Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Five million mobile accounts

Active mobile accounts
Cubans now have 5 million mobile accounts. The five-millionth account was recently opened Guanabacoa, in the eastern part of Havana and we see here that growth slowed last year, but has resumed -- perhaps due to increased 3G availability.

Most Cubans have 2G phones, which are used primarily for making calls and sending text messages that may have attached images. As of June 2017 there were 856 2G base stations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population.

Cuba is rolling out 3G connectivity and ETECSA reports that 47% of the population is now covered and, as of last June, there was some coverage in all provincial capitals and tourist resorts.

The only speed data I have seen was gathered by Armando Camacho who 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. The latter is fast enough to allow Web browsing and other applications, particularly those like YouTube Go, that are designed for use over slow, expensive connections in conjunction with offline SD-card storage.

Armando observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources and performance would be frustrating at times. (Have others run similar tests)?

I don't have any statistics, but many Cuban phones are incompatible with ETECSA's 3G service, so users will be stuck with 2G until they get new 3G phones.

Upgrading to 3G technology when 4G is common in many nations and 5G is close on the horizon may sound discouraging, but it makes sense as a stopgap strategy for Cuba since it keeps backhaul load down and phones are cheap. That being said, I hope they are evaluating the possibility of leapfrogging to 5G technology when it matures and they can afford it.

Update 4/21/2018

For the 26-year history of mobile phones in Cuba see this post.

Monday, April 2, 2018

A 5G, community network strategy for Cuba (and other developing nations)

In a previous post, I suggested that Cuba might be able to leap over 4G to 5G wireless infrastructure using satellite and terrestrial networks for backhaul. While that would require political and policy change, it would be a good fit with Cuban culture and skills.

Before talking about Cuba, let me say a bit about wireless generations.

Each mobile technology generation used new technology and enabled new applications:
  • 1G: Voice calls
  • 2G: Digital data for text and sending small images
  • 3G: Smartphones for low-quality video, Web browsing, and GPS
  • 4G: High speed, lower latency communication for video streaming and chat and interaction with complex Web content
Fifth-generation wireless will be faster than today's 4G and latency is expected be on the order of 1 ms within the 5G network. Radios will be capable of beamforming -- rapidly switching focused beams among large numbers of devices -- and simultaneous two-way (full duplex) transmission at a given frequency. This will enable real-time applications like control of autonomous vehicles, remote medical procedures and augmented and virtual reality as well as fast file transfer and streaming and other, un-imagined applications.

Do not think of this as the evolution of the cell-phone network; think of it as a discontinuity in wireless communication to mobile and fixed users.

In addition to enabling new applications, each mobile computing generation uses different frequency bands and 5G is being designed to use very high frequencies. High-frequency radio waves enable high-speed transmission and small antennas. Being able to fit multiple small, cooperating antennas in a phone or other device (multiple inputs and outputs (MIMO) increases transmission range and speed. However, there is a high-frequency tradeoff -- low-frequency waves travel farther and are better able to penetrate obstacles like buildings and trees than high-frequency waves.

Small cell on the terrace
of a building in Bangalore
High-frequency networks will require a multi-tier architecture. With the current cellular network, phones and other devices communicate with a relatively distant base station that is connected by fiber or high-speed wireless to the Internet. Fifth-generation wireless will require many "small cell" radios that communicate with those high-capacity base stations.

Now back to Cuba (and other developing nations).

As of last year, there were 879 cellular base stations in Cuba, 358 of which had been upgraded to support 3G communication. As of 2016, 85.3% of the population was covered by 2G cellular and 47% of the population had 3G coverage. (Note that 2G coverage has barely increased since 2010 and it has been flat since 2012). If they continue rolling out 3G, it should reach the 85.3% fairly soon, but new base stations will have to be added to cover the entire population.

Upgrading from 2G to 3G requires new equipment and also more backhaul capacity between a base station and the Internet because 3G transmission speeds are greater than 2G and 3G applications use more data. For most Cubans, it would also require the purchase of a new phone. High-speed, 5G service would require much more backhaul capacity and new phones.

In densely populated areas it will be economically feasible to provide that backhaul using fiber, but fiber to support 5G capacity throughout the island would be very expensive. In many locations, satellite connectivity may turn out to be a better backhaul medium than fiber. SES Networks (O3b) will be offering connectivity using their middle-Earth orbit satellites before Cuba is ready for 5G and by the time they are ready, low-Earth orbit satellite connectivity from vendors like OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink will be available.

But what about the large number of small-cell radios that be feeding 5G base stations?

Like today's WiFi radios, they will be installed and maintained by community members and users. Cubans are known for do-it-yourslef innovation, for example in keeping old cars running and installing motors on bicycles and they have built community networks in places like Gaspar, Camagüey and Pinar del Río. Havana's SNET, is said to be the largest community network in the world that is not connected to the global Internet and there are over 8.000 amateur radio operators and over 1,400 active, self-employed programmers in Cuba.

Small cell radios will be semi-automatically configured and simpler to install and maintain than the WiFi radios used in today's street nets, but that is the easy part. Decentralized technology calls for decentralized decision making. Local people who are locally elected should decide questions like how many small cells to deploy in a neighborhood or rural area, where they should be located and how to pay for them. Would the current municipal electoral districts (from 200-3,000 inhabitants) be an appropriate locus of network control?

