opened diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba and implemented a policy of reaching out to the Cuban people. He is shown here at a baseball game with the wife of Jackie Robinson.
Cubans do not see President Obama as
an "Evil Emperor."
There are some things that I bet he does not say. He will not compare Cuban human rights with those of his friends in Turkey, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Russia, et al. and he will not mention that he is lending credence to the tired claim that the US is the Evil Empire that is responsible for Cuban economic problems. He probably won't note the unpopularity of his action in Latin America and I don't expect him to say much about the security implications of alienating Cuba at a time when Russia, China, and Iran are moving closer either. (Someone should tell him about the Cuban missile crisis).

But, I can't imagine that he would do something major like break off diplomatic relations or do anything to harm the tourism and travel industries. That would hurt our economy, cost jobs and be unpopular with the general public which favors lifting the trade embargo.

What about the Internet?


By and large, the Cuban Internet is constrained by political/power considerations, tired political rhetoric and mistrust, the cost of infrastructure, the bureaucracy and economic interests of the ETECSA monopoly and Cuban government bureaucracy, not US policy.

But, what Internet-related changes might Trump reverse?

During his first hundred days, President Obama "reached out to the Cuban people" (emphasis added) by easing restrictions on remittances, family travel and gifts.¹ Increased remittances and gifts meant more Cuban people had laptops, tablets and smartphones to use in public access hotspots and access rooms as well as the money to pay for time online. Reversing these changes would deny ETECSA Interent-access revenue, but it would harm Cuban citizens with family abroad and give the government anti-US talking points. I will be surprised if Trump reverses these changes, but that does not mean he won't do it.

At the same time, the president eased restrictions on telecommunications allowing:
  • Phone companies to offer voice and data roaming
  • People in the US to pay for Internet-access and other telecommunication bills for Cubans
  • US Companies to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite links to Cuba
  • Satellite Internet and TV companies to serve Cuban companies
  • Companies to export personal communication equipment like mobile phones, computers and software and satellite receivers to Cuba
Cutting roaming would hurt US tourism and telephone companies -- it is hard to imagine Trump doing that. He might be willing prohibit Americans from buying phone and data minutes for Cubans -- that would only hurt Cuban people and payment services like Ding.com (an Irish company).

While US companies have permission to sell communication equipment and infrastructure to Cuba, I am not aware of any significant sales. Since China has dominated the Cuban Internet infrastructure market, stopping infrastructure sales would have little or no immediate impact, but it could become significant next year when Miguel Díaz-Canel, who seems to be pro-Internet, replaces Raúl Castro.

The FCC removed Cuba from their exclusion and reversing that might cause Google to remove their Cuban caching servers. If that were to happen, there would be little practical impact, but it would be symbolically significant.

President Obama also moved to allow US citizens and companies to pay self-employed Cuban entrepreneurs for software and services as long as they were developed by self-employed entrepreneurs. I don't know the extent to which this occurs, but it is hard to see what would be gained by trying to stop the practice and who would be pleased to see it happen. I doubt that he will roll this one back.

A number of organizations and universities have sponsored conferences, training courses, hackathons, etc. in support of Cuban software entrepreneurs. I am not sure whether Trump could somehow block that sort of activity, but I cannot imagine why he would do so.

How about attacking President Obama's trip to Cuba? During that trip, he addressed Cuban entrepreneurs and announced a couple of concrete commitments, but they have all fizzled. Trump may point that out.

Trump has a dilemma. He has to take some executive action that will allow him to ridicule President Obama and show that he is punishing Cuba for its human rights violations and the confiscation of businesses and property after the revolution, but not harm US telephone companies, hotel chains, airlines and cruise lines. It does not seem that reversing any of President Obama's Internet-related changes will achieve that end.

Steve Bannon may be able to come up with some ideas, but, if he can't, I have a suggestion. One of the properties the Castro government seized after the revolution was the Riviera, a waterfront hotel and casino that is now run by the Cuban government. The hotel was built by the gangster Meyer Lansky and Lansky's grandson, Gary Rapoport, has claimed it. Perhaps he and Trump could work out a deal with the Cuban government, rebranding it the Trump Rivera.

-----
¹ The initial announcement of this was removed from the Whitehouse.gov Web site, but it was captured by the Internet Archive and is also on the Obamawhitehouse.gov Web site.






