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.

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 coopratives

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Iván García's description of the Cuban "computer rooms" -- a success in spite of everything

The internet arouses affection and fear.

Iván García has posted a great description of the Cuban "computer rooms". (As he notes, there is no good English translation for "salas de navegación").

Here are a few random quotes:
  • On average, each internet room has received 7,600 customers a month in the first 12 months. Some 250 internet users a day. 25 an hour: the internet premises are open 10 and a half hours every day of the week, from 8:30 am to 7 pm.
  • Of the blogs or webs originating in Cuba, like Primavera Digital, out of every 100 people consulted, only 9% said they copy the contents onto a pendrive to read later at home.
  • A technician tells me that, right now, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) has a fleet of vehicles equipped to detect illegal internet signals and cable satellite channels.
  • The connection speed can’t be compared with what you find in other countries: between 512 Kb and 2 Mb.
  • For those who like to read the international media, the favourites are the BBC, El Pais and the Financial Times. Of the Cuban pages, the most visited are Diario de Cuba and Havana Times, and, of the Miami newspapers, El Nuevo Herald and Diario de las Américas.
I better stop before I copy the entire post -- go read it for yourself.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yoani Sánchez' digital newspaper, 14ymedio, is online

The daily Web newspaper 14ymedio looks like a fully traditional digital "newspaper" with news, sports, culture, opinion, fashion tips, weather, etc.

The 14ymedio "declaration of intentions" says the team is committed to promoting truth, freedom and human rights, without ideological or partisan ties -- they hope to provide a space for respectful debate and to contribute to the peaceful transition to democracy. A group of 28 writers and intellectuals, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Lech Walesa, signed a request that the Cuban government respect 14ymedio and allow it to exist with free expression.

Evidently some pro-government people were not happy with the launch of 14ymedio -- the Cuban domain name server was hacked, and Cubans looking for 14ymedio.com were automatically redirected to a pro-government Web site. Doug Madory of Renesys reported that the hack was local to Cuba and the site was visible in foreign nations. Madory speculated that the hack had been done by someone inside ETECSA.

Today, relatively few people on the island can afford to access 14ymedio online, but stripped down PDF and text versions are available. For the first issue, they were quite minimal -- hopefully they will improve -- becoming something like the daily New York Times Digest. It could also be included on flash drives that are regularly distributed on the island. Regardless, I hope the hack was a rogue action and the paper turns out to be the impartial forum envisioned by the founders.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mobile email demand disrupts cellular service, but ETECSA is growing

Last week we reported on "growing pains" for mobile email as reported in Granma, but a new Washington Post (AP) story elaborates upon the problems. They report that the new mobile email service has performed poorly and also disrupted the regular voice call and text message service. (the story in Spanish here).

The report presents several anecdotes along with discussion of the high price of mobile service and ETECSA's business. Most interesting was a statement by Emilio Morales of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group that 54 percent of mobile payments to ETECSA come from the Cuban diaspora, mostly in the US, and that a new class of roughly 400,000 independent businessmen and their employees make heavy use of cellphones for advertising with text-message as well as ordinary business calls. It seems that in spite of growing pains, ETECSA is a growing source of hard currency.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yoani Sánchez' digital newspaper 14ymedio

In a recent post on a different blog, I pointed out that the Internet "crowd" had quickly ruined the reputation of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling but that visibility on the Internet gave Yoani Sánchez cover to speak harshly and eloquently against Raúl Castro -- "a man alone in the crowd."

Sánchez, her husband and a staff will begin publication of their digital newspaper, 14ymedio, next week -- a further sign of her growing confidence in speaking out.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Growing pains for mobile email

Granma reports that demand for nauta.cu email from mobile phones (100.000 new users) has led to congestion on the cellular network of "over 500" base stations, so ETECSA is expanding the network. They will add 80 new base stations -- 15 are already online.

Congestion is not the only problem they are facing. It seems many of the phones ETECSA sells do not support GPRS and ETECSA support staff are not trained to cope with the variety of phones people have.

I don't doubt that they will correct these problems, but we are still talking about 3G service in limited geographic areas. As I've suggested earlier, upgrading to modern infrastructure would require significant investment and perhaps legalizing satellite access could bridge the gap.

(Thanks to Doug Madory for the tip).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Windows XP lives on in Cuba

Isbel Diaz Torres reports that, in spite of Microsoft stopping support last week, Windows XP "refuses to go" in Cuba.

Evidently, XP remains the most common operating system in Cuba. Torres notes that Windows 7 and 8 have been slow to catch on because of memory requirements, quipping that "at this very second, someone may be setting up a 486 and installing Windows 95 in it on the island."

The article describes efforts by the government and UCI to move people toward open source software, but it seems that Linux is not widely used.

This article reminded me of an earlier post on the cost of obsolete technology in Cuba.

It also reminded me of a recent post by Yoani Sánchez on essential iOS applications. One would expect her to be talking about essential Android applications -- are there more iPhones than Android phones in Cuba?

I don't expect that folks in Cuba were getting patches and upgrades to their XP installations, so the cessation of support is not big news there.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Alan Gross declares a hunger strike

I was saddened to read that Alan Gross will go on a hunger strike as a protest against both the governments of the U. S. and Cuba over his incarceration.

I wonder if the USAID policy makers considered the effect it might have on Alan Gross if further covert programs were run in Cuba when they were planning and funding the establishment of ZunZuneo?

I also wonder whether the Cuban government will tighten its hold on Gross in retaliation for the ZunZuneo revelation.

Gross is already in poor health, and, a little over a year ago said
I currently weigh 144 pounds. I am 5 feet, 11 inches tall. When I was arrested, my weight was approximately 254 pounds.
He summed up the reason for the hunger strike as follows:
I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.
For more details on the case and what Gross did, see these posts.

Update 4/11/2014

Several sources have reported that Alan Gross ended his hunger strike at the urging of his family and friends.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

USAID funded ZunZuneo

The Associated Press reports that Cuba's ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like service based on text messages, was fincanced by USAID. (Twitter was also initially based on texting).

USAID also financed the work of Alan Gross.

Was this deception illegal -- in Cuba or the US? Was it imorral?

More later, but you can read the AP report here:

and watch CBS News video coverage here.
Update 4/3/2014

I only wrote a quick note this morning and had to do other things, but I want to add some thoughts on this revelation.

This is the third effort I know of by the USAID to facilitate Internet communication in Cuba. First and best known is Alan Gross' attempt to bring in satellite equipment. The next try was also a satellite connectivity project, but no one was arrested so it attracted less attention.

Like everything else in Cuba, opinions on this are sharply divided. For example:

Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee said "USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished." I imagine Fidel agrees with him.

But Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commended the effort saying "The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies."

There is no black-white truth. I share Senator Menendez' strong belief in the free flow of information. I also understand Senator Chaffetz' point that the effort makes us look underhanded and dishonest, undermining our credibility.

On balance, I have no problem with the effort to facilitate communication with and among Cubans and, if this goal were to be achieved, the program had to be covert.

