Monday, January 25, 2016

A second high-level US delegation to Havana to discuss telecommunication and the Internet

Daniel Sepulveda speaking at the University of Information Science (UCI)

A short post on the Web site of Cuba's Ministry of Exterior Relations reports that a high-level US delegation went to Cuba to discuss telecommunication during January 20-22.

The US delegation was led by Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler. They were accompanied by officials from the Departments of State, Commerce and Treasury, and the FCC. The delegation also included representatives of US telecommunication companies.

Deputy Minister of Communications, Jorge Luis Perdomo Di-Lella met the delegation along with officials from other ministries and representatives from business and academia. They visited the Joven Clubs, Polytechnic José Antonio Echeverría and the University of Information Science.

The post gives no substantive details on the meetings, but says they discussed the effect of the trade embargo and blocking of access to US Internet sites that were key to Cuba's scientific, technical and economic development. They also talked of the scope and limitations of the new regulations adopted by the US government on Cuban telecommunication, which probably means that Chairman Wheeler clarified the implications of the recent removal of Cuba from the FCC "exclusion list" (which is now empty). That sounds like a quick summary of issues the diplomats and officials may have raised, but there was no mention of which US business leaders were in the delegation or what they may have said.

This was a follow-on to a similar meeting held last March. Based on the minimal reporting of the two meetings, the only difference would seem to be the participation of the FCC.

In addition to clarifying the implications of Cuba being removed from the exclusion list, the Cubans and FCC staff may have discussed alternative infrastructure ownership and regulation policies. Since Cuba is late to the Internet game, they are free to consider the wide variety of policy alternatives adopted by different nations. It may be unlikely, but it is possible that in doing so they could come up with a uniquely Cuban Internet.

Update 1/26/2016

Daniel Sepulveda, who has led both US government delegations to Cuba, has given interviews on the trip to the Miami Herald and OnCuba magazine (in Spanish). You should read both interviews, but I will summarize some of the things that jumped out at me.

Sepulveda said there are at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. An undersea cable connecting Havana and Florida would provide backup for the ALBA-1 Venezuelan cable, add capacity and reduce latency. Perhaps more important, it would reduce the load on Cuba's domestic backbone. This is something ETECSA can and should be negotiating on behalf of the Cuba people, even if it requires government subsidy to attract capital, and they have requested specific, written proposals.

Sepulveda also pointed out that such a cable would establish both a psychological and physical connection between the two countries -- a sign of healing.

The ball is now in Cuba's court. In the past, the embargo limited, but did not stop the Cuban Internet. Mexico's Grupo Domos and the Italian phone company STET were investors in ETECSA, US equipment was available through third parties and China has provided the undersea cable and much domestic infrastructure. Sepulveda pointed out that there are no longer restrictions on US telecom company dealings with ETECSA or other Cuban organizations. (private programmers can also work for US companies).

Sepulveda feels a sense of urgency -- neither he nor President Obama will be in the government next year, and, while he does not believe it will be possible for the next administration to reverse the advances that have been made, it will be possible to delay implementation and stop further progress. There is an issue of trust in both directions -- trust that the US and the Internet will not undermine the Cuban government and trust that the Cuban government will be open to foreign investment and will not constrain investors with overly burdensome regulation. US companies need positive signs from Cuba if they are going to invest.

The US delegation included Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, and representatives from Cisco Systems, Comcast, the North American division of Ericsson, a Swedish communications company, and other government and industry officials. Google, which has expressed considerable interest in Cuba, was conspicuously absent -- perhaps due to the lack of trust Sepulveda referred to.

Cisco has proposed establishing a Cisco Academy training and certification program at the University of Information Science. That is the most concrete proposal I have heard of and, if it is approved, it would signal Cuba being open to competition for Huawei, which has a dominant position today. Opening a Cisco Academy at a major computer science university would both give Cisco a foothold in the Cuban infrastructure market and signal Cuban willingness to have infrastructure competition.

Sepulveda favors rapid rollout of fourth generation mobile connectivity, mentioning Vietnam, Myanmar, Ecuador, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic as examples. That must have brought a smile to the face of the representative from Ericsson. (Doug Madory has suggested Myanmar as a model).

Finally, the delegation met with independent bloggers -- I wonder which ones and what was said.

Those are a few highlights, but the interviews say more.