ETECSA would cede local control but be responsible for acquiring international bandwidth and providing backhaul over fiber or satellite from their base stations. They would also serve as consultants to local communities and could negotiate high-volume discount purchases of locally-owned equipment.

Note that I am still assuming a major role for ETECSA in spite of the fact that historically, nations like Cuba have privatized telecommunication and licensed foreign operators in exchange for investment in infrastructure. In previous posts I have suggested that vested interest and bureaucracy at ETECSA and uncertainty over control may be stifling Cuban Internet expansion. To the extent that that is the case, the new administration would have to change the organizational culture to focus on Cuba's stated economic and social policy goals -- leapfrogging current regulation and policy along with the technology. That may be wishful thinking, but if they are able to do so, they will have an advantage over nations in which private company profit trumps (no pun intended) social goals.

The technology is also ill-defined and unproven. While the standard for the first version of the 5G radio interface between a device and base station is complete, other hardware and software standards are still being developed and 5G is based on technologies that have been tested in trials, but not in large scale practice. The first deployments are not expected until next year, user and network equipment prices are not set and competing technologies like Starry may impact pricing and deployment.

Novel, unproven 5G wireless technologies (source)

In spite of this policy and technology uncertainty, ETECSA can start the ball rolling today by cooperating with and providing Internet gateways to SNET and other street nets, possibly in conjunction with support of the Internet Society and the Organization of American States. They can also learn from the experience of others like Gufinet in Spain and a variety of community networks in the US and elsewhere. At the same time, they should be following the 5G standards process directly and through their vendors, primarily Huawei and SES Networks (O3b), in order to plan for the future.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Statistics and predictions from Informatica 2018

The 2018 Informatica conference and trade show concludes today in Havana and Mayra Arevich, executive president of ETECSA, gave some Internet-related figures and predictions during a panel session.
  • ETECSA's objective is "to reach more Cubans."
  • There are 673 WIFI hotspots, 207 fixed navigation rooms and 771 navigation areas in hotels, Joven Clubs and post offices.
  • As an indication of capacity, she said they had achieved up to 124,400 simultaneous connections.
  • They plan to add 150 new wired and wireless areas in 2018, bringing coverage to 44% of the Popular Councils.
  • They installed DSL in 14,634 homes last year and expect to add 52,500 this year. They've installed 12,682 so far this year.
  • Ninety-five percent of the home DSL accounts are at the slowest speed of 1 mb/s. I wonder how much of that is due to poor wiring that will not allow higher speeds in an area and how much is due to cost. The 1 mb/s service costs 15 CUC for 30 hours online.
  • Three G wireless is available throughout Havana and and she estimated 47% of the population was covered.
  • In 2017, more than 3,992 new data links to institutions of 23 national organizations and entities were installed and they plan to install 5,000 new data services to them this year. I assume she was referring to 5,000 new links and wonder what their speed will be.
(Click here for previous updates by Ms. Arevich).

Maimir Mesa Ramos, Minister of Communications, also gave a few statistics during his opening speech.
  • There are now 614 Joven Clubs throughout the island.
  • The Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas has graduated over 14,400 engineers since it was founded.
  • There are 4.6 million Cuban cell-phone subscribers and that number is expected to exceed 5 million this year. (I wonder how many of those use 3G data and how many 3G-compatible handsets Cubans own).
  • He referred to the development of "modest" content and services like Infomed, Ecured and Cubarte -- Cuba could do much more as a producer and distributor of educational and entertainment content for the Spanish-speaking world
(Click here for previous updates by Mr. Mesa).

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cuba's mobile-Internet strategy?

This post is speculative, but I think Cuba may use satellite for 3G backhaul and, when the technologies are ready, leapfrog over 4G to 5G mobile connectivity and next-generation satellite. ETECSA began rolling out 3G connectivity for Cubans about a year ago and a few things have led me to believe they will continue:
  • Miguel Díaz-Canel, who many expect to replace Raúl Castro, has stated that "The State will work to make [the Internet] available, accessible, affordable for all." He also cites problems and responsibilities but seems on balance to favor connectivity.
  • WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms and home DSL cannot scale to bring "accessible, affordable" connectivity to all, but mobile phones can.
  • During 2017, ETECSA, Cuba's government telecommunication monopoly, installed 279 3G base stations, bringing the total number of base stations to 409 and reaching 47% of the population
  • Mobile connectivity is becoming available in low-population areas.
  • Last December, ETECSA began routing international traffic over the O3b medium-Earth orbit satellite network and now about 5% of their international routes are carried by O3b. (O3b is a subsidiary of SES an established geostationary satellite company).
  • O3b added four satellites to their constellation this month and plan to add four more next year, but they will have a much more significant upgrade when they deploy mPOWER, a new generation of satellite technology, in 2021.
The following crowd-sourced maps show Cuba's mobile rollout. (Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB).

Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, February 2017 (Source)

Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, November 2017 (Source)

Given the choice, people would prefer the flexibility, convenience and comfort of mobile or home access over access at a fixed location like a WiFi park or navigation room. Cuba cannot afford the infrastructure upgrade to make home DSL "available, accessible, and affordable for all" and if they could it would require an enormous investment in obsolete technology.