I do; however, have a problem with the fact that our goal was not simply to provide a communication channel, but we also monitored that channel in an effort to collect data on the Cubans using the system. We wanted to know who used the system and what their political views were. I wonder where those electronic profiles are now and who has access to them.

It would have been easier to support an effort to enhance communication then step away and let the people use it as they wished -- for or against the government or for talking about rock bands -- like Twitter.

I also believe that this program made more sense than the satellite communication efforts mentioned above. Even if they had succeeded, they would have had little impact at great cost. We wasted our money and Fidel got a propaganda prize. (That being said, a large, government sanctioned satellite program would be an effective interim step toward modern Internet connectivity in Cuba).

One thing is for sure -- this "outing" will be politicized in the U. S. and Cuba -- the Republicans and Fidel will jump on it.
Update 4/4/2014

I did a short interview on BBC Radio yesterday. My interview was preceded by a 30-second introduction by the host, Tom Green, and a 30-second statement by White House press secretary Jay Carney in which he said "USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong."

If this was not a covert action, why the front companies and where was it publicized? And, if it was a development program rather than an intelligence program, why was it discontinued?

You can hear the entire BBC segment (5m 35s) here.

You can see a longer statement by Carney, in which he says "It is neither covert nor an intelligence programme," here.
Update 4/7/2014

An excellent article by Anne Nelson puts ZunZuneo in context and gives reasons why it was a "terrible idea."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Cuban National Assembly has approved a new law designed to attract foreign investment. This BBC report summarizes the changes in policy and this Reuters article is a bit more skeptical, giving examples of problems encountered by previous investors. (The law was passed unanimously -- compare that to proceedings in the US Congress -- the Cuban approach does have some advantages :-).

What does this mean for the Internet, if anything? Cuba bought out Telecom Italia's interest in ETECSA in 2011, but the government does not seem to have anywhere near the capital necessary to build modern Internet infrastructure. Might ETECSA be open to new foreign investment?

Today, ETECSA, is jointly owned by Rafin, S. A. and the Ministry of Information and Communication. I do not understand Rafin or their relationship to ETECSA, but they are not a foreign investor. It is hard to imagine a foreign investor willing to partner with both the government and Rafin in view of the government's ambivalence about freedom of communication.

I've proposed investment in low cost satellite connectivity, which could be afforded by the Cuban government, perhaps partnering with a US satellite partner, but that is a no-go if the government fears open communication more than it values its economic and social payoff. (I've been led to believe -- off the record -- that such a deal would be approved in the US).

I will be surprised if this change in foreign investment policy has any impact on the Internet, but you never know.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Five Cuban projects are among the nominees for WSIS Project Prizes

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) convened international meetings to work toward a global information society. The WSIS Project Prizes contest provides a platform to identify and showcase success stories and models that could be easily replicated; empower communities at the local level; give a chance to all stakeholders working on WSIS to participate in the contest, and particularly recognize the efforts of stakeholders for their added value to the society and commitment towards achieving WSIS goals.

You can learn cast your vote here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Yoani Sánchez's first impression of nauta.cu email

Yoani has written a post on her experience in signing up for and using mobile email.

The Cubacel clerk warned her that the account was not configured for email, and, when Yoani said she could to it, the clerk asked for help. The clerk also told her the traffic was not routed over the ALBA-1 cable.

Yoani subscribed to a number of email lists, which worked well, and says emailing a photo to a service like Flickr is much cheaper than MMS was. She succeeded in exchanging email with folks in Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey and Matanzas as well as Havana.

Of course, she is not naive -- "every word written, every name referenced, every opinion sent via Nauta, could end up in State Security’s archives."

The service she describes is far from what most of us take for granted, but it is a step in the right direction.

(Think what they could do if they would allow satellite connectivity).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cuban home connectivity prices leaked (with a tidbit at the end of the post)

Diario de Cuba reported that Etecsa will begin selling home Internet connectivity in September. Prime time prices will be:

The night time price (8PM - 7AM) will be 20 CUC for 90 hours, with a charge of 20 convertible centavos per hour after the limit is exceeded.

Access to the Cuban intranet will cost less, but they did not give prices.

They reported that ADSL service will be available in some areas, but said nothing about where. My guess is that most users will be restricted to dial up connections. It also remains to be seen which, if any, Web sites will be blocked.

At these prices, there will be a lot of overhead slack for home owners to sign up for a plan then resell access to others.

Here is the interesting tidbit:

The post shifts topics near the end, with a brief undersea cable discussion, saying that an unnamed ETECSA official said that the US Government had approved an $18 million proposal for an undersea cable connection between Florida and Cuba in 2010. Cuba opted instead for the $70 million ALBA-1 cable.

Has the US approval been documented? If Cuba did in fact turn it down in favor of ALBA-1 (or both), one cannot help suspecting corruption.

Update 3/9/2014

Etecsa has announced yet another expensive service, mobile intranet email for 1 CUC per megabyte sent or received.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Is the U. S. blocking Cuban Internet access?

In a recent post, I looked into the charge that Coursera had blocked access to their educational material at the request of the U. S. Government. Subsequently, Cartas Desde Cuba charged that the US Government had ordered satellite ISPs to block access to Cuban accounts.

I followed up on these and this is what I found:

The U. S. Treasury Department denies asking satellite ISPs to block access to customers in Cuba and Cartas Desde Cuba did not reply to my email asking for the source of their report. That leaves me with no reason to believe the charge that satellite ISPs were told to cut off Cuban accounts.

Coursera is one of three prominent U. S. sources of massive, online educational material. I followed up with the other two, edX and Uacity, to see if they had been told to block access to their material:

EdX: They applied for a Treasury Department license without being asked to and it was granted (after seven months).

Udacity: Google serves their material, and as far as they know, it is not blocked. I asked Google, but they did not reply. (Google never replies to me).

Coursera: They were asked by the Treasury Department to block access, but they are seeking a license to serve blocked nations.

Overall, the Treasury Department seems willing to grant these licenses (as with edX), but evidently wants to review each case (as with Coursera). Either way, the process takes a long time. Furthermore, how many organizations unilaterally censor themselves in order to avoid problems? This feels more like bureaucratic rust than an intentional policy, but blocking or delaying access to free educational material is a bad idea -- they should clarify the policy.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How does one post material on the Cuban "sneaker net?"

Warhol P has written a Havana Times post on the Cuban "sneaker net" -- the circulation of movies, TV shows, software, etc. on flash and hard disk drives.

He reports prices of 50 Cuban Pesos (around $2) for 80 to 500 gigabytes of material and 10 Cuban Pesos for 8 to 16 gigabytes. (These days one can get 64GB USB-2 flash drives for under $30 and 128 GB drives for under $50).

Warhol P says home delivery service is available and some consumers go to the home of the supplier to put together a package in accordance with their preferences. Other suppliers rent out hard drives for three to four days for a little over 4.00 Cuban Convertible Pesos (around $4).

