Monday, January 19, 2015

The Internet press hypes Cuban WiFi access

Poster with WiFi announcement at the Technology Center (14ymedio)

While I was on vacation it was widely reported that ETECSA would be providing megabyte per second WiFi Internet access in Santiago de Cuba for $4.50 per hour. ETECSA subsequently issued a clarification, saying they would be providing WiFi access to the Cuban intranet at no cost.

The initial reports were all based on a 3-sentence post on the Web site of the Cuban Journalist's Union.

The rapid spread of this semi-correct story is a product of click-hungry Internet "journalism" -- contrast that with the reporting a few days later by Yosmany Mayeta Labrada on the 14ymedio site. (English translation).

The initial reporting was not only opportunistic -- Cuba has been in the news lately -- it was uncritical. One would expect the Internet Press to recognize that a few WiFi access points with 1 megabyte per second back-haul speed at a cost of $4.50 per hour is neither Big News nor the sign of a major shift in Cuban Internet policy.

This is the same fallacy as in the sad case of Alan Gross. Gross was convicted of bringing equipment into Cuba that, had he succeeded, would have made no significant difference. That project cost the American tax payers millions of dollars and provided the Cuban government with a propaganda "threat" that it has grossly overstated.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

I'm on vacation

You will not see new posts on this blog before January 21.

Summing up recent events

I put this list of recent posts on Alan Gross and the future of the Internet in Cuba for my other blog. They are in chronological order, beginning with a November 11 post asking whether Gross was about to be freed:
(for background on the case -- what Gross brought into Cuba, its technical and propaganda importance, his incarceration, court cases, and negotiations for his release, click here.)

Alan Gross brought three of these kits into Cuba.

Alan Gross and his wife Judy just after his release from prison

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cuban government support of the weekly "packages"

Cuban blogger Isbel Diaz Torres has written a two part post on the information "packages" that are distributed each week in Cuba.

In part one, he lists 12 factors that lead him to believe that the Cuban government may be behind these weekly packages. I will not list the 12 factors here -- you can see them in his post -- but he makes a compelling case that the package service could not run as smoothly as it does without government participation or approval.

In part 2 he discusses the motive the government might have for supporting the service. Since the weekly packages include current television program episodes, movies, magazines, etc., they supply weekly entertainment, eliminating what may be the key factor behind people's desire for Internet access. He also lists other, very limited, services that the government argues substitute for Internet services. He speculates that the government wants to be able to claim that Internet access is not needed because Cubans have everything they want without it.

One cannot know whether Torres' hypothesis is true. The weekly packages are surrounded in mystery. I have asked many people who distributes them and how they get the material into Cuba and no one seems to know.

If the government is behind the weekly packages, I would suggest a simpler motive than trying to rationalize a lack of Internet access -- money. The packages are a going business with an established curating and distribution organization. Someone is making money and it might be the government or a friend of the government.

The Cuban government says information technology is now a priority, but they are limited in what it can afford.

They could surely afford to institutionalize and upgrade the weekly "sneaker net" if they were sincere. The people curating and distributing the material could be recognized as small businesses and new types of material -- like news and education -- could be included.

The big stumbling block would be copyright. The government might not want to acknowledge copyright violation. If they chose to worry about copyright, they could negotiate block licenses with the owners of the material. Since they not getting any royalties for Cuban distribution today, low royalties, perhaps with a promise of increases over time, could be negotiated.

I've made a couple of other low cost proposals the Cuban government could implement in the short run -- a satellite pilot trial leading, if successful, to a broader roll out.

If they are sincere in the desire to prioritize information technology, they could also get behind and extend the weekly packages.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interviews of ETECSA officials

Juventud Rebelde published a summary of what seems to have been a three hour online question and answer session between their readers (at least the ones with Internet access :-) and ETECSA officials.

They talked about ETECSA's data center, which has over 100 terabytes storage capacity today and will be expanded by five times next year. While large and a good start, this is not comparable to the data centers operated by companies like Google.

The data center went online in February 2014 to host data and services of state agencies and Nauta email. It currently hosts over 160 websites and what sounds like colocation for "over 15" organizations. (The following image, which accompanied the Juventud Rebelde post, is a general sketch of a Savvis data center, not a representation of the actual ETECSA data center).

The data center also hosts the Orion search engine developed at the University of Information Science. I tried a few Orion searches and, as far as I could discover, there are no images and it is only crawling .cu web sites. I could not even turn up a picture of Fidel Castro:

When asked about cloud storage for individuals and home Internet service, the officials made no commitments saying were focusing on shared capabilities due to limited funds and said they expected to improve the quality of service in more than 230 Internet access rooms at third party sites. A significant number of access points will be in Joven Clubs. WiFi access will also be available at these sites, but evidently prices will remain $4.50 per hour.

The officials promised to continue modernizing and expanding mobile networks, adding 800,000 "lines," allowing over 3 million users. Nothing was said about providing 3 or 4G capability.

The article leaves me with the impression that this was more like a press conference for ETECSA than hard-hitting question and answer session.

If I could ask questions of ETECSA, I would be interested in learning about their management and relationship to the Ministry of Communication.

Update 12/30/2014

Juventude Rebelde published more of the online Q and A with ETECSA officials.

ETECSA said they plan to create an exchange point for the networks of Infomed, the universities, the Joven Clubs and the Ministry of Education and that there are points of presence in all Cuban municipalities.

The short article is accompanied by many questions and answers.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Can there be a uniquely Cuban Internet?

I don't criticize to knock the system down. On the contrary, I criticize to perfect the system.
Cuban blogger Carlos Alberto Pérez

The first instance of citizen journalism on the Internet was during the Soviet Coup attempt of 1991, where it was used to coordinate dissent and share news during protests. We tend to think of citizen journalism as anti-regime -- the Twitter Revolution, the Arab Spring.