Here is a short video of Sepulveda speaking with the Miami Herald:

Daniel Sepulveda during his OnCuba interview

Update 1/28/2016

I mentioned above that the US delegation met with several Cuban bloggers and entrepreneurs, and I wondered who they had met with and what was said. Two of the bloggers they met with were Norges Rodríguez and Taylor Torres and Norges has summarized the meeting in a blog post.

After summarizing the meeting, he inlcuded the full text of the interview of Sepulveda, which I highlighted above, and he promises to post more on their wide-ranging meeting.

I do not know which other bloggers and entrepreneurs the delegation met with, but the inclusion of Taylor and Norges is interesting because one blogs on art and culture, the other on telecommunication technology and policy. We tend to focus on topics like infrastructure, access to information, social networking, etc., but the Cuban creative community has the potential to become a rich source of Spanish language entertainment and art content. (Netflix came to Cuba less than two months after the December 17 opening of relations -- I suspect in search of potential content as well as subscribers).

It is also encouraging that high-level US officials and business people are meeting with bloggers and entrepreneurs as well as government officials and ETECSA executives. Perhaps we will see a uniquely Cuban approach to the Internet.

Norges Rodriguez, Taylor Torres, Tom Wheeler and Daniel Sepulveda

Image from Taylor Torres' art-focused blog
Update 1/29/2016

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has written a blog post on the trip to Cuba. I don't think he adds much of substance, but it is good to see Cuba on his mind and concludes that he came away from the trip with "a newfound understanding of both the opportunities and challenges facing Cuba in terms of communications technology and access."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his participation in the trip was that he met with students and bloggers as well as government officials and executives of state enterprises. Here he is shown with the Cuban bloggers shown above.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Criticism in the US and Cuba

Criticism has the possibility of being more effective in Cuba than in the US.

Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn Research, sent me a note saying the Cuban blog Internet en Cuba was down, displaying the message "This site has been archived or suspended." He tried emailing the blog's author, but that email bounced.

You cannot see the blog at this time, but the Internet Archive has stored a couple of recent posts, including this one:

The post is critical of ETECSA for not being transparent about the cause of an outage and whether they plan to compensate users. I have no way of knowing whether the problems with the blog are related to this criticism or not -- I hope not -- but it got me thinking about criticism in Cuba versus the US.

I have been quite critical of my Internet service provider, Time Warner Cable, in blog posts. For example, I have said they violate network neutrality, offer terrible customer service, abuse their monopoly power and mislead customers on pricing. This is the image I used to illustrate the post on misleading prices:

In spite of all that, I continue to receive my usual, overpriced service.

In the US, we are generally free to criticize ISPs, political candidates, corporations, the government, etc., but that criticism has little effect. My opinion of Time Warner Cable is common and many people have pointed out the same failings as I have, but nothing has changed.

Cuban blogger Carlos Alberto Pérez has said "I don't criticize to knock the system down. On the contrary, I criticize to perfect the system." I may be naive (probably am), but criticism has the possibility of being more effective in Cuba than in the US.

update 1/27/2016

The blog has suddenly reappeared with two new posts and email to the author, who uses a pseudonym, is working again. No explanation of its absence was given.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Universiy of Havana hot zone?

A Cuban WiFi zone on and around the University of Havana?

Alejandro Ramos Encinosa, from the University of Havana, has written a short description of a campus WiFi project that would bring connectivity to the UH campus and nearby neighborhoods. Ramos says there are over 25,000 students on campus and only about 3,000 computers in labs. Like ETECSA's public WiFi hotpsots, students will access the network using their own devices, saving the university capital and maintenance costs.

It is noteworthy that they plan to offer access to non-students who are near the campus. A few Cubans have been able to gain unauthorized access to the networks of universities and other organizations, but it sounds like the university intends to provide open access in this case.

It is not clear whether the off-campus access will be paid or free. (I assume it will be free for students). The only free public access project I know of in Cuba was a hotspot opened up by the artist Kcho, but that was more of a symbolic photo op than meaningful infrastructure.

Free or paid, if 25,000 students and the public are to use this network, it will need a fast connection to the Internet (or even the Cuban intranet if that is the intention). I assume that backhaul capacity would have to be provided by ETECSA, in which case they might charge for public access as they do with their existing hotspots.