But, could they provide widespread 3G mobile? Doing so would require more base stations and more backhaul from those base stations to the Intenet. I have been told that O3b currently has a satellite-Internet gateway in Jarusco, near Havana, but my guess is that they will install others to provide 3G backhaul. This would not be unprecedented -- for example, O3b provides mobile backhaul for Digicell, which has over 40,000 LTE accounts in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Could Cuba employ a PNG-like strategy for a portion of their mobile backhaul?

Cuba is not identical to PNG. PNG's population is only about 72% of Cuba's, but Cuba has several advantages over PNG. The area of PNG is more than four times that of Cuba and Cuba has superior, universal education, a GDP per capita about 3.5 times that of PNG and more terrestrial Internet infrastructure.

But, shouldn't Cuba install modern 4G technology instead of 3G?

I have long advocated a strategy of relying on stopgap measures like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms, street nets, El Paquete Semanal and 3G mobile service while planning to leapfrog over current technology. Third generation mobile is significantly slower than 4G/LTE, which means much less backhaul and international bandwidth is required. Furthermore, Google, industrious Cubans and other are developing applications that are tailored to work on slow connections and offline on low-cost handsets. (There were 1,432 active, self-employed programmers in Cuba as of last April).

If 3G is a stopgap while waiting for 5G wireless technology to become available, what might the future look like?

As mentioned above O3b plans to deploy their next-generation mPOWER satellite constellation in 2021. MPOWER will be a major advance. Their current satellites can link to 10 edge terminals, but mPOWER satellites will be capable of over 4,000 links each and O3b will offer several terminal models, ranging from very cheap and small (perhaps suitable for an individual cellular base station) to very large. While we may see a limited 5G rollout in advanced nations in 2019, it will not go mainstream for a year or more and will still be maturing and too expensive for either Cuba, PNG or other developing nations for some time after that, so mPOWER will be ready by the time Cuba is ready to "leap" to 5G.

Seven satellites, each with over 4,000 steerable, fully-shapeable beams

It is noteworthy that 5G terrestrial wireless is expected to be used for fixed as well as mobile access, further reducing the need for investment in terrestrial infrastructure. When we speak of 5G connectivity to fixed locations, we are moving beyond the mobile phone as a user terminal. Handheld computers work well for conversation and consuming media but not for content creation. I could have written this blog post on a laptop with a 5G connection, but not on a mobile phone.

At an mPower press conference (video), Steve Collar, SES Networks CEO asked himself a rhetorical question -- "If we wanted to deliver all of the capability that PNG would require for the next 15 years, could we do it on mPOWER without having to use any sort of meaningful terrestrial infrastructure?" and his answer to that was "yes." He went on to say that "If we can deliver the international and domestic traffic for a country on this system ... then we've got something that is genuinely unique." (Collar's comment is roughly 6 minutes before the end of the video).

Several years ago, I suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not go for that idea. Last month, I suggested that they consider low-Earth orbit satellite Internet service. This post splits the difference by suggesting medium-Earth orbit service from O3b. Since ETECSA is already an O3b customer and SES is a European company, this one may be closer to reality -- I'll save those political considerations for a future post.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

SpaceX Starlink and Cuba -- a match made in low-Earth orbit?

I've suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit (GSO) satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not pick up on that stopgap suggestion, but how about low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite Internet service as a next-generation solution?

SpaceX, OneWeb, Boeing and others are working on LEO satellite Internet projects. There is no guarantee that any of them will succeed -- these projects require new technology and face logistical, financial and regulatory obstacles -- but, if successful, they could provide Cuba with affordable, ubiquitous, next-generation Internet service.

Cuba should follow and consider each potential system, but let's focus on SpaceX since their plan is ambitious and they might have the best marketing/political fit with Cuba.

LEO satellite service will hopefully reach a milestone this week when SpaceX launches two test satellites. If the tests go well, SpaceX plans to begin launching operational satellites in 2019 and begin offering commercial service in the 2020-21 time frame. They will complete their first constellation of 4,425 satellites by 2024. (To put that in context, there are fewer than 2,000 operational satellites in orbit today).

SpaceX has named their future service "Starlink," and, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer Cuba service as early as 2020 and no later than 2024 depending upon which areas they plan to service first.

What has stopped the Cuban Internet and why might LEO satellites look good to Cuba?

Cuba blames their lack of connectivity on the US embargo, but President Obama cleared the way for the export of telecommunication equipment and services to Cuba and Trump has not reversed that decision.

I suspect that fear of losing political control -- the inability to filter and surveil traffic -- stopped Cuba from allowing GSO satellite service. Raúl Castro and others feared loss of control of information when Cuba first connected to the Internet in 1996, but Castro is about to step down and perhaps the next government will be more aware of the benefits of Internet connectivity and more confident in their ability to use it to their advantage.

A lack of funds has also constrained the Cuban Internet -- they cannot afford a large terrestrial infrastructure buildout and are reluctant (for good and bad reasons) to accept foreign investment. SpaceX is building global infrastructure so the marginal cost of serving Cuba would be near zero.

They say that the capital equipment for providing high-speed, low-latency service to a Cuban home, school, clinic, etc. would be a low-cost, user-installed ground-station. I've not seen ground-station price estimates from SpaceX, but their rival OneWeb says their $250 ground-station will handle a 50 Mbps, 30 ms latency Internet link and serve as a hot-spot for WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connectivity.