But I have a question -- how does one gain access to the sneaker net? For example, I have developed some Spanish language tech teaching material for young people. It is under Creative Commons license and I'd be happy to see it distributed in Cuba. I'd also like to see the Khan Academy teaching material distributed in Cuba using KA Lite, a packaging of the Khan Academy content for use off line.

Are the sneaker net distributions put together in the US? Are they pretty much only entertainment and software or are they open to other types of material? Is there a way to submit material for inclusion?

Cuban mobile Internet prices

Cuban authorities have announced that mobile Internet services will be available on the island soon at a maximum rate of 1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) per megabyte of data transferred. (1 CUC = 1.14 USD).

As far as I know, they have said nothing about the technology (3G or 4G?) or the locations in which it will be available.

But, they did announce the cost, and in case you imagined Cubans streaming Netflix movies or Pandora songs to their mobile phones. let's look at the cost of doing so at the published rate:

These are Apple's conservative file size estimates.

(Lest you consider the Cuban costs outrageous, consider that, if Apple had charged the same rate for song downloads as your friendly US phone company was charging for text message bits a few years ago, a song would have cost you $5,486).

Mobile Internet access at these prices are well beyond the means of ordinary Cubans even if they only do a little Web browsing and email. In the past, the Cuban government has justified high Internet prices by saying they were needed to ration scarce international satellite bandwidth, but, now that the ALBA 1 undersea cable is operating, what is the justification for these prices?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venezuela cracks down on the Internet

The tension between the benefits of the Internet and it's power as a political communication tool has been with us since the early days of the Internet. When the Internet came to Cuba, the government debated this Dictator's Dilemma and decided to limit and monitor access. The Venezuelan government took a more liberal stance and, today, the Internet is more advanced and ubiquitous there than in in Cuba.

The current political protests have led the Venezuelan government to crack down on the Internet -- see these posts from the Electronic Froteir Foundation, the Associated Press and Aljazeera America.

Perhaps President Maduro wishes Venezuela had adopted the Cuban policy. How, if at all, does this affect Cuba?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cuban mobile access prices

Cubansocial gives us a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the monthly cost of mobile Internet activity in Cuba. The estimate for email and a bit of Web browsing is 2-300 megabytes per month. That would cost 1,000 to 1,500 CUC if one paid the following "maximum" rates rates.

Who pays less than the maximum rate? Who uses mobile Internet?

Note the WAP tarif -- a reminder that Cuba is not using current technology.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Bit-l list server

This is an unusual post -- it is an email message from the Bit-l list server, which has been edited by Ing. Jorge Espresate X. since the very early days of the Internet in Cuba.
As you see, it is a system for retrieving articles by sending an email message. I am posting it now, because email-based retrieval systems were shown at the Hackathon for Cuba last weekend in Miami.
BIT-L is a terrific service, but its limitations are testimony to the price Cubans have paid for their antiquated Internet.
Here is the Bit-l subscriber information and current article list:

Envíe los mensajes para la lista Bit-l a

Para subscribirse o anular su subscripción a través de la WEB

O por correo electrónico, enviando un mensaje con el texto "help" en
el asunto (subject) o en el cuerpo a:

Puede contactar con el responsable de la lista escribiendo a:

Si responde a algún contenido de este mensaje, por favor, edite la
linea del asunto (subject) para que el texto sea mas especifico que:
"Re: Contents of Bit-l digest...". Además, por favor, incluya en la
respuesta sólo aquellas partes del mensaje a las que está

Asuntos del día:

   1. Nuevos BITs, 4376 a 4380 (jespres@infomed.sld.cu)


Message: 1
Date: Sun, 02 Feb 2014 22:24:03 +0100
From: jespres@infomed.sld.cu
To: bit-l@listas.sld.cu
Subject: [Bit-l] Nuevos BITs, 4376 a 4380
Message-ID: <52EEC583.1413.1AB96E@jespres.infomed.sld.cu>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII

La Habana, CUBA, 


Estimad@s suscriptor@s y amig@s:


Los que utilizan Outlook Express en alguna de
las variantes de Windows deben leer este mensaje
hasta el final... les ayuda.

BIT-4376    2014/02/03 (3 pags.)
 por Arnaldo Coro A.
 de GiGA, No. 2 - 2013
BIT-4377 -- 2014/02/04 (4 pags. y figs.)
 (pide las figuras a: jespres@... )
 PC World, Especial, No. 4
BIT-4378 -- 2014/02/05 (5 pags.)
 por Benoit Breville y Pierre Rimbert
 de Le Monde Diplomatique No. 218, 12/2013
BIT-4379 -- 2014/02/06 (6 pags. y figs.)
 (pide las figuras a: jespres@... )
 por Alberto Castro G.
           de PC Actual, No. 255 
BIT-4380 -- 2014/02/07 (3 pags.)
 por Alain Karioty
 de BYTE TI, No. 212 Ene/2014
los BITs donde se anuncian figuras o tablas, cuando te interese 
verlas, debes pedirlas con un mensaje a: jespres@infomed.sld.cu
indicando siempre el numero del BIT donde se anuncian 

Recuerden que la lista de suscriptores ya estA en Mailman y para 
suscribirse o borrarse de la lista, hay que entrar a:


o puedes pedirla directamente a: jespres@infomed.sld.cu 

Los BITs tienen que pediros a: 



Son Boletines tecleados en Courier New 12 ptos. convertidos 
a ASCII sin compactar ni codificar y con acentos y otras 
peculiaridades del espanol, con la letra correspondiente y 
el signo ~. (a~, e~, n~... etc.) 

Para recuperar todos los BITs o el que te interese, debes 
enviar un mensaje escrito en ASCII a: 

To: listproc@listas.sld.cu

dejando el asunto en blanco o lo que es lo mismo, en el
Subject: no pongas nada 

y en el cuerpo del mensaje (donde este se escribe) con 
letras minusculas empezando a partir de la esquina superior 
izquierda de la pantalla y poniendo una solicitud en cada 
linea. tampoco le pongan firma a su mensaje.

Si hacen copia y pega, el mensaje puede ser:
get bit bit-4376
get bit bit-4377
get bit bit-4378  
get bit bit-4379
get bit bit-4380

(si quieres recuperar todos los BITs de este anuncio).

(si quieres saber que se ha publicado en los BITs
sobre eu tema que te interese, p.ej. "memoria") en otra linea pones

search bit "memoria" [YA FUNCIONA]

(si quieres recibir el indice de todos los BITs publicados)

index bit [NO FUNCIONA]

y finalmente


y lo 
<e>nvias> o <s>end>, y recuerda... sin firma.


Para los suscriptores que utilizan el software OUTLOOK 
EXPRESS que han de ser muchos...

debes tener presente que este software de manera predeterminada 
envia los mensajes en formato HTML y el Listproc de listas no los 
entiende y te los devuelve.
Siempre, antes de enviar un mensaje al listproc de listas, con 
el Outlook, debes entrar al menu FORMATO de la ventana MENSAJE 
de ese software y marcar la opcion: TEXTO SIN FORMATO o PLAIN 
TEXT... al utilizar esta opcion, el mensaje que vas a enviar, 
se escribe en ASCII y asi, no tendras problemas para recuperar 
los BITs, los search o el index que te interese!!!  