<random speculation>
Since I don't know what is actually planned and what the status of the project is, I can offer some highly speculative suggestions. Might students be involved in the installation of the network -- something along the lines of Net Days, which I described in a post on connecting Cuban schools? If there is sufficient backhaul capacity, could they deploy mesh networks in the neighborhoods around the campus -- perhaps look at Guifi Net or the adhoc "street net" LANs in Havana.
</ random speculation>

If you are familiar with the project, let us know about what is planned and its status.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 -- an online meeting place for Cuban developers

I've written several posts on the well-educated, underemployed Cuban tech community, which is beginning to form an ecosystem through meetups and hackathons. The government has also established a professional society, the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba, to bring qualified computer scientists together.

Community benefits, Unión de Informáticos de Cuba

Manuel Alejandro Gil Martín, a Cuban developer who lives in Chile, hopes that his new site, Cubaoutsource, will further community building. His goal is to help developers find and collaborate with each other and to offer outsource service. The site has just launched with profiles of fourteen registered members. They have between 6 and 30 years experience and have used various languages and tools. For example, two of the registrants have Python experience -- they can get to know each other now.

Cubaoutsource is light-weight social media, following the principle "do what you do best and link to the rest." User profiles include fields for links to LinkedIn and StackOverflow profiles for career and project details. (Perhaps version 2 should add a link to a Makerbase profile).

I've been talking about community building, but, as the name implies, the site is also aimed at facilitating employment and outsourcing. President Obama has loosened regulations, allowing US organizations to outsource the development of mobile apps to Cubans. That is a (vaguely worded) start, but there will no doubt be more.

My guess is that in five years, Cubans will be doing a lot of off-shore programming and application development -- especially for Spanish language clients -- and a lot of that will be for the US, where there are over 37 million Spanish-speaking people aged 5 and up.

US Spanish speakers age 5 and up, Pew Research

If I were a Cuban programmer, I would take a few minutes to register with Cubaoutsource. Like any social media, Cubasoutsource needs scale, and, if it catches on, it will contribute to the Cuban tech ecosystem.

Update 1/29/2016

You can see a Spanish translation of the text of this post (without the pictures and links) here. Thanks to Armando Camacho, who blogs at Carpe Diem.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Paquete Semanal, S. A.

A legitimatized "Paquete Semanal, S. A." could distribute Netflix content in Cuba today.

To the extent that we are allowed to see it, Cuba's plan for the Internet focuses on connectivity in homes and public places and support of areas that are considered socially important like education and health care. Even if Cuba is patient and leapfrogs current technology, a large investment will be required in service of those goals.

What about digital entertainment?

As shown below, real-time entertainment (audio and video traffic) accounts for over 70% of North American, fixed access, downstream traffic during peak hours. Netflix is the individual leader with 37.1% of downstream traffic.

The infrastructure investment needed to support digital entertainment is beyond Cuba's means, but, necessity being the mother of invention, Cuba has outsourced digital entertainment to El Paquete Semanal. The organization supporting El Paquete has grown organically and efficiently distributes content in a timely manner. There is demand for their product and El Paquete may be Cuba's largest private employer.

That is the good news, but is El Paquete officially legal? And isn't it's viability dependent upon copyright piracy?

Ironically, El Paquete must also suffer from piracy by end users. I don't know if they worry about that today or just tolerate it and rely on fresh weekly material for their revenue. Regardless, if prices rise after the removal of the wholesale piracy subsidy, there would be a greater incentive for end-user piracy.

Normalization of relations between the US and Cuba will eventually require elimination of the piracy subsidy that makes El Paquete viable. When the negotiations on digital piracy take place, Cuba should consider the strategic role El Paquete plays and find a settlement that allows it to remain a part of the Cuban digital infrastructure.

(There might even be competing "paquetes semanales" -- with the government acting as a wholesaler that negotiates deals with content owners).

Netflix entered the Cuban market shortly after December 17, but that seemed to be a symbolic step, with no prospect of profit. It will be many years before Cuba is able to support the streaming of Netflix content, but a legitimatized "Paquete Semanal, S. A." could distribute Netflix content in Cuba today.

Update 1/7/2016

In this post, I have focused on content distribution, but the Cuban film and creative communities could be a source of Spanish language content for Netflix and others to distribute in other nations, including the US. I had suggested earlier that Cuba could be a source of content for Google and it's been reported that Cuba is being considered as a location for "Fast and Furious 8" -- might we see Google, Amazon, Netflix and other production centers in Cuba one day?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Alan Gross talks about his years in prison in Cuba

His suicide threat was a ploy to turn up the heat on the Cubans.