Since the marginal cost of serving a nation would be small and they hope to provide affordable global connectivity, I expect their service price will vary among nations. Prices would be relatively high in wealthy and low in poor nations -- there would be no point in having idle satellites flying over Cuba or any other place.

Expansion of the Cuban Internet is also constrained by bureaucracy and vested financial interest in ETECSA and established vendors. While I do not endorse Cuba's current monopoly service and infrastructure ownership policy, it could remain unchanged if ETECSA were to become a reseller of SpaceX Internet connectivity.

In summary, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer affordable, ubiquitous high-speed Internet, saving Cuba the cost of investing in expensive terrestrial infrastructure and allowing ETECSA to maintain its monopoly. The only intangible roadblock would be a loss of control of traffic. (But Cuban propagandists and trolls would be able to reach a wider audience :-).

That is the rosy picture from the Cuban point of view, what about SpaceX?

OneWeb plans to offer LEO satellite Internet service in Alaska in 2019 and hopes to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020.

How about SpaceX starting by serving Cuba?

I don't know the SpaceX constellation rollout plan, but satellites that serve Cuba would also be capable of serving the eastern US and FCC licenses are conditional upon providing US service in a timely manner.

Since Cuba is an island nation, portions of the footprint of satellites serving Cuba would fall on the uninhabited ocean. That would reduce population destiny in the satellite footprint area, freeing capacity for use by customers in relatively urban areas.

Selecting Cuba as their initial service market would be an audacious move, but Elon Musk is not a conventional, conservative businessman. SpaceX would get a lot of publicity from a Cuba opening and, like the roadster they just launched into orbit, first offering Starlink service in Cuba would have symbolic value -- marking an opening to Cuba.

There is pent-up demand for Internet access in Cuba since they have very poor Internet access given their level of education and development.

Cuba is 166th among the 176 nations the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranks on access to telecommunications. Haiti, ranked 167th, is the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (LA&C) that ranks below Cuba, yet Cuba ranks 9th in the region on the ITU telecommunication-skills index. Cuba ranks tenth in LA&C on the United Nations Development Programme's human-development index and their mean years of schooling is the highest in the region.

Cuba's relatively high human-development and IT-skill indices reflect their emphasis on free public education at all levels. This is exemplified by the curriculum at Cuba's Information Science University, where students pay no tuition but are required to work on useful applications in education, health, sport, and online government.

But, perhaps the biggest contributor to pent-up demand is El Paquete Semanal, a weekly distribution of current, pirated Internet content that is distributed throughout the nation. I've heard the claim that 95% of Cubans see El Paquete content each week. That sounds high, but it is very popular and has been alleged to be Cuba's largest private employer.

The political situation is the elephant in the room. The US has formed a Cuba Internet Task Force and Trump is following President Obama's lead in seeking to strengthen the Cuban Internet, so it unlikely that the US government would object to SpaceX offering Starlink service to Cubans.

That being said, such a move would be unpopular among some members of Trump's Cuban "base." While there might be some domestic political cost to SpaceX, an opening to Cuba would be seen as extremely positive in Latin America and the rest of the world and SpaceX and Tesla are global companies. (Only Israel supports the US embargo of Cuba).

If you guys want to talk about this, DM @RaulCastroR and @elonmusk.

Update 2/27/2018

Two years ago, Google invested $900 million in SpaceX, stating that they expected the acquisition would be used “to keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery and, over time, improve Internet access and disaster relief.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Google began providing mobile phone and Internet connectivity in Puerto Rico using their Project Loon balloons and today they are serving 200,000 Puerto Rican users. They have learned from this effort and demonstrated the ability to provide Project Loon connectivity. How about using Starlink when it is available?

Starlink envisions low-cost, user-installed terminals at homes and other end-user sites, but their satellites will also have to connect to ground-stations and it turns out that Google has a lot of terrestrial points of presence on the Internet. Some of them are shown on the following map:

Google Global Cache locations(source)

Note that one of those points of presence is in Havana and two others are in Puerto Rico.

SpaceX rocketry, Starlink satellites and service plus Google's terrestrial infrastructure sounds like a formidable combination -- perhaps too formidable. A part of me would love to see such a combination succeed and eventually provide a truly global Internet, but I am also afraid of the market and political power that enterprise would have. Would this or any other global Internet service provider require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

If a global ISP monopoly (or even an oligopoly) doesn't worry you, what about adding strong AI -- is the Earth beginning to grow a nervous system -- with us as biological components (for the time being)?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Suggestions for the Cuba Internet Task Force

John S. Creamer
The Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) held their inaugural meeting last week.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs John S. Creamer will chair the CITF and there are government representatives from the Department of State, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Agency for International Development. Freedom House will represent NGOs and the Information Technology Industry Council will represent the IT industry.

They agreed to form two subcommittees -- one to explore the role of media and freedom of information in Cuba and one to explore Internet access. The subcommittees are to provide preliminary reports of recommendations within six months and the CITF will reconvene in October to review those preliminary reports and prepare a final report with recommendations for the Secretary of State and the President.

They are soliciting public comments, looking for volunteers for service on the subcommittees and have established a Web site.

I may be wrong, but it sounds like the subcommittees will be doing much of the actual work. The subcommittee on technological challenges to Internet access will include US technology firms and industry representatives and the subcommittee on media and freedom of information will include NGOs and program implementers with a focus on activities that encourage freedom of expression in Cuba through independent media and Internet freedom. They aim to maintain balance by including members from industry, academia and legal, labor, or other professionals.