Recuerden que si no les llega el aviso con el anuncio de los 
nuevos BITs deben enviar un mensaje a: jespres@infomed.sld.cu

        chirrin chirran... ya se acabo!!!

        hasta la semana que viene...!!!

Suscribete a BIT... es gratuito! y... te actualizas! 
Avisale a tus amigos que estudian o trabajan la Informatica

Ing. Jorge Espresate X.
Editor de BIT
Boletin Gratuito
Moderador bit-l
e-correo: jespres@infomed.sld.cu      


Este mensaje le ha llegado mediante el servicio de correo electronico que ofrece Infomed para respaldar el cumplimiento de las misiones del Sistema Nacional de Salud. La persona que envia este correo asume el compromiso de usar el servicio a tales fines y cumplir con las regulaciones establecidas

Infomed: http://www.sld.cu/


Subject: Pié de página del digest

Bit-l mailing list


Fin de Resumen de Bit-l, Vol 119, Envío 1

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coursera courses blocked in Cuba (by the US!)

I just got an email from reader and contributor Doug Madory with the subject "Coursera blocked in Cuba."

My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material -- maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?

But, following the link Doug sent, I discovered that Coursera has been blocked by the U. S. because they were violating export control regulations prohibiting U.S. businesses from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. 

I try to keep my political opinions off this blog, but that is brain damaged.

Coursera says they are "working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control to secure permissions to reinstate site access for students in sanctioned countries."

I realize that few people in Cuba can access Coursera classes, but even as a largely symbolic gesture, that is a no-brainer.

Update 2/5/2014

I have followed up on this story in an attempt to determine whether the U. S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ordered Coursera to block access to Cuba (and other nations -- Iran. North Korea, Libya and Sudan) or the company blocked access unilaterally in order to avoid possible problems.

Reader Alam Brito pointed out that the Google Code and SourceForge sites were also blocked. (Follow the links in the previous sentence to see their statements on the issue).

I've attempted to contact each of these companies to learn whether the government ordered them to block Cuba and the others. Here is what I have learned so far:
  • Coursera says they were told to block their site by both OFAC and the State Department.
  • SourceForge had promised to get back to me.
  • Google has not answered emails or phone calls.
I also contacted OFAC.  They said they could not comment on specific cases, but sent a copy of the following policy statement:
  • OFAC administers various sanctions programs, including programs that generally prohibit the exportation and re-exportation of goods, services, and technology by U.S. persons and entities to persons located in or ordinarily resident in Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Cuba.
  • For the purpose of these sanctions programs, the prohibition on exportation of services by U.S. persons would apply to the provision of online courses and issuance of certificates of mastery upon completion of an online course to persons located in or ordinarily resident in sanctioned countries, unless specifically or generally licensed.
  • While we will not comment on specific licenses, generally speaking, OFAC has a long history of licensing U.S. academic and educational institutions to engage in exchange programs in third countries as well as to provide certain in-country and online academic and educational training programs in the past.
  • Some programs, such as the Syria sanctions, contain a general license by which U.S. persons and entities are generally authorized to export educational services to persons located in Syria without the need for a specific license from OFAC.
  • Where not authorized by a general license or subject to a specific licensing policy set forth in our regulations, OFAC has a favorable licensing policy to authorize U.S. persons to engage in certain targeted educational, cultural and sports exchange programs, as well as research and humanitarian projects that are designed to benefit people in sanctioned countries. Of course, under a favorable licensing policy, U.S. persons need to come in and seek a license - without that, we cannot act.
  • OFAC, in consultation with the State Department will continue to consider requests by U.S. persons to engage in activities to provide online courses and certificates of mastery to persons located in or ordinarily resident in sanctioned countries.
The fifth bullet point sounds rather positive, but Coursera's optional fee for a certificate of completion might be a sticking point.

OFAC also suggested that I contact edX, which, like Coursera, provides online classes. An edX spokesman said they had never blocked their site, but had requested an OFAC license to allow access in the embargoed nations. The application process took seven months, but the license was granted and they remained open.

So far, it sounds like OFAC is open, but wants to consider each case separately, so requires a license application. I may be wrong, and will hopefully hear more from the blocked companies.

While edX succeeded in obtaining a license, the delay and effort seem inappropriate and the policy is vague enough to discourage potential service providers -- self-censorship by confusion. OFAC should streamline the license application process, but, more important, should clarify their regulations so companies like edX and Coursera could avoid the process entirely.

Stay tuned for feedback from the other companies.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

ETECSA plans to offer Mobile Internet access and email

A brief post on CubaDebate says ETECSA will be offering mobile Internet access this summer.

But, there are no details. Where will the new service be available? What will it cost? What technology will it use?

ETECA attributes this modernization and extension of service to increased foreign exchange.  (They also reduced calling and texting rates recently -- I assume that is payments for service, not investment).

Does anyone know more about this planned offering?

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Hackathon for Cuba -- in Miami, not Havana

There will be a two day Hackathon for Cuba in Miami starting with a reception the evening of January 31 and getting down to work on February first. (The event is organized by the Miami Beach-based nonprofit Roots of Hope and with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and they hope to repeat it in New York and San Francisco.)

The Hackathon goal is to develop prototype programs that are well suited to Cuba -- software for a nation with slow, expensive wire-line connectivity and second generation cell phone infrastructure.

For example, there are smart phones in Cuba. They cannot be used for modern Internet access, but they can be used as stand-alone computers, perhaps connected to external peripherals. The Hackathon might produce some innovative stand alone applications for smartphones.

We might also see applications tailored to Cuba'a slow, $5 per hour Internet connectivity -- for example, programs to facilitate creating and replying to email or other messages offline and uploading and downloading them in compressed batches.

Regardless, since necessity is the mother of invention, we can hope for innovations that would be useful in Cuba or any other nation with poor Internet infrastructure. We might even see some novel solutions for busy executives travelling in "airplane mode."

I have argued in other posts, for example here and here, that the Cuban government's limited access policy is causing missed opportunities. (Cuban leaders understood this cost long ago).

The Hackathon for Cuba is a good thing, but I wish it were in Havana rather than Miami.
Update 1/31/2014

The Washington Post has an article on the Hackathon.


Update 2/4/2014

You can read the Hackathon coverage by the Miami Herald and WLRN TV.

The ground rules were that all entries had to be legal in both the US and Cuba, which led to the disqualification of a satellite-based entry.

The winners were email-based systems to use Twitter and to retrieve material from Wikipedia and the Web and a WiFi access point built around a Raspberry Pi.

Those email-based systems are a throwback to the earliest days of the Internet. One of the oldest, continuously operated email retrieval services is Bit-l, which has been run by Ing. Jorge Espresate X. at Infomed in Cuba for many years.

The good news from the Hackathon is that it has produced some interesting ideas. The bad news is that they are for tecnology that is obsolete in most of the world -- another indication of the price Cuba has paid for its antiquated Internet.