But there are important counter examples, like that provided by blogger Carlos Alberto Pérez, who was recently profiled in a New York Times article on Cuban bloggers. Pérez is not a revolutionary seeking to overthrow the Cuban government -- he works for the Ministry of Communication and has government-provided access to the Internet at work and at home.

He criticizes the government in his blog La Chiringa de Cuba, but does not advocate revolution -- he "criticizes to perfect the system."

Carlos Alberto Pérez -- taken from a New York Times article and video on Cuban bloggers

I hope his point of view prevails -- rejecting both the far left and far right and finding Cuban solutions to Cuban problems.

How does this general principle apply to the Internet? Today, the Internet is under the control of an opaque monopoly, ETECSA. Neither I nor Cubans paying $4.50 per hour for slow DSL access or using their 2G cell phones like the current situation.

But, I would not like to see Cuba go to the other extreme -- ceding control over the Internet to a foreign investor in return for infrastructure. I have seen that approach in the US, and it is far from optimal.

Hopefully, Cuba will find a uniquely Cuban way to a modern Internet. The goal should be eventually providing universal, affordable (free in some cases) access to the people of Cuba -- not profiting ETECSA, the Cuban government or foreign investors.

I would not bet on that rosy outcome, but, if it is to be achieved, it will take many years -- involving both short and long-term programs).

I do not know Carlos Alberto Pérez or what his job is in the Ministry of Communication, but I hope the Minister is more inclined to read his blog than to cut it off.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Who owns ETECSA and who runs the show?

The move toward normalization of relations between the US and Cuba has generated speculation that Internet access will improve markedly. I agree that that is a possibility, but it is far from assured. As a virtual Internet "greenfield," they have the possibility of building a uniquely Cuban Internet using current and future technologies.

But Internet policy and goals are a bigger question mark than technology and that brings us to Cuba's monopoly telecommunication service provider ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.).

The ITU describes ETECSA as "one of the last state telecommunication-sector monopolies" and Wikipedia says that 27% of ETECSA is owned by Rafin SA and the remainder is owned by the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC).

Who owns ETECSA

But, is ETECSA state-owned? In 2011, Telecom Italia sold its 27% share of ETECSA to a company called Rafin, SA. The Central Bank of Cuba describes Rafin as a non-banking financial institution and lists the operations it is authorized to perform on their Web site.

If Rafin owns 27% of ETECSA, what about the other 73%. Wikipedia and the ITU report that that belongs to the the Cuban Government, but the Official Gazette of the Justice Minister cites the following equity shares: Telefónica Antillana SA, 51%, Universal Trade & Management Corporation SA (Utisa), 11%, Banco Financiero Internacional, 6.15%, Negocios en Telecomunicaciones, 3.8% and Banco Internacional de Comercio, 0.9%.

Are these the owners of ETECSA?

Who manages and determines ETECSA policy?

Rafin and several of the other organizations listed above are "anonymous societies," which I take to be something similar to "corporations" in the US. The others are banks and a corporation.

I am not an economist, but this leaves me wondering what the meaning of an SA or corporation is in a communist nation -- aren't these capitalist organizations? That leads to other questions like -- who put up the money for the purchase of Rafin's 27% share of ETECSA? (There is an unsubstantiated rumor that Rafin is owned by the Castro brothers).

What happens to ETECSA profits? Do the organizations that own it receive dividends? Are they re-invested? Who covers losses?

Who sets ETECSA policy? Is there the equivalent of a board of directors? Does the MCI have a voice?

Who makes operational decisions -- which services to offer, where to invest? Who sets prices for services?

This post asks several questions and provides no answers, but the answers to those questions will determine the future of the Internet in Cuba. I hope they do not squander the opportunity to create a uniquely Cuban internet (as they did in 1997) -- for the people of Cuba and as an example for the rest of us.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A joke and some cool images on US-Cuba relations

This post is off topic -- not about the Internet per se -- but the joke cracked me up and the image gallery accompanying this NY Times article are a terrific recapitulation of US v Cuba since 1959.

Click here for image gallery

Friday, December 19, 2014

Is the Internet a priority for Cuba? The ball is in their court.

Yesterday, a reporter asked me to comment on two quotes following the release of Alan Gross:

1. President Obama: "Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe."

2. Senator Rubio: "The reason why they don't have access to 21st century telecommunications -- like smart phones, like access to the internet -- is because it is illegal in Cuba."

The reporter asked which statement I thought was closer to the truth.

While there is something to be said for both, I had to side with Senator Rubio. There are three primary causes for the sad state of the Cuban Internet:

1. Fear of an open Internet by the Cuban government: When the Internet first came to Cuba, there was high level debate over how to deal with it. Raúl Castro led the anti-Internet faction and they decided to restrict access. (Around the same time, the Chinese decided to encourage the growth of the Internet, but tightly control content and monitor users).

2. Financial constraints: The Cuban economy was in terrible shape at that time due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and they remain poor, but today they are better off than many Latin American and Caribbean nations with better Internet infrastructure.

3. The US trade embargo: The embargo raised the cost of computers and communication equipment in Cuba, which has had a dampening effect. This effect has been diminished with the emergence of China as a major manufacturer of communication equipment, but it is still a factor. The 2009 US decision authorizing the provision of communication services in Cuba could have enabled Cuban satellite connectivity -- the sort of thing Alan Gross was imprisoned for.

Senator Rubio could also point to the ironic facts that Cuba's first connection to the global Internet was over a Sprint link funded by the US National Science Foundation and that nearly all Cuban traffic flows through the United States today.

But, that is history. Cuba now says they want to give the Internet priority. I hope they mean what they say -- the ball is in their court.

Update 12/20/2014

A number of politicians and Cuba watchers discussed these quotes. Their consensus was:
The U.S. sanctions have played a role in limited availability of technology. However, Rubio is right that the Cuban government has nearly complete control over the Internet. That isn’t a result of sanctions on telecommunication business activity in Cuba. Even if the United States fully repeals its embargo, government control over Internet access could continue.