I hope the Task Force resists proposals for clandestine programs. Those that have failed in the past have provided the Cuban government with an excuse for repression and cost the United States money and prestige. Both the Cuban and United States governments have overstated what their impact would have been had they succeeded.

Cuba's current Wi-Fi hotspots, navigation rooms, home DSL and 3G mobile are stopgap efforts based on obsolete technology and they provide inferior Internet access to a limited number of people. (El Paquete Semanal is the most important substitute for a modern Internet in Cuba today).

It would be difficult to devise plans or offer support for activities that the current Cuban government would allow and be able to afford; however, the situation may ease somewhat after Raúl Castro steps down in April. Are there short-run steps Cuba would be willing to take that we could assist them with?

For example, the next Cuban government might be willing to consider legitimizing and assisting some citizen-implemented stopgap measures like building street nets and rural community networks, selling geostationary satellite service and installing LANs in schools and other organizations.

They might also be willing to accept educational material and services like access to online material from Coursera or LAN-based courseware from MIT or The Khan Academy. (At the time of President Obama's visit, Cisco and the Universidad de las Ciencias Informaticas promised to cooperate in bringing the Cisco Network Academy to Cuba, but, as far as I know, that has not happened).

The US requires Coursera and other companies to block Cuban access to their services. We could reverse that policy unilaterally, without the permission of the Cuban government.

Google is the only US Internet company that has established a relationship with and been allowed to install infrastructure in Cuba. The next Cuban administration might be willing to trust them as partners in infrastructure projects like providing wholesale fiber service or establishing a YouTube production space in Havana. Cuba could also serve as a test population for Google services optimized for low-bandwidth networks.

These are short-term, stopgap measures. In the long run, Cuba should investigate opportunities for leapfrogging – planning for technology like 5G wireless and low-Earth orbit satellites that will be available in, say, five years. Our mobile phone companies and nascent satellite ISPs SpaceX and OneWeb may have significant offerings in five years -- might Cuba be willing to work with them?

Long-run steps like these would require Cuba's leapfrogging regulatory and infrastructure-ownership policy. The ITU defines four generations of regulation and Cuba is one of the few remaining first-generation nations -- might the Cuban government be willing to make policy changes in five years?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Cuba Internet Task Force -- a win for Trump, Castro and Putin

President Obama began working on Cuban rapprochement during his 2009 presidential campaign. After over five years of thought and negotiation, the Whitehouse announced a major shift in Cuba policy, which included allowing telecommunications providers "to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba."

When President Obama's trip to Cuba was announced, I speculated on possible Internet-related advances but was disappointed by the results. While in Cuba, the President held optimistic public meetings and several Internet-related projects were announced, but, as far as I know, none of them materialized. Can we expect more from Trump?

Last summer, Trump said he would be changing our Cuba policy and I speculated on how it might affect the Internet, but could not think of anything reasonable. When he published his Cuba policy memorandum, one of its purposes was to restore Cuban's "right to speak freely, including through access to the Internet" and one of its goals was to "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services."

Trump said he was "canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba," but his Internet policy sounded a lot like Obama's. The only concrete difference I saw was that Trump had ordered the State Department to convene a task force "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba."

Last week, the State Department issued a public invitation to attend the first meeting of that Cuba Internet Task Force on February 7th.

I called the State Department to ask whether the meeting would be streamed or archived and was told that it would not. I asked if they had any information on the meeting agenda, the charge of the task force and who the members were. They referred my questions to the Press office, but they did not answer.

We will hopefully learn more after the meeting, but what might Trump do? Will we see the laissez-faire Trump who promised Saudi Arabia that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others" or some sort of digital Bay of Pigs like the failed smuggling of satellite equipment into Cuba, Zunzuneo or the Alan Gross affair?

My guess is that not much will happen -- that this task force and the rest of Trump's Cuba policy is for domestic political consumption by anti-Castro politicians and voters. The Cuban government is also using the task force for domestic political consumption. Their reaction to its formation was predictable -- saying that Cuba is being attacked by a powerful, hostile nation. Within a few days of the formation of the task force, many articles like this one were published by the Cuban government and allied publications like China's Xinhua and Russia's RT. (Perhaps rekindling the Cold War is part of making America great again).

Ironically, this task force is a political win for both Castro and Trump -- autocracy thrives on fear and mistrust.

Update 2/2/2018

Last night I saw The Final Year, a documentary on the final year of the Obama administration. In it, former Whitehouse staff member Ben Rhodes says it took them time to realize that Putin was not motivated by the interests of Russia, but by self-interest. That may be true to some extent for nearly all politicians, but it seems to fit Castro and Trump well in this case.

(As an aside -- Rhodes was one of the two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba).

Update 2/3/2018

Following up on Ben Rhodes' comment on Putin -- establishing this task force or any other act that drives a wedge between Cuba and the US benefits Putin as well as Trump and Castro.

While Castro and Trump use the rift between their nations for domestic political advantage, Putin uses it for international political advantage and commerce.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused an economic crisis in Cuba, sharply cutting trade and cooperation with Russia and other Soviet republics, but in the last few years, trade and cooperation have picked up. In 2014, Russia forgave 90 percent of the $35 billion debt Cuba incurred during the economically difficult "special period" of the 1990s, with the remaining $3.5 billion to be settled by giving preferential treatment to Russian investments on the island.