Update 2/8/2014

Christina, from Choose Digital, participated in the Hackathon and gives her impression and describes her app in this blog post.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Yoani Sánchez lists the ten most popular Android apps in Cuba

Cubans can't use their smartphones as high-speed Internet access devices, but they are using them as small computers -- accessing local databases, running office-like apps, editing photos, etc.

Yoani Sánchez has compliled a list ot the ten most popular Android apps in Cuba.

In a couple of years, we may all be docking our smartphones and using them as desktop computers when we are at home or work. Necesity is the mother of invention -- might we use Cuban apps when that time comes? What sort of apps will be be able to run on a fast 64-bit "phone" with 8GB or more memory?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Un método Cubano para lograr conectividad a internet

(Versión Inglés)

La infraestructura doméstica de conexión a internet en Cuba es una de las peores del mundo, y sus posibilidades de mejoría son ínfimas a causa del embargo de E.U, las políticas de control de acceso y de limitaciones al acceso, el poder de ETECSA, la falta de una base de técnicos y usuarios entrenados y en alta demanda, y la falta de capital. ¿Podría eliminarse de alguna manera estos obstáculos?

El embargo va a ser derogado eventualmente, y hay signos de que podría ser relativamente pronto. Mientras tanto, China y otros países están dispuestos a vender y negociar con Cuba.

Las políticas de control gubernamentales podrían cambiar. Cuando Cuba se unió a internet por primera vez, hubo un debate de alto nivel sobre “el dilema del dictador” - la percepción de internet como una amenaza política y cultural contra su potencial de mejorar la vida de las personas y la economía. Se tomó entonces la decisión de controlar internet y el acceso al mismo - pero esta situación no está tallada en piedra, podría revertirse.

¿Y sobre ETECSA? ¿Existe acaso alguna nación en la que el proveedor de telecomunicaciones (sea propiedad del gobierno o privado) no actúe en interés propio a detrimento de la población y la economía? Sospecho que la respuesta es “no”. No conozco a la administración actual de ETECSA, pero me sorprendería que fuera diferente al resto.

ETECSA pertenece conjuntamente al Ministerio de Informática y Comunicaciones y a la empresa RAFIN, SA. El Ministerio lógicamente es parte del gobierno y se somete a su voluntad política -pero las políticas y los líderes pueden cambiar-.

RAFIN es un asunto diferente. No sé cuál es su rol en la administración de ETECSA. Ni siquiera comprendo el rol de una S.A en una nación socialista. ¿Dónde obtuvieron el capital para comprar la parte de ETECSA que pertenecía a Telecom Italia? ¿Quiénes son los accionistas e inversores? ¿Comparten ellos las ganancias y pérdidas de ETECSA? ¿Obtienen un puesto en el consejo de administración -una voz en las decisiones ejecutivas y de políticas a aplicar-? Necesito ayuda de un economista en esta parte.

Una base de técnicos y usuarios entrenados llegará una vez que la conectividad sea útil, globalmente disponible, y abordable -llegara como consecuencia, no como requerimiento, para una internet moderna-.

Nos queda entonces la falta de capital. China jugó un papel activo en el financiamiento e instalación del cable submarino ALBA-1, y en ese entonces especulé que a lo mejor harian una inversión en la infraestructura doméstica, pero esto hasta el momento no ha sucedido.

La sabiduría convencional del Banco Mundial o de la Unión Internacional de Telecomunicaciones es que el camino para lograr el capital necesario para la conectividad es privatizar la industria de las telecomunicaciones y de los proveedores de servicios de internet (ISP), e invitar entonces a inversores extranjeros a construir la infraestructura y competir hasta cierto nivel mientras son controlados por una agencia reguladora – Privatización, Regulación y Competencia (PCR).

Raúl Castro anunció que el gobierno está trabajando en una nueva política de inversión extranjera, lo cual es de singular importancia para estimular el desarrollo económico y social del país. La ley se espera que esté aprobada en Marzo próximo. Falta ver si la nueva ley y la supuesta demanda atraerá o no a inversionistas mayores, pero incluso si sucediera, hay un problema con la estrategia PCR – no funciona bien.

Muchas naciones en desarrollo optaron por la estrategia PCR entre 1991 y 2008:

En el año 2009, observé los datos y concluí que "PCR tuvo un impacto pequeño sobre Internet durante los últimos diez años en naciones desarrolladas o en desarrollo." No he actualizado el artículo con datos consecutivos, pero nuestra experiencia en E.U muestra que la propiedad privada sobre los servicios de telecomunicaciones no garantiza la competencia, la eficiencia y el buen servicio, a pesar de las buenas intenciones de los reguladores y del congreso.

Necesitamos una solución Cubana.

Seria genial si Cuba pudiera permitirse comprar una infraestructura moderna de telecomunicaciones, con fibra óptica hasta las edificaciones y retroalimentación (backhaul) para comunicaciones móviles LTE (siglas en inglés para “evolución a largo plazo”), pero no puede, por lo que tenemos que pensar en soluciones a corto plazo más baratas. El resto de este artículo lo dedicaremos a especular sobre una posibilidad, una política descentralizada multi-satelital.

Varios años atrás, escribí dos artículos (aquí y aquí) abordando las tecnologías inalámbricas para la conectividad en países en desarrollo: plataformas enlazadas y no enlazadas de altitud elevada (HAPs), redes inalámbricas terrestres (WiMAX era esperanzadora en aquel entonces), constelaciones de satélites de órbita baja (LEO) y terminales de satélite de apertura muy pequeña (VSATs).

Google experimenta actualmente con HAPs, pero sin ninguna utilización significativa. Hasta donde conozco, nadie está estudiando los satélites LEO y WiMAX no se desarrolló como se había previsto. En la época en que se escribieron esos artículos, VSAT era la única opción para conectar áreas rurales en naciones como la India, pero las estaciones terrestres VSAT eran grandes, caras y lentas.

Desde aquel entonces, la tecnología ha progresado, y el mercado de consumidores para la conexión por satélite ha crecido. Proveedores estadounidenses como HughesNet y Viasat tienen 1 398 000 suscriptores entre los dos. A pesar de los largos tiempos de respuesta, he tenido video-conferencias fluidas con amigos que usan platos satelitales en zonas rurales de Brasil y Chile. Las antenas son pequeñas, los costos bajan, y la velocidad crece.

¿Qué pasaría si el gobierno cubano fomentara el uso de los satélites en lugar de prohibirlos?

El gobierno de Cuba ha dicho que autorizará agentes para la venta de tiempo de teléfono e internet. ¿Que pasaria si expandieran el programa para permitir a esos agentes a poseer y vender tiempo y servicios usando enlaces de internet por satélite –- de la misma forma que las “damas de teléfonos Grameen” en Bangladesh compraban teléfonos celulares para revender el tiempo de llamada?

Hoy, hay algunos puntos de satélite instalados ilegalmente en Cuba. Imaginemos 1000 platos de satélite legales, dispersos por toda la isla, suministrando acceso a internet y a llamadas VOIP (las cuales son ilegales hoy).