We rate Rubio’s statement Mostly True.

Update 12/29/2014

Diario de Cuba asked Cuba experts José Remón, Iván Darias Alfonso, Ted Henken and me what we thought about the future of the Cuban Interent. Each reply is worth reading, but they seem to agree that the ball is in Cuba's court now -- that the growth of the Internet will not be constrained by the US.

December 31, 2014

I should have posted these earlier, but here are the Cuba policy changes the President has announced "in order to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely:"
  • The commercial export of certain items that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world will be authorized. This will include the commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, and services, and items for the establishment and update of communications-related systems.
  • Telecommunications providers will be allowed 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.
The US will license the export of any Internet-related goods and services Cuba will allow -- what will they allow?

Welcome home Alan Gross!

I've been quite busy since the release of Alan Gross, so have not taken the time to comment on it on this blog.

I've been following his story on this blog -- both the technology and the politics -- for several years, and I am very happy to end that thread!

I'm also happy that his release has removed an obstacle to the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba -- that will benefit the Cuban people and the Cuban Internet.

This may or may not be the end of Alan Gross's involvement with the Internet in Cuba -- he is clearly an advocate of Internet freedom and a friend of the Cuban people.

I hope he adjusts quickly to his freedom and am looking forward to hearing more from him if he cares to share his experience.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Cuban Internet in context

The Cuban Internet is minimal and unfree -- far worse than one would expect in a nation with a relatively high UNDP Human development index.

In the last week or so I've seen a spate of articles (for example this one) pointing out that only a few, relatively rich Cubans can access the Internet and that the Cuban Internet is not free. This is not exactly news.

These articles were triggered by the publication of the 2014 editions of the Freedom House Freedom on the Net report and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Measuring information society report. I will highlight a few of the reported findings on Cuba and put them in context by looking at some Cuban data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human development report.

Freedom on the Net, 2014

Freedom House ranked Cuba 62nd among the 65 nations they surveyed. As you see below, the overall freedom index is composed of three sub-indices: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights:

Net freedom and sub-component ranks out of 65 nations

These scores put Cuba in the group of nations that includes China, Syria and Iran -- not exactly august company.

Freedom House puts Cuba in the context of all nations with the following plot:

Internet freedom versus penetration -- purple indicates not free, green free

(Too bad we cannot combine Iceland's Internet with Cuba's climate).

The report includes a well documented essay on the state of Cuban Internet freedom and you can see summaries of Cuba's rating in the 2012 and 2013 Freedom on the Net reports here.

Measuring information society, 2014

This report is a compilation of data and analysis of the state of information and communication technology (ICT) in 166 countries. The key summary statistic is the ICT development index (IDI), which is based upon three sub-indices as shown here:

The ITU framework and index structure

The ITU model says infrastructure access plus capability and skills lead to ICT use which impacts individuals, organizations and society in a nation.

Cuba ranks 125th on the IDI -- they are doing well on skills, but access pulls them down:

IDI and sub-index ranks out of 166 nations

The IDI and sub-indices are a function of many variables and they include telephone, mobile and Internet indicators -- so, for example, Cuban access is pulled up by low-cost fixed telephones and pulled down by fixed broadband prices, as shown here:

Latin American fixed broadband price

Composite indicators like these offer a very rough characterization of the Internet in a nation and there is much more Internet-related data on Cuba in the report. For example, broadband is limited to 2 mbps DSL and even that is not available in private homes; the Cuban household connectivity rate is only 3.4%; Cuban IDI is 32nd out of 32 ranked nations in Latin America and the Caribbean (Haitii was not included in the IDI rankings for some reason); in spite of the ALBA cable,Cuba has the lowest international bandwidth per user in the Americas; Cuba is one of four nations in the Americas without wireless broadband and ETECSA is one of the last state telecommunication-sector monopolies in the world.

Human development report, 2014

Like the others, the UNDP human development report compiles an overall index, the human development index (HDI). The HDI is computed for 187 countries and territories and is a composite of sub-indices for health, education and income (up to a cutoff point).

Cuban fares better on the HDI than the other indices -- it is ranked 44th in the world and second only to Chile in Latin America and the Caribbean:

Cuba is ranked 44th in the world on the HDI.

The Cuban HDI is second to Chile in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As we see below, Cuba has made steady progress with the exception of the "special period" after the fall of the Soviet Union and more recently, in education. (What's up with education)?

Cuban HDI and constituent indices over time

The report includes profiles of the state of human progress in each nation -- you can see Cuba's here.

Cuba's HDI rank is laudable and it was achieved essentially without the Internet -- think of what they could have achieved with a robust Internet (even if it were controlled as in China). That is a sad opportunity loss. The Cuban government denies fear of the Internet, but they have restricted it since its inception.

The tip of the iceberg

The above is only a quick look at these three reports -- each is extensive, well researched and contains significant analysis. They also publish their data and provide interactive analysis tools so you can play with the data yourself. For example, the UNDP makes their data available in Google's Public Data Explorer (PDE), which makes dynamic plots of time series.

I used the PDE to plot the relationship between the number of users and the HDI in 2008, the year Cuban education began to drop off:

The graph changes dynamically as the year slider at the bottom is moved. Check it out for yourself, here -- you will like the dynamic presentation.

(This sort of analysis was introduced by Hans Rosling -- check out these great presentations if you are not familiar with his work).

The UNDP data is also available as a Stat Planet world map, which I used to create the two HDI charts shown above.

If, like me, you like the global perspective, you will want to look at these three reports and the accompanying data.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Granma says IT is now a priority -- is this true change?

An article in Granma says the "informatización" of society is a priority for Cuba.

They say the 154 public "navigation" rooms were a trial balloon -- it is not clear whether they were referring to the technology or public acceptance -- but evidently they have been pleased with the results.