Cuba and Russia are also cooperating on oil exploration, extraction and refining and Cuba is importing oil, cars, trucks, and railway infrastructure and equipment. Trade between Russia and Cuba rose 73 percent in the first half of 2017 to $176 million. There has even been talk of Russia reopening it's cold war Signals Intelligence base, which once had a staff of 1,500 in Cuba.

While Russia is building commercial and political ties with Cuba, China remains their largest trading partner and a major supplier of Internet and computer equipment. (For more on Cuba-China trades, click here). Even Iran is allying with Cuba.

Russia is also on the "right side" of public opinion of the Cuban embargo. The embargo is unpopular in Latin America and the rest of the world. (The US and Israel support the embargo in the UN and the remaining 191 UN member states oppose it).

Evidently making America great again entails having a hostile ally of Russia and China 90 miles from Florida -- sound familiar? Putin may be the biggest winner from our Cuba policy shift and the Cuban and American people the biggest losers.

Castro and Putin meeting at the UN (source)

Update 2/7/2018

Reuters reports that Cuban independent media outlets oppose Trump's Cuba Internet policy.

Elaine Diaz, founder of Periodismo de Barrio, José Jasán Nieves, director of El Toque and Miguel Alejandro Hayes who writes for La Joven Cuba are all quoted as opposing the Trump initiative.

Nieves said civil society initiatives had "flourished" after the Obama-Castro detente and Diaz said she would refuse any money the Trump program might award and stressed that they are independent media "independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government." Hayes does not agree with Trump's goal of toppling the Cuban government.

Of course, these are only three of many independent journalists in Cuba and they are not extremists.

I suspect that this Task Force will be given a budget and, if independent journalists are not interested in assistance from the US, they may end up funding secret projects like those mentioned above. That will allow Trump to claim to be tougher than Obama and the Cubans will discover the projects and overstate their significance -- propaganda wins for Trump and Castro. Putin will smile quietly.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cuba's year-end progress report -- emphasis on the national intranet

In 2014, Cuba embarked on a program for the "informatization" of society and "advances in the informatization of society" was the theme of the short videos by ETECSA president Mayra Arevich Marín and Vice Minister of Communications Wilfredo González, which are at the end of this post.

The following are some of the points they made:
  • Some e-government -- paying taxes, recording of births and marriages, court information, etc. is now online.
  • Mobile banking and bill paying has been tested by 20,000 users and will be rolled out this year.
  • Cuban content continues to be developed.
  • There are now 11,980 home DSL subscribers. (This is a drop in the bucket, but more than I would have expected).
  • Connectivity at hospitals and medical facilities have improved -- 200 clinics and 190 pharmacies now have connectivity.
  • School connectivity at all levels has improved and all universities have fiber links.
  • They will offer mobile phone access to the Internet this year.
I was struck by the emphasis on the Cuban national intranet, as opposed to the global Internet, in nearly all of this. This emphasis is reflected in the relatively low price of intranet access and the continued development of Cuban content and services.

Popular Cuban national intranet sites

The speakers mentioned Cuban services like the Ecured encyclopedia, Redcuba intranet portal and search engine, Reflejos blog site, CubaEduca teaching site and Andariego maps, which are somewhat like Cuban counterparts to Internet sites like Wikipedia, Google, Wordpress, the Khan Academy and Google Maps respectively. González even mentioned Mi Mochila, the state-sanctioned offline competitor to El Paquete, which is arguably the largest private employer and most pervasive source of digital information in Cuba.

Comparison of Wikipedia and Ecured
articles on José Martí, Cuba's national
I say these Cuban services are "somewhat like" corresponding Internet services because, given Cuba's population and resources, they can never hope to match the scope and functionality of their global counterparts. For example, Ecured is the closest of these services in design and function to its global counterpart, Wikipedia (both are based on the same software), but the number of Wikipedia articles and size and variety of its editor community are not comparable. Similarly, Redcuba is limited to the national intranet rather than the global Internet.

Copyright considerations also limit the eventual scope of the national intranet. For example, El Paquete distributes pirated Internet material. Some intranet services may also depend upon pirated software. For example, Andariego uses ESRI's ArcGIS geographic information system software -- do they pay for it?

Well, that is what jumped out at me -- you can watch the videos for yourself and see what strikes you.

President of ETECSA, Mayra Arevich Marín:

Vice Minister of Communications, Wilfredo González:

Update 1/12/2018

Here are links to two more year-end summaries that are also based on the videos of Arevich and González and richly illustrated with images and charts:

The big picture

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cuban satellite connectivity -- today and (maybe?) tomorrow

Last January, Doug Madory of Dyn Research reported on Cuban traffic, noting that C&W's share had increased:

Yesterday Madory reported that ETECSA had activated a new internet transit provider, medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellite-connectivity provider O3b Networks (Other 3 billion), replacing geostationary satellite provider Intelsat:

(They have also added Telecom Italia, which, until 2011, owned 11% of ETECSA, but I will save that for another post).