Si esta idea se tomara en consideración, imagino que ETECSA querría poseer las estaciones terrestres y establecer los precios. Eso garantizaría las ganancias y el control gubernamental sobre el acceso a Internet, pero sería una estrategia de corta visión. Permitir a los operadores de satélites ser propietarios de su equipamiento, crearía un grupo descentralizado, auto-controlado, de empresarios que aportarían esfuerzo e innovaciones al proyecto.

La situación en Cuba hoy es un recuerdo de lo que era Internet al final de los años 1980 en E.U. Se inventó TCP/IP y mostraba ser efectivo en las redes APRANet y CSNET. El potencial de la red era obvio para aquellos que la habían utilizado, pero el acceso estaba restringido a unas pocas organizaciones y personas.

En aras de conectar a más personas, la Fundación Nacional de Ciencia (National Science Fundation) estableció NSFNet. Ellos contrataron una infraestructura de conexión nacional (blackbone network), y ofrecieron fondos a todos los colegas y universidades para cubrir los costos de un enrutador (router) y de la conexión a la infraestructura nacional. También ofrecieron conexión a redes de educación e investigación en países en desarrollo. Cuando fue desactivado en Abril de 1995, NSFNet era la infraestructura de conexión global, enlazando 28 470 redes domésticas y 22 296 foráneas. (Nótese que Spring, el proveedor de conectividad para naciones en desarrollo, también suministraba conectividad a Cuba, a pesar del embargo)

El proyecto NSFNet en su totalidad costó al contribuyente de E.U $94.5 millones – una inversión pequeña con un retorno inestimable. Cubrir a Cuba con una sábana da platos satelitales tendría resultados similares.

La inversión de NSFNet fue altamente balanceada. Mientras que las universidades obtenían conexión gratuita a la red nacional, se esperaba que ofrecieran acceso para las facultades y los estudiantes. Colectivamente, las universidades invirtieron mucho más en las redes locales de sus campus, en entrenamiento y en personal, que lo que invirtió NSF en NSFNet. El enfoque descentralizado y la arquitectura "end-end" de la red empujaron tanto la formación de capitales como innovaciones a el borde de la red donde hubieron inversionistas y empresarios listo para participar.

¿Cuál sería el rol del gobierno Cubano en un mundo de acceso satelital descentralizado? Su tarea más importante sería la planificación de la capacidad y la negociación con las compañías suministradoras de comunicación por satélite para el ancho de banda. Ellos tendrían además que especificar, evaluar y comprar equipamiento para estaciones terrestres (algunas de los cuales podrían fabricarse en la isla).

Ellos deberían también tomar la delantera en el desarrollo de software que opere eficientemente cuando no hay conexión, usando compresión automática de datos y trasfiriendo los mismos cuando el usuario se conecte. Este tipo de software sería útil en cualquier país con ancho de banda limitado, no solo en Cuba. Dado que la necesidad es la madre de la invención, podríamos incluso llegar a ver soluciones novedosas para ejecutivos ocupados viajando en “modo avión”.

El gobierno debería también apoyar a los operadores de satélite ofreciéndoles préstamos bancarios que ayuden con el costo inicial del equipamiento, facilitando entrenamiento y compartiendo experiencia y “mejores prácticas”. Uno puede imaginarse un banco de micro-finanzas controlado por el gobierno que ofrezca préstamos, y el gobierno pagando los costos de operación de una asociación de operadores de satélite. Como sucedió con NSFNet, el gobierno podría irse alejando de estas actividades una vez que la red sea estable y auto-sostenida.

Por supuesto el sistema de satélites es solo un paso intermedio, a largo plazo será desplazado en favor de una infraestructura de fibra óptica moderna. El sistema de satélites pavimentaría el camino hacia ese objetivo, al crear demanda y habilidades en los usuarios. Los enlaces de satélite servirían de guía al gobierno sobre como asignar sus escasos recursos de fibra óptica -regiones de alta demanda se conectarían primero que las demás-. (Google siguió una estrategia similar al priorizar barrios cuando instalaron su red Giga-bit en la ciudad de Kansas, - áreas con muchos suscriptores fueron las primeras en conectarse-).

Nótese que he sugerido que el gobierno sea responsable por la infraestructura de fibra óptica, pero no por proveer el servicio de internet. Deberían ver la infraestructura de conexión como si fueran carreteras – proveer una infraestructura para ser usada por tractores, autobuses y autos que tienen propietarios independientes. China siguió una estrategia de lanzamiento de internet similar, con organizaciones del gobierno construyendo las infraestructuras de red que para finales de 1999 estaban siendo usadas por más de 500 proveedores de servicio de internet.

Recordemos que las universidades de NSFNet aportaron sus propias redes locales. Uno puede entonces imaginarse redes locales a nivel de ciudad o de pueblos, enlazando estaciones terrestres en la ciudad. Como en el caso de NSF, el diseño y la inversión en tales redes deberían ser locales. En este caso, viene a mi recuerdo las redes de distribución de TV “hechas en casa”, en las que la gente usa su propio cable coaxial para conectar casas y otros locales a una estación central terrestre.

Al inicio de esta publicación, expuse una lista de barreras en el camino a la conectividad en Cuba. He presentado una propuesta de arrancada de bajo costo para una conectividad que no requiere inversión extranjera.

Esto deja entonces las barreras políticas. Tal vez hay esperanza. Como se menciona antes, E.U ha manifestado un deseo de cambio de política y Raúl Castro a llamado a los cubanos a adoptar las reformas económicas “sin prisa, pero sin pausa.”

Un estímulo más específico viene del primer Vice-Presidente Miguel Díaz-Canel, quien dijo: "Hoy, con el desarrollo de las tecnologías de la información, de las redes sociales, de la informática y la Internet, prohibir algo es casi una quimera imposible. No tiene sentido. (...) Por tanto, nosotros constantemente tenemos que estar dialogando."

Reconozco la ironía de proponer que el gobierno adopte una tecnología que llevó al encarcelamiento de Alan Gross y otros. Revertir la legislación sobre comunicación satelital requeriría coraje político, pero también brindaría al gobierno un argumento poderoso contra las acusaciones que pesan sobre él y estarían persiguiendo una solución cubana , una en la que Internet es operado como un servicio al pueblo y la sociedad, no al gobierno o a compañías de telecomunicaciones.

Traducción de un amigo de la Internet cubana.


Una persona que respondió a mi post menciono que no es necesario que la política de los EE UU cambia para este propuesta tenga éxito. Afirma que en Abril 2009 el gobierno Americano aprobó la venta de satélites para servicios Internet.

Revise lo que la administración en "Reaching out to the Cuban People" especificaba y aprendí que autorizaba cable de fibra óptica y satélites de comunicación que conectaban Cuba con EE UU -- explícitamente para radio y televisión, pero no mencionaba la Internet.

Le pregunté al Departamento del Tesoro, si un proveedor de Internet por satélite podría obtener una licencia para servir a una cuenta de Cuba. Me contestaron que tendrían que revisar para darme una respuesta.