At one point, the article refers to the "information superhighway" -- an expression that seems as dated as the Cuban Internet.

They say Cubans will not only "drink" from the Internet, but will contribute content -- putting the best of Cuban of culture, education, knowledge and humanism on line. As I have suggested, online education and medical information would be a good place to start.

The article speaks of the ongoing, gradual implementation of 26 projects, but it is not clear what sorts of projects they refer to. One concrete promise is the expansion of public access rooms in libraries and post offices. They will also be rolling out digital television.

If they are sincere, they should consider satellite connectivity as a low-cost, interim option and follow up on that friendly visit from Google a while ago. I would also keep an eye on Elon Musk's satellite plans.

If we are going to see a new era in Cuba's attitude toward the Internet, policy considerations are more important than technology -- the goal is to benefit the Cuban people, not the government, ETECSA (or AT&T). Cuba is nearly an "Internet greenfield" -- there is little installed infrastructure so they could plan on future technologies, look for expertise around the world and set goals that are uniquely Cuban.

This article appeared around the same time as an official presentation on technology to students at the University of Havana. I am not enough of a "Cuba watcher" to have an opinion as to whether this signifies a true change -- I hope it does.

Officials say Cuba is not afraid of new technology -- they just lack the funds

Wilfredo Gonzalez and Abel Prieto
A recent Cuba Sí post quotes Cuban officials saying that money, not fear is responsible for the sad state of the Cuban Internet.

Presidential adviser Abel Prieto told a group of Havana University students that the island is "not afraid of technology." Computer science and communications vice minister Wilfredo Gonzalez assured the students that there were no government policies that restrain development of new technologies. He said economic conditions hinder development and pointed out that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) ranks Cuba 14th in the world on training people on new technologies and 153rd in access to those technologies.

I will have more to say on those ITU rankings in a future post, but, for now, let me point out that the ITU ranks Cuba last among all nations in Latin America and the Caribbean on information and communication technology development and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) ranks Cuba second only to Chile in Latin America and the Caribbean on their Human Development Index, which is based upon health, education and income.

UNDP human development index

How is it that a nation that is better off than other Latin American nations is unable to afford better Internet connectivity?

If Cuba were not afraid of information technology, Alan Gross would not be in prison and a modest proposal for satellite connectivity would be implemented and replicated. Don't get me wrong, Cuba has financial need, but a build out using satellite technology would be quite affordable as an interim step toward a modern, fiber-based Internet.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

An Alan Gross suggestion from an amateur

Alan Gross is starting his sixth year in prison. As I understand it, Cuba wants to discuss releasing him in exchange for the remaining Cuban Five prisoners and the US refuses to do so because they do not see equivalence in the cases, saying that Gross was trying to facilitate Cuban communication, not doing espionage.

If that negotiation is at an impasse, how about trying to reframe the issue? Alan Gross's project was not unique. It is known that USAID funded another project to get communication equipment into Cuba, Twitter-like ZunZuneo and A program to encourage dissent among youth. We do not deny funding these programs, but say they were not trying to overthrow the Cuban government.

Instead of a prisoner swap, how about the US sincerely apologizing for and promising to end projects like these in return for Gross's freedom? The US has already been outed, so we would not be revealing anything new in apologizing. At the same time, it would give the Cuban government a propaganda win and a rationale for releasing Gross on humanitarian grounds -- making them look good. Would they go for that?

I understand that hard-liners on either side would refuse such a deal and I understand their reasons, but think about poor Alan Gross.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Where there is smoke, there is fire -- will Alan Gross be released soon?

Senators Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, said they met with Gross for about two hours during a trip that included meetings with Cuban officials and they were optimistic about the release of Alan Gross.

That was two days ago. Today, they returned without Gross, saying the Cuban's insist upon a swap for the remaining Cuban Five and the US insisting that that would not happen. Flake and Udall refused to endorse the swap. Still, Flake said he does feel they are closer.

I still wonder if something is in the works. There has been a flurry of news about Alan Gross lately. Articles about him have been turning up in my "Google Alerts" pretty much every day, and the New York Times ran three editorials on Cuba and matters related to Alan Gross in the past month:
Can you think of anything else a Republican and a Democrat senator agreed on during the last six years? In spite of this setback, momentum -- perhaps a PR campaign by the White House -- seems to be building and we still may see Alan Gross released.

Here is a video of the two senators talking about their views of Alan Gross and our relations with Cuba:

This video has been taken down -- I wonder why?????

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Cubans and Americans have cooperated

Sprint, a U.S. corporation with funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation, provided Cuba's first Internet link.

Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, praised Cuba for their contribution to the fight against ebola during a panel discussion at the ebola crisis at the Manhattan headquarters of Thomson Reuters.

She just returned from a fact finding trip to West Africa and said of Cuba
I think they announced that going on almost two months ago, And they are sending another 200 on top of that 265. That is a big gap and a big need.
She also said it gave her great pride
To see these Americans or Europeans or Cubans or whoever it is in their full protective gear, in the scorching heat, working two-hours shifts, because that’s all you can tolerate being in that suit.
When the moderator asked a leading question about US relations with Cuba, she answered
There’s no integrated effort, in part because the UN is doing the command and control. But we’re very grateful to them for doing this.
Below, you see two Cuban doctors at the largest of 17 ebola treatment units (ETUs) in Liberia, which will be mainly operated by Cuban doctors and nurses. It is noteworthy that the picture was posted on the Voice of America Web site and funding is from USAID.

I'm posting this in a blog on the Internet in Cuba because it reminds me of the collaboration and friendship of Cuban and American networking technicians during the pre and early-Internet days.

The day Cuba established its first IP connection to the Internet, Jesus Martinez, Director of Cuba's National Center of Automated Data Exchange (CENIAI), the organization responsible for networking at that time posted a statement saying
After so many days, years of sacrifice and vigilance, I have great satisfaction to announce that our beloved Cuba, our "caiman of the Indies," has been connected to the Internet as we had desired. We have a 64 Kbps link to Sprint in the U.S.
Sprint, a U.S. corporation, subsidized by funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation, provided Cuba's first Internet link.