O3b's MEO satellites orbit at an altitude of around 8,012 km above the equator while Intelsat's geosynchronous satellites are at around 35,786 km, therefore the time for a data packet to travel from earth to an O3b satellite and back to Earth is significantly less than to an Intelsat satellite. This move to O3b may be related to ETECSA's recent decision to offer SMS messaging service to the US (at an exorbitant price) and it will surely improve the speed of interactive applications.

That is today's situation as I understand it, but now I want to speculate on the future of Cuban satellite connectivity -- say in the early 2020s.

First a little background on O3b Networks. O3b is a wholly owned subsidiary of SES but it was founded in 2007 by Greg Wyler, who has since moved on to a new venture called OneWeb. While O3b provides service to companies like ETECSA, OneWeb plans to also provide fast global connectivity to individuals in fixed locations like homes and schools as well as the "Internet of things."

This animation was prepared by Teledesic,
formed in 1990 to provide LEO satellite
connectivity. Teledesic failed, but
technology, the market and executive skill
have changed since that time.
OneWeb plans to connect the "other 3 billion" people using a constellation of around 1,600 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 1,200 km and another 1,300 in MEO at 8,500 km. They are working with many vendors and partners and plan to launch their first satellites in March 2018. They will begin offering service in Alaska in 2019 and hope to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020. By 2025 they expect to have 1 billion subscribers and their mission is to eliminate the global digital divide by 2027.

Now, back to Cuba. ETECSA is doing business with Wyler's previous company O3b. Might they also be talking with his current company, OneWeb? It takes time to launch hundreds of satellites, so service is being phased in -- might Cuba come online sometime after Alaska? By connecting Cuba, OneWeb would gain publicity, the goodwill of many nations and access to a relatively well-educated, Internet-starved market and it would enable Cuba to quickly deploy broadband technology.

As I said, this is pure speculation. OneWeb faces significant technical, business and political challenges and may fail. Politics would be particularly challenging in the case of Cuba. Both the US and Cuba would have to make policy changes, but maybe the time is right for that -- the Cuban government will change in 2018 and the US government is likely to change in 2020 when Alaska comes online.

OneWeb has established an indirect relationship with ETECSA through O3b, but other companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, are working on similar LEO projects. Might ETECSA be talking to the others?

SpaceX is particularly interesting. Theirs is the most ambitious plan and their experience as a rocket company is invaluable. Less tangibly, founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk is known for audacious risk-taking. OneWeb will begin with Alaska -- might SpaceX begin with Cuba? In serving Cuba, they could also serve the Eastern US and since Cuba is an island the footprint of a satellite would not be so densely populated. SpaceX would gain publicity and international political good will.

To learn more, see this survey of LEO satellite plans and related issues.

Update 2/27/2018

SES subsidiary O3b has gone public with their agreement to route ETECSA traffic and Doug Madory has updated the route graph (above) that he provided when he first noticed the link last December.

The following graph shows that O3b now accounts for about 5% of ETECSA's routes and, as in December, geosynchronous satellite provider Intelsat is gone. Latency over the O3b link will be much lower than it had been with Intelsat, so some users will see improved performance.

A friend tells me that the O3b ground station is about 25 miles east of Havana in Jarusco -- the location of the original Soviet Carib 1 ground station in 1974.

Satellite ground station in Jarusco (source)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Could SNET become Cuba's

Community networks like SNET and are compatible with Cuba's tradition of innovation subject to constraints and socialist values.

In an earlier post, I described Havana's community network, SNET, and wondered what it could become if the government and ETECSA were willing to legitimatize and support it. Spain's provides a possible answer to that question. is said to be the largest community network in the world. It began in 2004 and has grown to have 34,165 nodes online with 16,758 planned, 407 building, 612 testing and 4,043 inactive. The nodes are linked by WiFi and fiber and there are over 50,000 users throughout Spain. (See the chart and map below).

Community networks like SNET and are compatible with Cuba's tradition of innovation subject to constraints and socialist values. Could SNET grow to serve people throughout Cuba if it had access to ETECSA fiber and the global Internet? While community networks may not be a long-run solution for Cuba, they should be considered as an interim, stopgap means of extending affordable Internet connectivity.

For a technical description of, see A Technological Overview of the Community Network. (Send me a note if you would like to see it, but do not have access).

I also recommend the Internet Society policy brief Spectrum Approaches for Community Networks. It is a concise document with specific recommendations. For example, the section on spectrum management recommends allocating unlicensed spectrum, dynamic sharing of licensed spectrum and innovative licensing like granting licenses for social purposes or small rural communities and give examples of networks employing each of these. There are similar sections with recommendations and examples for policymakers, network organizers, and network operators. The report also has a list of links to other resources and annotated endnotes.

RFC 7962, Alternative Network Deployments: Taxonomy, Characterization, Technologies, and Architectures also provides context and spells out options for potential regulators and network developers and operators and has an extensive list of references.

I hope someone at ETECSA is reading these documents. growth Source geographic reach Source

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Data on SNET and a few suggestions for ETECSA

What would be the impact of, say, a $100,000 equipment grant from ETECSA to SNET?

I've written several posts on Cuba's user-deployed street networks, the largest of which is SNET in Havana. (SNET was originally built by the gaming community, but the range of services has grown substantially). My posts and journalist's accounts like this one describe SNET, but a new paper presents SNET measurement data as well as descriptive material.