Friday, June 9, 2017

Questions about Cuba's 3G mobile expansion

I hope ETECSA is planning for the future and views this 3G rollout as an interim stopgap.

ETECSA is rolling out 3G mobile service in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba and Telegeography reports that there are now 229 3G base stations in Cuba.

Where and how extensive is the coverage?

ETECSA says 3G coverage is available in all of Havana, provincial capitals and tourist resorts. AT&T says there is GSM/GPRS coverage for 85% of national territory.

Here is a crowdsourced 3G coverage map of Cuba as of February 17, 2017:


Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB

Again, this is a crowd-sourced map, so it represents a lower bound on coverage, but it paints an unsurprising picture of 3G deployment -- near a backbone and strongest in cities.

Who has access to the 3G network and what can they access?

Google Fi service was
available earlier this year.
Tourists and foreign business travelers have had expensive Internet access while roaming in Cuba for some time. For example, AT&T and T-Mobile charge $2 per megabyte. Recently Digicel recently announced much lower cost roaming on a "dedicated tourist-only 3G mobile network," which sounds like the network described by ETECSA above. They charge between 17 and 25 cents per megabyte, depending on the size of the prepaid order.

The best deal of all was fleetingly offered by Google on their Fi mobile service. Earlier this year, users reported that Google was treating roaming data the same as domestic data -- $10 per gigabyte. Unfortunately, that capability has been turned off, but it may be a hint of things to come.

But which Cubans -- other than Raúl Castro -- have 3G access? I have been told that some people have 3G access because of their work, but have no confirmation of that. I've also been told that some hackers have been able to get 3G access, but, again, have no confirmation.

Assuming that some Cubans have access to the 3G network, are they able to see the global Internet or are they restricted to services offered on the national network? (I bet Raúl has international access).

(source)
How about speed?

Armando Camacho ran a number of 3G speed tests in Havana (near the corner of Patrocinio and 10 de Octubre) and observed ping time to a server in Miami as ranging from 91 to 127 milliseconds, upload speed from .48 to 1.58 Mbps and download speed from .85 to 10.42 Mbps. He observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources.

What is the interim plan for 3G access?

Today the 3G network serves tourists, foreign business people, and perhaps some Cubans at work or in government. ETECSA may be planning to extend the service to subscribers as a much-needed supplement to their current public-access centers. I don't know what their plans are, but more 3G will require more fiber and microwave connectivity for backhaul. Only ETECSA knows what they are installing today.

They may also be planning to extend 3G mobile to rural areas. In April, the Ministry of Agriculture announced plans to bring Internet connectivity and other computer services to rural areas beginning in Granma, Ciego de Ávila and Isla de la Juventud. Will 3G be part of this promised rural coverage? Again, backhaul would have to be provided.

What is the long-run mobile plan?

Regardless of the short-run, 3G technology is only an interim step. Since Cuba has so little legacy infrastructure, they are in a position to leapfrog today's 4G technology and plan for 5G mobile connectivity. If that is the case, they should be investing in fiber for backhaul in places that microwave can serve today -- long, microwave "daisy chains" will not have the speed or capacity for a modern Internet in five or ten years. They should also be planning on fiber to the curb, building, and home in order to support the myriad devices expected to comprise the Internet of things as well as fixed connectivity.

Fifth generation standards are not yet set, but the migration of base-station function to the "cloud" will occur as the number of base stations and backhaul speed increase. That implies the need for datacenter planning and investment for the future. (See this Stragey& analysis for more on the 5G architecture).

As usual, I have more questions than answers, but I hope ETECSA is planning for the future and views this 3G rollout as an interim stopgap.

-----
6/12/2017

Tu Android, the Cuba Android community blog, has a post on determining whether your smartphone is compatible with Cuban 3G. The post begins with an overview of the requirements and lists compatible phones sold by ETECSA and the Blu phones that are compatible. Evidently, that was not enough, because there are currently 316 comments in which users are helping each other out.

The comments are reminiscent of the early PC hobby days in the US -- questions and answers are coming from uncertain users and expert hackers. As the Tu Android tagline reads -- "this is a family, not a blog." (I am naively hopeful that Cuban culture may produce a unique Internet from which we can all learn).