Alan Gross at home. (Suzanne Pollak/Washington Jewish Week)

Alan Gross has talked about his experience in Cuban prison in a recent interview. He described his life after being in prison as surreal and says the incarceration was not about him -- he was a mere bargaining chip in US-Cuba negotiations and propaganda. (What he did was costly to the US taxpayer and, had he succeeded, would not have mattered).

He says he was threatened and confined to a cell 23 hours a day, but never tortured. He did not eat well, losing 70 pounds the first year and 40 more during the next three years and malnutrition led to his losing several teeth. He coped with the hardship by exercising religiously, finding something to laugh at every day and drawing strength from memory of his family that had survived the Holocaust.

Gross had limited contact with his family for the first 3 1/2 years and was not aware of the efforts being made on his behalf in the US. When he learned of those efforts, he let it be known that he was in failing health, despondent and unwilling to see anyone but his wife. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April 2014 and said he would kill himself if he were not freed by the end of 2015.

He now says he never intended to commit suicide -- it was a ploy to turn up the heat on the Cubans, who had been alarmed by his hunger strike.

Gross had worked on many similar USAID communication projects before going to Cuba and misses that work, but said he was now afraid to leave the US.

He still has special affection for the Cuban people, including the Jews he tried to serve and is "gratified to witness a new found diplomatic relationship between Cuba and the United States”.

If you are interested in full coverage of what Gross did and the efforts to free him, see these posts.

Year end interview of the president of ETECSA

"The people want to be connected."

ETECSA president, ingeniera Mayra Arevich Marín

Maya Arevich Marín has been president of ETECSA for four years. The following are a few points from a recent year-end interview.
  • Interent access was improved through the rollout of Nauta rooms, WiFi hotpsots and improved connectivity at institutions that are important to the society.
  • By the end of the year, there will be 65 WiFi hotspots and they will add 80 more during 2016.
  • Today there are over 700 public access points in navigation rooms, cyber-cafes, hotels and airports.
  • Average daily access is over 150,000 people -- double last year.
  • They are encouraging the move to permanent Nauta accounts and hiring agents at WiFi hotspots to stop resellers. They are also experimenting with having people at the WiFi hotspots to assist customers. (It takes time to train support and marketing people).
  • They are also working on a system to let people buy time online rather than through an agent. (It seems they could have done this from the start -- send a 2 CUC text message to ETECSA in return for a 1-hour passcode).
  • They are working on infrastructure to support this access. They have expanded the capacity of their existing data center and will build two new datacenters and augment backbone access to the international undersea cable in 2016. (She did not mention it, but the bulk of Cuba's international traffic shifted from satellite to cable this year, enabling the increase in access).
In addition to access, she mentioned new applications and improved connectivity in several government sectors:
  • There are now 40 thousand doctors who connect from their homes to the Internet via Infomed. They also improved the connectivity of health institutions.
  • The Ministry of Justice is putting applications like access to municipal records online.
  • Fiber connectivity has been provided at over 25 higher education facilities. By the end of the year, all Cuban universities were connected.
  • An interbank network was created and banking applications implemented. There are now 773 ATMs in Cuba, 150 of which were installed this year.
  • The Attorney General's office, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Institute of Water Resources and BioCubaFarma business group have improved fiber connectivity.
  • She said they are preparing new service offerings for 2016, but did not say what they were.
Entertainment is one critical application that was not mentioned. Today digital entertainment is being handled off line by El Paquete, but normalization of relations with the US will at some point eliminate the piracy subsidy upon which it is based, leaving a cost gap.

Finally, Arevich Marín said that since they must pay for infrastructure and equipment with convertible currency, they need to continue generating revenue through expensive service, foreign recharging, exportable services, international voice and roaming charges and government subsidy.

In a way, this was a typical year-end summary by any CEO -- mentioning achievements for the year past and hinting at some plans for the coming year, while ignoring problems.

Viewed from the perspective of the Internet in a developed nation, I am saddened by how little connectivity Cubans have, but I am more interested in where Cuba will be five or more years from now, so, for me, the key point in this interview was the last one -- citing the need for convertible currency. It is an indication that, at least for now, Cuba has decided to be relatively self-sufficient with respect to the Internet, but can they afford a self-sufficient Internet?

The conventional wisdom is that if Cuba wants to expand the Internet quickly, they should privatize and regulate the Internet in return for foreign investment. For example, Doug Madory has suggested licensing mobile providers, an approach that has led to rapid improvement of the mobile Internet in Myanmar, another "green field" nation. Cuba is seeking foreign investment in industries like mining and oil production, but the Internet is basic domestic infrastructure that might reasonably be kept independent. They should consider alternatives for infrastructure ownership and regulation along with foreign investment.