At that time, American networnkers were welcome visitors at CENIAI and at Cuba's Informatica conference and Cubans and Americans and others attended and taught in the Internet Society's annual Developing Country Workshops and conferences. There was no politics and no big money, just a common belief in the importance of the Internet.

Martinez and his colleagues were not politicians seeking power or representatives of corporations seeking monopoly profits, they were technicians and others who believed that computer networks were fascinating and held great potential for improving the world. They may have been naive, but one has to respect them and we owe the same to any medical professional coming to West Africa to treat ebola patients.

Cuban doctors and USAID in Liberia

Jesus Maritnez and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf

CENIAI staff, 1990

American visitors at CENIAI

Internet Society Developing Nations Workshop, 1993

Update 11/12/2014

Wall Street columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady says Havana earns almost $8 billion a year off the backs of the health workers it sends to poor countries. She says Cuba is well paid for sending doctors abroad and the doctors themselves get very little. O'Grady calls this "slave trade," which sounds like click bait, and Listening to the interview, it seems that a lot of her conclusions are speculative. You can see the interview for yourself here:

If you are a Wall Street Journal subscriber, you can read her column here.

A reader of this blog, who is a Cuba-trained physician now living in the US, has told me Cuban doctors are eager to go abroad because there is nothing for them to do in Cuba. O'grady paints a different picture. I have no reliable way to form an opinion -- just passing these links along.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A modest connectivity pilot proposal

Would the Cuban government be willing to test a few low-speed satellite links that were not controlled by ETECSA?

I had an interesting exchange with a reader this week. He took exception to my assertion that the sorry state of the Internet in Cuba today has its roots in three factors -- the US embargo, Cuba's depressed economy during the "special period" after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Cuban government's fear of free information.

He agreed with the first two points, but asserted that the third was speculation on my part. I replied that during the early days of the Internet, government officials, including Raúl Castro, argued that freeing of information had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I also asked him why, if they did not fear free information, wouldn't today's government allow private citizens to establish satellite connections?

In an earlier post, I said that, even if the government were willing, Cuba could not afford to cover the island with modern Internet infrastructure or attract foreign investment to do so. (Even if they could attract the foreign investment, I would hate to see Cuba's Internet future in the hands of companies like AT&T and Comcast).

In that post, I suggested that decentralized satellites could serve as an affordable first (interim) step on the way to a modern Internet. If the government is not afraid of free information, would they allow a small pilot study to see if satellites work, how people use them and what the costs and benefits are?

For example, would they give permission to install a few satellite dishes -- perhaps on a residential street or in a school, clinic or Joven Club in a rural area?

The cost would be small -- I would be willing to cover a year of satellite service out of my own pocket (or better through Kickstarter funding). It would be an interesting project and help settle the question raised by my reader.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Nieman Foundation says there are over 2,900 Cuban public interest blogs.

Yoani Sánchez launched her blog, Generation Y, in April 2007. (Her first post contrasted the freedom Cuban's had to display posters saying “Go Santiago!” during baseball playoffs with their inability to display a poster saying “Internet for all!"). In 2011, she told us that the free blogosphere had taken off. A recent post on the Nieman Foundation blog says there are now over 2,900 blogs dedicated to debate and discussion of issues related to the public interest in Cuba. (Is there a report underlying that statistic)?

The blogs are based in Cuba, Spain, the US and other nations with Cuban communities, and they are often in conflict with the Cuban state media. For example, a blogger disclosed math test fraud in Cuban college entrance exams the day after the exams were praised in the state media. Since Internet access is highly limited in Cuba, blog news is often distributed on the "street networks" which we have described in these earlier posts.

It takes a while, but it seems that even in Cuba information truly does want to be free -- at least in one sense of the word.

Meeting of the Cuban "blogger academy" in 2009

Monday, September 22, 2014

Cuba's sneaker net

Yaima Pardo, 34, in her home in Cuba as she describes her project PaSA
(Paquete Semanal Autnomo), an independent weekly digital-media package for Cuba
A recent article (English or Spanish) describes the black market distribution of music, soap operas, TV programs, movies, magazines, Web sites, etc. on flash drives.

There is a tiered distribution system. A terabyte drive arrives each week in Havana and is replicated for distributors and eventually sold to end users on the street or delivered to homes. While the material is generally sold to the end user, ads are starting to pop up on distributions. The article does not say whether there are competing distribution networks or how material is selected for inclusion. A detailed description of the process would be most interesting.

The distributions contain no political messages or pornography. The article quotes one person as speculating that Cuban authorities might tolerate the weekly “packages.” It is not clear to me whether the master packages are downloaded or brought in on portable drives, but the authorities turning a blind eye would facilitate either means.

The article also describes PaSA (Paquete Semanal Autonomo) a project of film maker Yaima Pardo. Pardo and her colleagues hope to produce an independent, weekly digital-media package that will be open to more controversial content and distributed for free.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blog Bang Cuba: a Cuban blogging documentary

Claudio Peláez Sordo has made a documentary on Cuban blogging for his masters thesis at the University of Havana. It shows interview snippets of specialists and bloggers who access the Internet from school or work accounts controlled by the Cuban government.

The video was posted September 3, but has had only 458 views so far.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cuba has made Chrome available for download -- what has changed?

Google announced yesterday that folks with Cuban IP addresses can now surf to and download a copy of the Chrome browser. That is a small bit of good news, but, what has changed?

While Google could not legally "export" Chrome to Cuba before yesterday, Cubans who want US software have always been able to get it. During an early trip to Cuba, I visited a government storefront in Havana where you could get copies of the latest software releases -- as long as you brought your own floppy disks and, if you wanted a manual, printer paper. Today software circulates on (non-government) flash drives. I don't think this announcement changes anything for the few Cuban users with Internet access.