The abstract of the paper sums it up:
Working in collaboration with SNET operators, we describe the network’s infrastructure and map its topology, and we measure bandwidth, available services, usage patterns, and user demographics. Qualitatively, we attempt to answer why the SNET exists and what benefits it has afforded its users. We go on to discuss technical challenges the network faces, including scalability, security, and organizational issues.
You should read the paper -- it's interesting and well-written -- but I can summarize a few points that caught my attention.

SNET is a decentralized network comprised of local nodes, each serving up to 200 users in a neighborhood. The users connect to local nodes using Ethernet cables strung over rooftops, etc. or WiFi. The local nodes connect to regional "pillars" and the pillars peer with each other over fixed wireless links. The node and pillar administrators form a decentralized organization, setting policy, supporting users and keeping their servers running and online as best they can. (This reminds me of my school's first Web server -- a Windows 3 PC on my desk that crashed frequently).

SNET organization (source)

The average utilized bandwidth between two pillars during a 24-hour period was 120 Mb/s of a maximum throughput of 250 Mb/s and the authors concluded that throughput is generally constrained by the available bandwidth in the WiFi links between pillars. As such, faster inter-pillar links and/or adding new pillars would improve performance. Faster links from local nodes to pillars, new node servers, etc. would also add to capacity and availability, but that hardware would cost money. The Cuban government would probably see the provision of outside funds as subversive, but what would be the impact of, say, a $100,000 equipment grant from ETECSA to SNET?

The paper drills down on the network topology, discusses applications and presents usage and performance statistics. Forums are one of the applications and one of the forums is Netlab, a technical community of over 6,000 registered members who have made over 81,000 posts. They focus on open-source development and have written a SNET search engine and technical guides on topics like Android device repair. The export of Cuban content and technology has been a long-standing focus of this blog, and it would be cool to see Netlab available to others on the open Internet.

Netlab forum growth

The authors of the paper say that as far as they know, "SNET is the largest isolated community-driven network in existence" (my italics). While it may be the largest isolated community network there are larger Internet-connected community networks and that is a shame. I hope Cuba plans to "leapfrog" to next-generation technology and policy) while implementing stopgap measures like WiFi hotspots, 3G mobile and DSL. If SNET and other community networks were legitimized, supported and linked to the Internet (or even the Cuban intranet), they would be useful stopgap technology. ETECSA could also use the skills of the street net builders.

I don't expect ETECSA to take my advice, but if working with SNET is too big a step, they might test community collaboration by working with the developers of a smaller street net like the one in Gaspar or try involving communities in networking some schools, experimenting with community-installed backhaul or deploying interim satellite connectivity.

(You can find links to the paper, Initial Measurements of the Cuban Street Network, presentation slides and abstract here).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Freelist hosts a couple of Cuban email lists -- create one of your own?

If you have an idea for a list of your own, check out Freelists. hosts Internet mailing lists at no cost. (They ask for donations on their site). Freelist uses an open source server called Ecartis, which appears to have a command interface similar to the popular Listserv (which has been around since 1986).

Freelists host over 11,000 lists, two of which pertain to Cuba and the Internet judging by their names: Cubacel and Emprendedorescubanos.

The Cubacel welcome message says it is for discussion of Cubacel and its network and asks people stick to the topic of mobile networks, post plain text messages, not HTML, and only attach files like .pdfs and images when necessary and to compress them if you do. (This feels so 1980s).

I subscribed to Cubacel about four hours ago, and have seen one user ask when 4G might come to Cuba and receive an answer that trials using 1800 Mhz Band 3 had been run near the Miramar Business Center, but that did not give a clue to if and when 4G would be available.

Another person said they had heard that ETECSA was limiting 3G roaming transfer speed to 300 kbps and asked what speeds people were getting, but so far no one has replied. (I've received reports of much faster service).

I've not yet received any messages from the Emprendedorescubanos list.

You can read a bit more about user's experience with and opinion of the Cubacel list here.

If you have an idea for a list of your own, check Freelists out -- it takes only a minute to create a list. (Let me know if you do).

Cubacel list emails (source)

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 for 30 hours 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.

Update 12/26/2017

Last week, ETECSA announced the availability of DSL connectivity to 821 potential clients in Santiago de Cuba, a city with a population of 433,527 in 2015. The announcement singles out two neighborhoods, so I suspect that two central offices were upgraded to offer DSL service and evidently only 821 homes have good enough copper wiring to receive data from them at 4 Mbps. (There are 719 digital central offices in Cuba).

It is telling that they proudly announce such a modest achievement -- reminiscent of the coverage of Kcho's WiFi hotspots. (I'm tempted to mention Donald Trump at this point, but will resist the temptation).

Last May, ETECSA announced the goal of being able to offer 38,000 home DSL accounts. I doubt that they came close to that goal. The goal for 2020 is to offer connectivity to 50 percent of Cuban homes. As of 2016, there were 1,322,002 residences with fixed phone service in Cuba. Their goals are not achievable and, as I stated above, that is good news. At the price ETECSA is charging, very limited DSL coverage may pay for itself or make a little profit, but it is only a temporary stopgap for very few people.

Update 12/30/2017

ETECSA is offering their Nauta Home DSL service in Camagüey. It looks like three central offices are able to offer DSL and this map shows the approximate areas they serve, presumably at up to 4 Mbps. For reference, the road shown around Camagüey is about 18.5 miles long.

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