The state of the Internet in Cuba, January 2011

Figure , Internet concentration by province

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Figure , Internet concentration by province.

International connectivity
Cuba’s international connectivity is exclusively via satellite, and, as of January 2010, was reported to be 209 Mbps upstream and 379 down.15 This is very slow for an island with a population over 11 million. To put that in context, my university has 10,000 students and our Internet connection speed is 1 Gbps – one small university has a higher capacity link than the entire nation of Cuba because there are no fiber optic cables connecting the island to the Internet.
But a cable project is underway. An agreement to build an undersea cable between La Guaira, Venezuela and Siboney in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba was announced in February 2007. The projected cable is labeled ALBA-1 in Figure 3.

Figure , Caribbean undersea cables in the vicinity of Cuba.16

The acronym ALBA refers to the eight-member Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, established initially by Cuba and Venezuela.17 This cable is one of several ALBA projects, which are aimed at socialist cooperation and regional integration. The 1,550 kilometer, 640 GB/s cable was originally scheduled to be completed in early 2009 at an estimated cost of $63 million.18

A joint venture made up of Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell and Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe (TGC) has been formed to install the cable. TGC is itself a joint venture between the Venezuelan and Cuban governments. It is 60% owned by state-run Telecom Venezuela and 40% by Cuban Transbit. The joint venture will not offer service over the cable, but will lease capacity to operators.
The cost estimate has risen to $70 million, but that includes a link from Cuba to Jamaica and a second phase might link Haiti and Nicaragua. Cable & Wireless has contracted with TGC to build the Jamaica-Cuba link. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is said to have received a $70 million loan from China for the project.19
The installation was delayed several times, but exploration of the topography of the ocean floor and the physical design of the cable are now complete. Installation began in January 2011 and is expected to finish in July.20
However, the state of complementary human and hardware infrastructure to land the cable and connect in Havana and other locations is unclear. One clue is that they plan to continue operating the current satellites, which implies that some organizations and networks will not be connected to the cable. Improved speed and efficiency for currently connected institutions seems to more the goal than widespread access.21 The telephone network should also be able to use the cable.
As we saw in Figure 3, many cables come close to Cuba, and connecting to one of them would be much cheaper than to ALBA-1, but U. S. and Cuban policies have kept that from happening. We know that the U. S. embargo has prohibited an undersea cable from Florida to Cuba, but, if such a cable had been licensed, it is not clear that Cuban officials would have cooperated.
US regulations were recently modified to encourage communication links with Cuba,22 and a year ago, TeleCuba Communications, Inc. was granted a license to install a 110 mile undersea cable between Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba costing an estimated $18 million.23 However, TeleCuba would not be allowed to ship equipment used to terminate the cable or to extend it from the landing point to other locations within the island because that equipment would be viewed as contributing to Cuba’s domestic economy.24 The Cuba Study Group and others have urged the relaxation of these US constraints.25
ALBA-1 is scheduled for completion in July 2011, but without interface equipment and a network that provides access to the cable, it will be meaningless. Without proper planning, complementary human and physical infrastructure, and a government willing to allow access, the cable will be a strong link in a very weak chain. The satellite bottleneck is only one factor in explaining restrictions on Internet access and extremely high prices in Cuba. When the cable is finally in place and properly complemented, it will be interesting to see how it impacts Internet pricing and government access policy.
Domestic connectivity infrastructure
In 1998, we noted that Cuba's relatively new IP infrastructure was limited in speed and scope, but, reflecting Cuban values, it was more widely dispersed than those in many emerging nations and it was non-commercial. 26 27 Today’s network remains widely dispersed, non-commercial and slow.
Table 8 shows ping times from the U. S. to three Cuban hosts during the evening. If we assume that 250 or 300 milliseconds are due to satellite link latency, these times are still very slow. 28 These speeds would make low-bandwidth, asynchronous applications like email frustrating and browsing a modern Web site nearly impossible. More research is needed to explain these long times and to look for possible transport algorithm improvement.29




St. dev.













Table , Ping times from the US.

We discovered Cuban (.cu) hosts that were physically located in the United States, Spain, Venezuela and Canada. Foreign location allows rapid access by those outside of Cuba, but access is slower from within the Island.