Did Google change their policy? I doubt it -- they have always wanted people to use Google software and services -- on principle and also to show them ads. In 2011, they made Google Earth, Picasa and Chrome available for download in Iran, saying that some export restrictions had been lifted. The post also says they are:
committed to full compliance with U.S. export controls and sanctions programs and, as a condition of our export licenses from the Treasury Department, we will continue to block IP addresses associated with the Iranian government.
In 2012, they made Chrome extensions available for download in Iran and in 2013 the Google Earth plug-in became available.

In a terse post on the Google policy blog, Pedro Less Andrade, Director of Government Affairs & Public Policy, Latin America, says "we’ve been working to figure out how to make more tools available in sanctioned countries" and I believe him.

I see no reason to believe the Cuban government would have objected to users having Chrome instead of another browser, so that leaves US policy -- has US policy changed? It has obviously changed at least a little bit -- Google would not offer Chrome without a license. If they are taking the piecemeal approach they used in Iran, this is a trivial announcement, but this might signal a more significant shift.

Google's announcement refers to "evolving" trade restrictions -- has the "evolution" sped up? Could this announcement be related to the trip Eric Schmidt made to Cuba last month?

Schmidt was accompanied by Jared Cohen, Google's Director of Ideas, who, before joining Google, was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and served as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton. Google has Washington insiders like Cohen and Schmidt as well as lobbyists, and I'd like to think that making Chrome available is just the start of a major shift in Washington policy -- encouraging any export or service that enhances Cuban communication and connectivity and indemnifying US companies against any claims the Cuban government may have against them. One can even imagine Google or US Satellite Internet companies providing connectivity to Cubans. The Castros might not be too crazy about that idea, but I can dream.

Being able to download Chrome will have no impact on Cuban users, and I do not think either Google or the Castro government had to change policies to allow it. If anything has changed, it is the policy of the US Government -- let's hope this was the tip of the iceberg.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Annual report on Cuban ICT

The Cuban National Statistics Office reports over one million computers and twice as many .CU domain names as the previous year.

The Cuban National Statistics Office has released their 2014 Information and Communication Technology report. Here are the statistics on computers and networks:

They say there are over a million computers in Cuba and about half of them are networked. They report nearly 3 million Internet users, but say nothing of how many of those users have global access. The experience of a Cuban "user" is also much different than that of a "user" in a developed nation -- most access is via shared computers over dial up links. Access is infrequent and too slow to support modern Web sites.

For more discussion of the limitations of these statistics, see the Pervaiveness section of my 2011 report on the State of the Cuban Internet. The data has changed somewhat, but not the interpretation.

The number of .CU domain names doubled in 2013, reflecting a sharp increase in the number of businesses and other organizations using the Internet. This could have been triggered by liberalization of laws allowing private sector business.

The percent of the population with cell phone coverage was unchanged in 2013, indicating either a lack of capital for investment or a lag in the statistical reporting process.

These statistics are gathered by the Communication Ministry and, as with other nations, self-reported to the International Telecommunication Union.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Cuban man-in-the-street view of Alan Gross

Iván García has written a post on Alan Gross in which he gives some insight into the man-in-the-street's view of the case. A kid who lives in a poor neighborhood near the prison hospital where Gross is being held says he has heard the name somewhere. “He’s the gringo who they locked up for spying in Cuba.” That is how the Cuban media characterize the case.

When Ernesto, a man who repairs bicycle and car tires, was told what Gross had actually smuggled into Cuba, he remarked that “they sell all this stuff on Revolico (an on-line site condemned by the government). What was the Yank up to, setting up a spy ring with commercial toys?”

Ernesto understands what we have said previously -- Cuba has greatly exaggerated the impact Gross's equipment would have had had he succeeded. What he doen't know is the amount of money the US spent on a plot that would have had virtually no impact had it succeeded. (There is an indication that the government may have paid up to $6 million for the project and Alan Gross would have cleared $164,889 had he succeeded).

There are no good guys in this story.

Update 8/17/2014

The Huffington Post has an article on the politics of the Alan Gross case. It blames Raul Castro and US politicians for the stalemate.
Under the law when and where they were arrested Alan and the Cuban Five were guilty. The fairness of both trials left much to be desired and the sentences were excessive. The bottom line is that all were witting and willing instruments of anachronistic policies but they have paid an undeserved price because of their governments inflexibility and self-righteousness.

Update 9/5/2014

The Associated Press reports that Fernando Gonzalez, one of the "Cuban 5," is "cautiously optimistic" about a trade of the remaining Cuban prisoners for Alan Gross. That is the good news. The bad news is that his hope is based on things like Hilary Clinton's book and faith in President Obama, nothing concrete. Gonzalez said he thought freeing Gross without freeing his three colleagues "would be very difficult."

For other posts on Gross and what he actually did, click here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Forget politics for a minute -- how about entertainment?

Twenty years ago, while working on a study of the Internet in India, I had a chance to meet Professor M.S. Swaminathan, at his research foundation in Chennai. Our research framework included several facets of the Internet in a nation, including its use in commerce, education, government and health care. Professor Swaminathan pointed out that we were completely overlooking what would be the most important application, entertainment.

This was long before selfies, YouTube, Angry Birds or Netflix existed -- he was on to something that we "serious" academics could not see.

Observers of the Cuban Internet have a tendency to focus on serious applications like political dissent, health care and education, but we should heed Professor Swaminathan's admonition.

I've noted that wired and wireless local area networks are springing up around Cuba, and, evidently the government is trying to crack down on them. But, most people are using these networks for entertainment -- games, posting selfies, watching video, listening to music, etc., not politics.

Cuban entertainment is also found on the Internet. For example, Silvio Rodriguez, singing a traditional song, Ojala, has over 17.5 million hits on YouTube:

and recent song, Ojos Color Sol, sung with the Puerto Rican hip hop duo Calle 13 has had close to 5 million hits.