Satélite ISP IPSTAR dice que han conectado más de 26.000 escuelas en Tailandia, lo que permite a más de 2.000.000 estudiantes el acceso a los materiales de aprendizaje en línea y aplicaciones basadas en IP. Se conectan a las LAN en las escuelas y el aprendizaje "cafés" y se centran en la entrega de matrial enseñanza. Este programa parece ser relativamente centralizado y muy específicas, sino que es un ejemplo de un proyecto de conectividad por satélite patrocinado por el gobierno.

Aquí está un breve vídeo IPSTAR en la educación y otras aplicaciones:

Monday, January 6, 2014

Vargas Llosa review of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground"

Mario Vargas Llosa, an important Peruvian novelist who began as a liberal and later ran as a conservative candidate for president, has written a review of the forthcoming (February 18) book "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground," by Emily Parker, a former journalist at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

The book reviews the role of the Internet and social media revolutions in China, Cuba and Russia, and Vargas Llosa says:
If Parker’s testimony is accurate, and I believe it is, China is the country, of the three here profiled, where the digital revolution has produced the biggest changes and seemingly unstoppable momentum. Cuba, for its part, is the one where the changes have been the least significant and most vulnerable to reversal.
The title of this book reminds me of the first example of politically oriented citizen journalism that I know of -- the use of Usenet during the Soviet coup attempt of 1991. The Net was used to bring information into and out of Russia and to spread information within Russia. One could read statements like this from Nizhniy Novgorod:
Yesterday at 17:00 a rally in support of Yeltsin was held; regional deputies participated. Today at 17:00 hours there will be a rally in the city center where a strike committee will be formed ... The atmosphere is calm in the city, there are no troops to be seen.
or this from Kiev:
It is relatively quite in Kiev as it all seems like a silly joke from here. On top of this, relevant information is not being supplied on the TV. I was on the central square at 12:30. A group of about 100 people was discussing the news.
China and Cuba made their decisions with respect to control of the Internet in the mid 1990s -- the Chinese opted for a widespread, controlled Internet and the Cubans, mindful of the fall of the Soviet Union, opted to control the spread of and access to the Internet. Where would we be today if Cuba had followed the Chinese lead?

Update 3/8/2014

Emily Parker was interviewed about her book at the New American Foundation:

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Cuban approach to achieving Internet connectivity

(Spanish version)

Cuba's domestic Internet infrastructure is one of the worst in the world and the prospects for improvement are dim because of the U. S. embargo, a Cuban government policy of access control and scarcity, ETECSA's power, the lack of a trained, demanding technician and user base and a lack of capital. Can these obstacles be eliminated?

The embargo will eventually be dropped, and there are signs that that may be relatively soon. In the interim, China and others are willing to sell to and trade with Cuba.

Governmental control policy can change. When Cuba first joined the Interent, there was high level debate over the dictator's dilemma -- the perceived political and cultural threat of the Internet versus its value in improving people's lives and the economy. The decision was made to control the Internet and access to it, but that is not set in stone -- it can be reversed.

How about ETECSA? Is there any nation in which the incumbent telecommunication provider -- whether government owned or privately held -- has not acted in its self interest to the detriment of the people and economy? I suspect the answer to that question is "no." I have no knowledge of the current management of ETECSA, but I would be surprised if they were different than others.

ETECSA is jointly owned by the Ministry of Information and Communication and RAFIN, SA. The Ministry is of course part of the government and subject to political will -- policies and leaders can change.

RAFIN is a different matter. I don't know what their role is in the management of ETECSA. I don't even understand what the role of an "SA" is in a socialist nation. Where did they get the capital to purchase Telecom Italia's share of ETECSA? Who are the shareholders and investors? Do they share ETECSA profits and losses? Do they have a "seat on the board" -- a voice in picking executives and making policy decisions? I need the help of an economist here.

A trained, demanding technician and user base will come after connectivity becomes useful, widely available and affordable -- it will follow, not lead the path to a modern Internet.

That leaves the lack of capital. The Chinese took an active role in the financing and installation of the ALBA-1 undersea cable, and we speculated that they might also invest in complementary domestic infrastructure, but that has not happened.

The conventional wisdom from the World Bank or International Telecommunication Union is that the way to raise capital for connectivity is to privatize the telecommunication/ISP industry, and invite foreign investors to build infrastructure and compete on a level playing field watched over by a regulating agency -- privatization, regulation and competition (PCR).

Raúl Castro announced that they are working on a new foreign investment policy, which is of "singular importance to stimulate economic and social development of the country." The law is expected to be approved next March. It remains to be seen whether the new law and perceived demand would attract major investors, but even if they would, there is a problem with the PCR strategy -- it does not work well.

Many developing nations opted for PCR between 1991 and 2008:

In 2009 I looked at the data and concluded that "PCR has had little impact on the Internet during the last ten years in developed or developing nations." I have not updated that paper with subsequent data, but our experience in the US shows that private ownership of telecommunication service providers does not guarantee competition, efficiency and good service in spite of the good intentions of the regulators and congress.

We need a Cuban solution.

It would be great if Cuba could afford modern telecommunication infrastructure, with fiber to premises and backhaul for LTE mobile communications, but it cannot, so we need to think about cheaper interim approaches. The remainder of this post will speculate on one possibility -- a decentralized, multi-satellite policy.

Several years ago, I wrote a couple of articles (here and here) surveying wireless technologies for connectivity in developing nations -- tethered and untethered high-altitude platforms (HAPs), terrestrial wireless (WiMAX was a hope at the time), low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations and very small aperture satellite terminals (VSATs).

Google is experimenting with HAPs, but there are no meaningful deployments. As far as I know, no one is studying LEO satellites and WiMAX has not developed as envisioned. At the time of those earlier articles, VSAT was the only option for connecting rural areas in nations like India, but VSAT ground stations were large, expensive and slow.

Since that time, technology has progressed and the consumer market for satellite connectivity has grown. U. S. providers HughesNet and Viasat have 1,398,000 subscribers between them. In spite of long latency times, I have had smooth video conversations with friends using home satellite dishes in rural Brazil and Chile. The antennae are small, costs are down and speeds are up.

What if Cuba were to encourage the use of these dishes rather than ban them?

Cuba has said they will authorize agents to sell telephone and Internet time. What if they were to expand the program to allow those agents to own and sell time and services using satellite Internet links, in the same way Grameen Phone ladies in Bangladesh bought mobile phones to resell call time.

Today, there are a few illegal satellite installations in Cuba. Imagine 1,000 legal satellite dishes dispersed throughout the island providing Internet access and VOIP calls (which are illegal today).

If that were to be considered, I imagine ETECSA would want to own the ground stations and set prices. That would insure profits and government control over Internet access, but it would be short sighted. Allowing the satellite operators to own their own equipment, would create a decentralized, self-organizing group of entrepreneurs who would bring effort and innovation to the project.

The situation in Cuba today is reminiscent of the Internet in the late 1980s in the U. S. TCP/IP had been invented and shown to be effective in the APRANet and CSNET. The potential of the network was obvious to those who had used it, but access was restricted to a few organizations and people.