The internal access network is also apparently very slow. Cuba reported having 2,000 broadband Internet connections and 1,450,000 Internet users in 2008.30 Taking these suspiciously round numbers at face value indicates that Cuba relies almost exclusively on dial-up modems for “last mile” access, which would make for a frustrating experience for Cuban users, and helps explain the fact that Cuban Web sites are very limited in function and content – “Web 1.0.”
All of this raises two questions – why has the domestic infrastructure stagnated and what are the implications for improvement after the Venezuelan cable is installed?
The official Cuban stance is to blame the situation on the U. S. Embargo, which has made it difficult for them to attract foreign investment and kept them from connecting to nearby undersea cables. They often quote the fact that a Miami-Cancun cable runs only 32 kilometers off the coast and speculate that a high speed connection to it would cost less than a million dollars.
Until recent years, they could have argued that the embargo restricted Cuban access to network infrastructure equipment manufactured in the US, thus blocking its purchase or raising prices. However, the emergence of the Chinese as major manufacturers of networking equipment has diminished the importance of the embargo in this area. The Chinese can supply Cuba with modern, competitively priced wireless and cabled equipment and have significant experience in the construction of networks domestically and in developing nations.31

However, the embargo is only one factor in determining the state of Cuban communication infrastructure. The impoverished economy and Cuban political decisions also play important roles.

Cuba was hard hit by the fall of the Soviet Union. That, not the U. S. embargo, which dated back to 1960, triggered the economic hardship of the “special period” during the 1990s. At the time of their IP connection, Cuba had few funds for telecommunication infrastructure. They sought foreign investment and Telecom Italia obtained 27% ownership of ETECSA; however, the focus was on upgrading the telephone system at that time.
Poverty continues to limit the possibility for improving the domestic communication infrastructure. This was made clear in a recently released memo summarizing a discussion at the U. S. Interests Section in Havana among the commercial and economic counselors from six of Cuba’s seven largest trading partners, including China, Spain, Canada, the U.S., Brazil and Italy, plus key creditors France and Japan in February, 2010.32 These countries also represent most of the foreign companies investing in Cuba, with the notable exception of Venezuelan state-owned enterprises.
The diplomats noted that Cuba has been hard hit by the global financial crisis. Imports fell by 37% in 2009 and trade with China was off by nearly a billion dollars. Even food imports have fallen. Tourism and foreign remittances, sources of hard currency, are also down with the global downturn.
The creditor nations reported restructuring of debt and missed payments. The Cuban government insists upon majority ownership of any enterprise and even proposals for micro-credit programs require the Council of State’s approval. To date, only one small Spanish micro-credit project has been approved. The diplomats also worried about Cuba's dependence upon an increasingly unstable Venezuela.
They did not foresee major economic policy change, but did admit to the possibility of limited reform to open private sector activities, and that did come to pass. However, their opinion was that leadership of the Cuban economy is becoming more centralized and that the military will continue to expand its influence in core economic activities.33 Overall, the diplomats were pessimistic, stating that the financial situation could become fatal within 2-3 years. Italy suggested Cuba could become insolvent as early as 2011.
If the embargo was lifted and the Venezuelan cable landed tomorrow, the economic situation would stop major domestic communication infrastructure improvement.
Furthermore, if Cuba could afford to improve their infrastructure, they would still be constrained by fear that the Internet would be politically and culturally destabilizing.
While there is some degree of access or content control in every nation, those with relatively free political systems tend to be more open. Dictatorial governments seek to control access to political information. At the same time, they recognize that the Internet can be a source of economic productivity and improved health care, education, and quality of life. This presents a "dictator's dilemma" -- the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How do you give people access to information for health care, education, and commerce while blocking political information?
Prior to 1995, Cuba was among the leaders in Caribbean information and communication technology. When the political leaders became aware of the Internet, they became concerned. Raul Castro attributed the fall of the Soviet Union to openness and feared non-governmental organizations, which were beginning to use the Internet.
Cuba slowed the diffusion of the Internet around 1995 while they decided whether to proceed, and, if they would proceed, who would be in charge.34 They decided to use the Internet, but maintain control over access by the means outlined in the prior section. Since access was to be limited, there was no need to invest heavily in domestic infrastructure.
Mobile infrastructure
Cuba’s wired infrastructure is limited in scope and what infrastructure exists is appropriate for the early days of the Internet. The same is true for wireless access. Cuba’s mobile network is limited in coverage and it is “second generation” technology, suited to voice conversation and text messaging, but not Internet applications.
As shown in Figure 4, coverage is concentrated in cities. We also see that cable connectivity reaches only to Cielo de Avila.

Figure , Cuban mobile coverage with detail east of Havana.35

Cubans are able to make phone calls and send and receive short SMS text messages, but they are not able to send and receive messages with images or video. More important, they do not have access to the third-generation Internet applications used on the Apple iPhone and the Android phones.

While it is far from ubiquitous outside of Cuba, an estimated 940 million people will have mobile Internet access as of 2010 (Table 9).