A young Cuban singer, Kamankola, has used the Internet in a different way, raising over 3,000 € on the Verkami crowdfunding site to produce his debut CD "Antes que lo prohiban."

Maybe we are paying to much attention to the political applications of the Internet and not enough to cultural applications.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A report of cabled local area networks in Cuba

I wrote about WiFi-based local area networks (LANs) a while ago and, according to an article posted on Cubanet, cabled LANs are now proliferating in Cuba.

The article says some LANs use underground cables to avoid detection and others run their cables above high voltage electricity cables. (Wouldn't they have problems with interference if they used cables with standard insulation)?

Cabled LANs are faster and able to accommodate more users than WiFi-based LANs, and, to the extent that the cables were under ground, harder for authorities to detect. (The article sites a case where, 5 months ago, a network was detected and the system administrator was fined 30,000 Cuban pesos).

Typically, users pay 2 convertible pesos or 50 Cuban pesos per month for access, which the article says is less than the going rate for pirated cable TV. (Years ago, people in Havana openly pirated broadcast TV intended for hotels, then they started pirating satellite TV and now LAN TV -- Cubans are natural cord cutters).

The article quotes a 22 year old user who says he can play games, download movies, post comments and upload photos ... "of course, nothing against the government." We heard the same thing about WiFi LANs -- they are being used for games and selfies, not political debate or subversion.

This article is anecdotal -- are any readers using a cabled LAN in Cuba? Are they widespread in and outside of Havana?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Another USAID project in Cuba

The Assoicate Press reports of a now defunct USAID funded program to encourage Cuban dissidents. As with Alan Gross, this program seems to have put naive people in danger, while supporting Creative Associates International, the contractor that organized the project. This and the Alan Gross case remind me of the Washington contracting system, which gave us the broken Obamacare Web site (bad news) and the fresh approach being taken to Internet application development by USDS and 18F (good news).

Ex-office of Creative Associates organization in Havana

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What are Cubans doing with their smart phones?

Necessity is the mother of invention.
Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher, 1973.

When personal computers became availaible, people began developing low-cost medical diagnosis equipment like this PC-based endoscope, which replaced a $30,000 instrument with a PC interfaced to an $800 scope:

Today, smart phones are being used as computers in diagnostic equipment and the savings are even more dramatic, as in this retinal scanner, costing $500, phone included:

What's happening in Cuba?

Cuba is known for the quality and quantity of their doctors, health care system and medical research. Cuba also has many computer scientists and resourceful developers. While Cuba has second-generation cell phone infrastructure, Cubans still have third and fourth-generation smart phones, which they use as cameras and handheld computers.

All that is good news. The bad news is that Cuba does not have a lot of capital for building clinics and purchasing diagnostic equipment.

Cuba sounds like a perfect environment for innovation in medical applications of smart phones. Are Cubans developing and using smartphone-based tools for medical diagnosis and community health? If you know of such examples, please let me know.

More generally, what sorts phone-based applications are Cubans using and developing? No doubt they are taking selfie-photos, listening to music and playing games, but what else are they doing with those pocket-sized computers?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Could Google provide Internet access in Cuba?

The obstacles are political, not technical

Eric Schmidt and other Google executives traveled to Cuba where they met with members of the Internet community and the government. Google is providing Internet access in a few US Cities and is considering others -- might they provide Internet access in Cuba?

Consider the following:
Of course, both governments would have to agree for Google or any other satellite ISP to connect Cubans. I believe that, if the Cuban government would agree, the US would as well.

But, the Cuban government has feared the Internet since the time of their first IP connectivity in 1996. At that time, there was high level debate about the Internet. The hard liners, led by Raúl Castro, argued against the Internet while others argued for a "Chinese" approach of supporting Internet use while censoring content and surveilling users. (It seems Fidel Castro was ambivalent).

The hard liners won in 1996, but what about today? Schmidt reports that a "number of the people" he spoke with said "the eventual model of Cuba would be more like China or Vietnam than of Venezuela or Mexico." If some of those were young government officials, there may be a glimmer of hope.

Update, July 3, 2014

It is noteworthy that Jared Cohen, Google's Director of Ideas, accompanied Schmidt on this trip -- before joining Google, he was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and served as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton.

Update 8/22/2014

MIT Media Lab founder Nichlas Negropont gave a TED talk summrizing his work over the last 30 years. He concludes with his plan for the future -- using stationary satellites to connect the "last billion" -- the poorest, rural people -- to the Internet. (That part of his talk begins at 17:05). He mentions that he has partner in this project -- might it be Google?

Here is what he had to say:
And so my plan, and unfortunately I haven't been able to get my partners at this point to let me announce them, but is to do this with a stationary satellite. There are many reasons that stationary satellites aren't the best things, but there are a lot of reasons why they are, and for two billion dollars, you can connect a lot more than 100 million people, but the reason I picked two, and I will leave this as my last slide, is two billion dollars is what we were spending in Afghanistan every week. So surely if we can connect Africa and the last billion people for numbers like that, we should be doing it.

Update 11/6/2014

I have suggested satellite connectivity as an interim step for Cuba on the way to a modern internet, but, might Google bring a Google Fiber-like project to Havana if it were not for political barriers? They are providing fiber connectivity in Kampala, Uganda -- why not Havana?

But, even if they provided a fiber backbone in Havana, how would the end users in homes and offices be connected? Google may be working on an answer to that as well -- they are experimenting with high-speed, short range wireless connectivity.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

NPR on the Internet in Cuba -- repeating party lines

Josefina Vidal
NPR is in Cuba for a week, and a segment on today's Morning Edition program touched on the Internet. Josefina Vidal, Cuban director of US relations said "one of the reasons" for Cuban's inability to access the Internet was the US embargo blocking access to underwater cables, but she did not elaborate on the other reasons  nor did the interviewer, David Greene, push her and forgot to mention the ALBA-1 cable.