In order to bring others online, The National Science Foundation established NSFNet. They contracted for a national backbone network and offered all U. S. colleges and universities grants to cover the cost of a router and a connection to the backbone. They also offered connectivity to education and research networks in developing nations. When it was decommissioned in April 1995, NSFNet was the global backbone, linking 28,470 domestic and 22,296 foreign networks. (Note that Sprint, the developing nations connectivity provider, also provided connectivity to Cuba in spite of the embargo).

The entire NSFNET project cost the U. S. taxpayer $94.5 million -- a small investment with an inestimable return. Blanketing Cuba with small satellite dishes would have similar results.

The NSFnet investment was highly leveraged. While universities got free connections to the backbone, they were expected to provide access for faculty and students. Collectively, universities invested much more in their campus local area networks, training and staff than NSF did in NSFnet. The decentralized approach and the end-end network architecture pushed both capital formation and innovation to the edge of the network where there were eager investors and entrepreneurs.

What would be the role of the Cuban government in a decentralized satellite access world? Their most important task would be capacity planning and negotiating with satellite communication companies for bandwidth. They would also specify, evaluate and purchase ground station equipment (some of which could be manufactured on the island).

They should also take the lead in developing software for efficient offline operation with automatic compression and data transfer when the user goes online. That software would be useful in any limited bandwidth nation, not only Cuba. Necessity being the mother of invention, we might even see some novel solutions for busy executives travelling in "airplane mode."

The government should also support the satellite operators by offering loans to help with initial equipment costs and by facilitating training and the sharing of experience and best practices. One can imagine a government run micro-finance bank offering loans and the government paying the overhead costs for a satellite operator's association. As was the case with NSFNet, the government could phase out of some of this activity once the network was stable and self-sustaining.

Of course the satellite system is an interim step -- in the long run, it will be phased out in favor of modern fiber infrastructure. The satellite system would pave the way to that goal by building user skill and demand. The satellite links would also guide the government in allocating scarce fiber resources -- high demand areas would be connected before others. (Google followed a similar strategy in prioritizing neighborhoods when rolling out their gigabit network in Kansas City -- areas with many committed subscribers were the first to be connected).

Note that I have suggested the government be responsible for a fiber backbone, but not for providing Internet service. They should view the backbone as they view highways -- providing infrastructure for use by independently owned trucks, buses and cars. China followed a similar Internet rollout strategy, with government organizations building backbone networks that, by the end 1999, were being used by over 500 Internet service providers.

Recall that the NSFNet universities provided their own local area networks. One can also imagine pueblo or ciudad-area networks linking the ground stations in a town. As with NSF, the design and investment in any such networks should be local. In this case, I am reminded of the home-made TV distribution networks, in which people would install their own coaxial cable to connect homes and other locations to a central ground station.

At the start of this post, I listed hurdles along the road to Cuban connectivity. I have outlined a low-cost, bootstrap proposal for connectivity that does not require foreign investment.

That leaves the political hurdles. Maybe there is hope. As noted above, the U. S. has signaled a desire for political change and Raúl Castro has admonished Cubans to embrace economic reforms "without haste, but without pause."

More specific encouragement comes from First Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who has stated that "Today, with the development of information technologies, of social networks, of computing and the Internet, prohibiting something is almost a chimera, impossible ... makes no sense ... We must constantly be in dialogue."

I recognize the irony in proposing that the government embrace a technology that led to the imprisonment of Alan Gross and others. Reversing the law on satellite communication would require political courage, but it would also provide the government a powerful argument against the charges leveled against them and they would be pursuing a Cuban solution -- one in which the Internet is operated as a service to the people and society, not the government or telecommunication companies.
Update 1/5/2014

A person commenting on this post argued that U. S. policy would not have to be changed for this proposal to succeed -- he suggested that the policy changes announced by the administration in April 2009 cleared the way for sales of satellite Internet service.

The administration fact sheet on Reaching out to the Cuban People authorizes fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications facilities linking the United States and Cuba. It goes on to explicitly allow satellite radio and television service, but does not mention Internet service.

I sent an inquiry to the Treasury Department asking if a satellite Internet provider would be able to get a license to serve a Cuban account. A spokesman replied that he would find out and let me know.

Update 1/17/2014

Satellite ISP IPSTAR says they have connected over 26,000 schools in Thailand, allowing more than 2,000,000 students access to online learning materials and IP-based applications. They downlink to LANs in schools and learning "cafes" and focus on delivering teaching matrial. This program appears to be relatively centralized and narrowly focused, but it is an example of a government sponsored satellite connectivity project.

Here is a short IPSTAR video on education and other applications:


Update 2/10/2014

As noted above, there are political obstacles to this proposal in both Cuba and the U. S. I asked the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U. S. Treasury Department, which oversees our Cuba trade policy, about this proposal.

OFAC's Cuban Assets Control Regulations policy regarding the Internet is as follows:

§515.578 Exportation of certain services incident to Internet-based communications.

(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, the exportation from the United States or by persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to persons in Cuba of services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging, is authorized, provided that such services are publicly available at no cost to the user.

(b) This section does not authorize:

(1) The direct or indirect exportation of services with knowledge or reason to know that such services are intended for a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, as defined in §515.337 of this part, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party, as defined in §515.338 of this part.

(2) The direct or indirect exportation of Internet connectivity services or telecommunications transmission facilities (such as satellite links or dedicated lines).

Note to §515.578(b)(2): For general licenses related to the provision of telecommunications services between the United States and Cuba and contracts for telecommunications services provided to particular individuals in Cuba, see §515.542(b) and §515.542(c), respectively, of this part. For a general license and a statement of specific licensing policy related to the establishment of telecommunications facilities linking the United States or third countries and Cuba, see §515.542(d) of this part.

(3) The direct or indirect exportation of web-hosting services that are for purposes other than personal communications (e.g., web-hosting services for commercial endeavors) or of domain name registration services.

(4) The direct or indirect exportation of any items to Cuba.

Note to §515.578(b)(4): For the rules related to transactions ordinarily incident to the exportation or reexportation of items, including software, to Cuba, see §§515.533 and 515.559 of this part.

(c) Specific licenses may be issued on a case-by-case basis for the exportation of other services incident to the sharing of information over the Internet.

The policy disallows satellite Internet connectivity services, which I have proposed here, but it does allow for specific licences on a case by case basis. When I asked about that, a spokesperson stated "Off the record, I just don't think our licensing policy has extended that far."

I checked with a second expert, anonymous source who disagreed, stating that a license probably would be granted and that an explicit change in policy was in fact under consideration.

He also pointed out that the biggest sticking point might be the issue of garnishment/attachment -- U. S. companies are afraid that by entering into business with Cuba/ETECSA, they would open themselves to lawsuits in the U. S. by Cuban-Americans trying to recuperate damages for expropriations by the Cuban government. This roadblock might require Congressional legislation to “protect” U. S. companies from such suits.

The bottom line from the U. S. side seems to be that there are obstacles, but there seems to be a desire to overcome them -- that would leave the ball in the Cuban government's court.