 Per 100 inhabitants 





















































Table , Mobile broadband subscribers in developed and developing nations.36
Cuba’s limited service is extremely expensive. For example, between 7 AM and 10:59 PM, making or receiving a local call costs CUC$.45 per minute.37 Making an international call is CUC$1.83 to the US, CUC$1.40 to Venezuela, CUC$1.60 to the Americas, and CUC$1.80 to the rest of the world. Receiving international calls is free. Data is no cheaper than voice. Receiving an SMS message is free, but sending a domestic message is CUC$.16 and an international message is CUC$1.00. Internet data connections are possible, but they are very slow and expensive. For US$50 per month one receives only 100 daytime and 50 evening and weekend minutes. Bear in mind that Cuban gross national income per capita was $5,550 in 2008.38
At these rates, it is not surprising that few Cubans are mobile subscribers. As we see in Appendix 3, Cuba has only 3 subscribers per 100 capita, while the average among upper middle income nations in the region is 93.4. Of the 229 nations that have reported on cellular subscribers during the last decade, only North Korea, Myanmar, Kiribati, the Marshal Islands, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have fewer cellular subscribers per capita than Cuba.39
Cuba is one “generation” behind in mobile access, and the fourth generation is already rolling out. 180 operators in 70 countries are currently investing in fourth generation LTE equipment, which will enable them to serve more users at higher speed. It is estimated that at least 64 of these networks will be in commercial service by the end of 2012, and another 52 are in pre-commitment trials.40
The Chinese role in Cuban infrastructure
Telecom Italia owns 27% of ETECSA, the incumbent Cuban telephone company, mobile operator and Internet service provider, but they are trying to sell their share.41 At the same time, we saw that China is said to be financing the ALBA-1 cable through Venezuela, and Shanghai Bell is a partner in the joint venture installing it. Furthermore, Alcatel-Lucent, another partner, has a history of doing projects with Huawei and it was rumored last year that Huawei might purchase a share of Alcatel-Lucent.42 More recently, Alcatel-Lucent announced a €1.18 billion agreement to install wireless networks in China during a visit to France by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. There are clearly close connections between Alcatel-Lucent and China. It should also be noted that both Huawei Submarine Networks and Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks have the capability to install undersea cables.
Figure 5 shows the ceremony commemorating 50 years of Cuba-China relations. Cuba was the first Latin American nation to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1960, and at the ceremony the Chinese pledged to "provide assistance to Cuba to help its social and economic development."43

Figure , Ceremony commemorating 50 years of Cuba-China relations.

As of January 2008, China was Cuba's second largest trading partner and the largest importer of Cuban goods, especially nickel and sugar. Trade with China doubled between 2005 and 2006 and grew by 23 percent in 2007 to $2.3 billion.44 China also loans Cuba money to purchase their goods. The last time I was there, it seemed that everyone in Havana was riding Chinese bicycles and there were many Chinese busses. The government also distributes energy efficient Chinese appliances like refrigerators and stoves on credit.

However, the recent global recession has put pressure on the relationship. The leaked memo mentioned above states that in 2009, trade with China was down by nearly $1 billion, and the Chinese diplomat at the meeting admitted having problems getting paid on time and complained about Cuban requests to extend credit from one to four years.45 He also complained of Cuba’s insistence on retaining controlling interest in joint ventures, with “visible exasperation,” and said that any discussions around Chinese-style reforms, particularly regarding foreign investment, had been difficult and “a real headache.”
The future of China-Cuba trade may be foreshadowed by the Chinese experience in Africa, as reported by Michel and Beuret, who describe the rapid increase of Chinese involvement in virtually every African nation:46 China is involved in the ALBA-1 cable, and Cuba will need a domestic backbone and other infrastructure if it is to utilize the cable well. China has experience building domestic communication infrastructure in developing nations, including their own, and Huawei is a leading manufacturer of both wireless and wired IP communication equipment. What will be the role of the Chinese in building out Cuba’s telecommunication infrastructure? Has China already been working on cables and other infrastructure within Cuba? Further research is needed to answer questions like these.
Organizational infrastructure
Organizational infrastructure refers to the government organizations, Internet service providers, and professional and trade organizations that regulate, invest in and deliver access to the Internet.
The first networking organization in Cuba was CENIAI, the National Center of Automated Data Exchange, which began networking in 1982 with connections to Soviet and European databases and very limited email. In 1992, CENIAI was offering asynchronous email and Usenet News. At that time CENIAI had 62 staff members, and was part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.47 By 1995, Cuba was among the networking leaders in the Caribbean. CENIAI and three other networks with international UUCP links were transferring over 60 Mbytes of international email and had nearly 2,600 users (Table 10}. 48


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Youth Computer Clubs and NGOs




Several organizations




National System of Health Information




Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology




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