If you are a Cuban and not sure whether your phone can or can be altered to use the 3G network or are not sure why you cannot connect (evidently ETECSA is rolling out activations over time) check out the post and the comments -- ask the family.

-----
Update 6/22/2017

We now have a couple of answers to our 3G mobile questions. Hilda María Arias Pérez, Central Director of ETECSA’s Mobile Services Division, says there are 4,220,000 mobile accounts and 856 2G locations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population. They began the 3G rollout in April and now have 343 3G locations covering 13 % of the territory and 47% of the population. (For more on mobile coverage, see this post).

Engineer Arias Pérez discusses ETECSA's mobile coverage in this interview:


Monday, June 5, 2017

Cuban tech entrepreneurs -- new values?

Might Cuban entrepreneurs develop uniquely Cuban enterprises?

A while ago, I pointed out that offical Cuban attitudes toward self-employed developers and privately owned Internet service companies are improving -- government software companies say they want to cooperate with private developers and Cuban Internet services that were once attacked are now praised in government publications.

This week three positive articles on NinjaCuba, a startup service for Cuban professionals seeking freelance work, were published: here, here and here.

Two things caught my eye.

First -- the latter two articles quote the company founders, Víctor Manuel Moratón and Fabián Ruiz, as saying they would like to have Cuban state companies as clients. That would have been unimaginable in the past, but the government sponsored TICS 2017 workshop held in March, called for collaboration between state and private companies and it now seems likely. These articles support my speculation that Cuban government attitudes toward tech entrepreneurs have changed.

Second -- Moratón and Ruiz say they are not preoccupied with becoming a startup "unicorn" (a billion dollar company) -- they want to find a way to sustain the company. That may say something about Cuban culture and values since it contradicts the widely-held (false) assumption that US corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize profit and increase investor wealth, requiring constant growth and leading to tying executive compensation to stock price.

Andy Puzder, Trump's first (unconfirmed) nominee for Secretary of Labor, is a prominent supporter of the investor-return assumption. Puzder, who recently resigned as CEO of CKE Enterprises, a company that operates international fast-food chains, opposes government regulation of terms of employment or food health -- his job is to increase shareholder return and give people what they want. (I wonder how he feels about heroin).

Unfortunately, maximizing investor return ignores the interests of employees, the society, and the environment. Chobani Yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, a competitive capitalist, offers a counter example -- his company is successful and he gives back to his employees and has benefited his community. (The "alt-right" has attacked Ulukaya).

Last summer, a Copenhagen taxi driver told me he was about to leave on a three-week camping trip with his wife and children. US taxi drivers don't take three-week vacations with their families. The US is looking like a "canary in the coal mine" -- suffering the unintended side-effects of Puzder's grow-or-die strategy.

Perhaps young Cuban entrepreneurs like Moratón and Ruiz, who have been raised with communal values (regardless of what you think of the current government) and a Latin culture, will provide an example we can all learn from.

Fabián Ruiz and Víctor Manuel Moratón

Freelance ad for a developer who charges $US 3.00 per hour.











Tuesday, May 30, 2017

TechCrunch panel -- three Cuban software companies


The BBC reported (English, Spanish) on a panel featuring three Cuban software entrepreneurs at the recent TechCrunch conference in New York. The three companies were Cubazon, Knales and Kewalta.

The name "Cubazon" connotes that "It's like Amazon for Cuba, but with a difference." Looking at their Web site, it seems that the idea is for people in the Cuban diaspora in the US, Spain, etc to purchase gifts for friends and family in Cuba. The gifts are things like cakes and flowers sold by Cuban vendors.

Knales looks like an information-retrieval system in which the user can request information in over forty topic areas -- from sports scores to horoscopes -- by sending a 1 Cuba peso SMS message.

Kewalta ad categories
Kewelta (Cuban slang for "what's up?") began as an email list announcing cultural events, evolved into printing flyers and is now inviting potential advertisers to participate in a by-invitation beta of a Web site for ads. They say the ads will be free and promise to disrupt the current Web advertising model, but I was left wondering what their revenue model is.

Cuba has a history of necessity leading to invention. I hope I am misunderstanding and underestimating the Kewalta business model and they really have hit on a way to disrupt the current Web advertising model -- that would be a gift for us all -- with the exception of Facebook and Google stockholders.

(More on the Cuban startup scene).















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