She also denounced USAID efforts like Alan Gross bringing equipment into the country and the more recent revelation of their covert sponsorship of Zunzuneo.

The segment concluded with a USAID official saying "The US will continue to support the Cuban people's ability to communicate with one another."

When Greene suggested that the Castro administration was using the embargo as an excuse for their poor economy, Vidal challenged the US to drop it and see what happened.

I wish Greene had challenged her to allow Cubans to have satellite Internet accounts -- I'd like to see what would happen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

ETECSA will provide service to non-agricultural coops

ETECSA has been authorized to provide Internet service for Cuba's 245 non-agricultural cooperatives.

The access will be restricted to the cooperative's location and will be dial-up only in order to stop them from reselling access. They will pay the same rate as state entities.

For background on the cooperatives and their importance see these posts.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Cuba's WiFi crackdown -- substance or theater?

The New Republic blog reported on a crackdown on a 120-user WiFi network in Havana on May 26 and the Miami Herald reported on that crackdown and three others, one of which had 400 users.

When one hears of a "120-400 user network," one might imagine 120-400 simultaneous users downloading files, posting social media content, communicating with each other and, even, maybe, accessing the Internet. But that is unrealistic.

The articles report that these were WiFi mesh networks. I worked on two WiFi mesh networks around ten years ago and in spite of having fast backhaul to the Internet (by Cuban standards) they were limited in physical range, speed and the ability to serve many simultaneous users. (For more on these networks in the figures at the end of this post).

So, ten years ago, router overhead and link bandwidth severely limited WiFi mesh networks. But, what about today's improved equipment, as used in Cuba? The articles mentioned above say the networks used Ubiquity Nanostation M2 outdoor routers, shown here:

These are much faster and have better antennas and radios than we had ten years ago, but they are WiFi devices, designed for local area networks. I have no experience with the Nanostation M2, but I checked the "most helpful" five-star review on Amazon. The review was written by an installer, who states that "One customer uses them for a bridge covering 300' line of sight ... and gets 150 Mbps throughput, which is fantastic." That is better than the equipment we used ten years ago, but it does not sound like a link in a network in which multiple users are simultaneously downloading the latest episode of their favorite TV show from a PC server or surfing the Web (Cuban or World Wide).

I suspect, though do not know, that the routers are running Commotion, a mesh networking program developed by the New America Foundation with funding from USAID. They have piloted networks in a number of cities but I am not familiar with any reports giving performance and capcity data. If you have used a WiFi mesh network in Cuba, I would love to hear about your experience.

Given the limitations of WiFi and the need to keep antennas out of site, I suspect that Cuban WiFi networks are primarily serving and being used by tech enthusiasts -- like our pre-Internet dial-up bulletin boards. These networks would have a hard time competing with shared flash drives for distributing music, video and software and they do not offer a practical, sharable path to the Internet or the Cuban intranet -- they do not seem to me to pose a political threat.

(We can imagine future mesh networks using very fast cell phones with smart, non-WiFi radios as posing a political threat -- see this speculative paper on a mesh network in North Korea).

If I am correct, why did the government bother to shut these networks down and why is the enforcement somewhat sporadic?

Cracking down on these networks is reminiscent of, though less tragic than, the Alan Gross case in that the government is overstating their threat. Had Alan Gross succeeded, it would have meant little, and, if my speculation about the performance of these mesh networks is accurate, they too have little political or practical importance.

Enforcement also seems to be selective. Several networks were closed down, but people openly advertise WiFi equipment and weekly packets of entertainment and software for sale on the Revolico Web site, for example:

They may have stopped these networks as a PR/propaganda measure -- for internal and external consumption. Perhaps it is just a general slap to intimidate people who are uncertain as to what the rules and regulations really are -- to let them know who is boss. Another possibility is that these networks might be seen as a threat to ETECSA's revenue. It does not seem like much today, but one could imagine mesh networks as one day impacting ETECSA's bottom line.

It seems that issue of WiFi networks was included as part of a discussion at a forum in Havana earlier this week. Were you there?

Update June 24, 2014

I have had off-the-record conversations about these WiFi hotspots with people in Cuba since writing this post. They say there are many such networks -- possibly in every large or medium size city in Cuba -- and the networks are not political. There are unwritten rules against political discussion and a member could be banned for breaking them. They say the major uses are sharing programs, songs and videos and playing games.

This tends to confirm my suspicion that these are more like hobbyist bulletin boards than a political threat and still leaves me speculating about the motive is for closing some of them.

Two WiFi mesh networks -- ten years ago

This university housing network was a class project connecting 22 small apartment buildings to 100 Mbps backhaul links (in the red buildings). The three buildings on the lower left were unable to connect to the backhaul points, so we installed a two-hop mesh to extend the network to them. The addition of a single hop added significant latency and we could not have realistically gone further. 

Around the same time, I worked on a public-access WiFi mesh network with a radius of around 2,000 feed for laptops with external antennas in downtown Hermosa Beach, California. The meshed computers shared a 6 Mbps backhaul link, as shown here, the traffic was spiky, but spikes saturated this link at times.

Update 11/21/2014

A friend forwarded me a link to a story on another crackdown on a Cuban WiFi network. Five men were arrested and their equipment confiscated.

As we see above, this and similar networks do not pose a political threat and, indeed, the charges against the five were not political, but economic -- the arrests were the result of a complaint by Cuban State Radio and the men were charged with illegal economic activity.

This sounds like a desire to protect an economic monopoly and it reminds me of the efforts of Internet service providers in the United States lobbying for state laws that prohibit local governments from offering broadband service.

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, has said he would seek to invalidate those laws. Perhaps small WiFi networks like this (and "sneaker nets") should be considered legitimate small businesses and encouraged as part of the Cuban Small Business Initiative.