Update 2/5/2016

ETECSA officals held a press conference yesterday. Here is some of what they said. (My comments are in parenthesis).

At the end of the year there were 3.3 million mobile accounts. (Mobile Internet access is primarily used for personal communication and entertainment, not content creation or productivity applications).

They acknowledge and are working on peak load problems.

Rates have been reduced. (But they remain high enough to create a digital divide within Cuba).

They cautioned that the Old Havana pilot study was only a trial.

There are now agents selling telecommunication cards and recharge coupons (but not satellite access, which US operators are now allowed to provide).

They acknowledged that some of the public access hotspots were in inappropriate locations.

100 cellular base stations will be upgraded from 2G to 3G during the first half of 2016. (How many base stations are there alltogether, what percent of the population will have 3G coverage at their homes and offices and why 3G)?

They will establish 80 new public WiFi hotspots this year and offer a variety of handsets for sale. (Is ETECSA the sole vendor for handsets)?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A conference Cuban networking officials and informal networkers should attend -- meet MikroTik

MikroTik is manufacturer of wireless communication systems that ETECSA, the Ministry of Communication, schools, universities, Infomed, etc. should be aware of. They will have a chance to meet MikroTik at a full-day conference in Havana on January 15th. (The conference is free, but pre-registration is required).

I had never heard of MikroTik until they informed me of the upcoming conference. It turns out MikroTik is a Latvian company that has been making WiFi equipment since 1996 and, while they have some home and small office routers, their focus is on wireless ISP and industrial installations.

As shown below, they have world-wide distribution (they run conferences in 8 languages), but have focused much of their effort in developing nations:

MikroTik distributors -- in Havana one day?

After looking at some videos of past conferences and perusing their Web site, it is clear that MikroTik is an engineering-driven company and attendees can expect engineering and case-study content at the conference. Here are some of the presentations:
  • Como evitar los ataques de seguridad más frecuentes
  • Integracion de Mikrotik en la implementacion de WISP
  • Ingenieria de Tráfico con Mikrotik
  • Internet en alta mar - conectividad, seguridad y prevención de averías solucionados con Mikrotik
  • Alimentacion autónoma y control de clima para equipamiento inalámbrico
  • Estudio sobre pruebas de estrés en una red Wireless 802.11a/b/g/n
They do a lot of these conferences and archive videos of the presentations on YouTube. For example, here are the 12 presentations at their conference in Spain this year.

MikroTik conference in Madrid, October 2015

I began this post with a list of government organizations that might be interested in MikroTik, but this conference will also be of interest to the hobbyists and others who are working on informal local area networks and members of the Cuban tech startup community.

I have argued in a number of posts that Cuba should look for ways to introduce competition in the provision of Internet connectivity and software development, while remaining self sufficient. The same applies to the provision of equipment. From what I gather, it seems that Huawei is Cuba's dominant infrastructure equipment supplier -- the government and perhaps the informal networking community should take a look at MikroTik.

Update 2/1/2016

The MikroTik wireless Internet users meeting was held on January 15th, but the location was moved at the last minute. Regardless, Diario de Cuba reported that 100 people attended the conference.

They said the majority were Street Net adminstrators, but representatives of foreign firms, embassies and non-governmental organizations were also there. There were also attendees from universities (UCI and CUJAE), Banco Popular de Ahorro, the Youth Club, Copextel. customs officials and network specialists from the Ministry of Telecommunications.

Cuba should consider MikroTik offerings along with Ubiquity, Huawei and others -- fair, open competition will benefit the people.

If you missed the conference and have Internet access, you can see videos of five of the presentation here. Two on operating a wireless ISP and one on rural Internet installation in Portugal and Guinea Bissau seem to be quite relevant to Cuba.

Below are a few photos from the conference and there are more here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Alan Gross press coverage a year after we moved to restore relations with Cuba

Today marks a year since President Obama issued his statement on Cuba policy changes. (You can see a statement of our policy and his 15-minute speech announcing the day he announced the policy shift here).

It is also a year since Alan Gross was freed and he reflects upon his time in prison and US policy in this interview. You can read the complete interview, but here are a couple of things I picked up on:
  • Gross has "absolutely no bitterness whatsoever toward the people of Cuba" -- he feels like they are his "family."
  • He would visit Cuba "in a heartbeat" if the government would promise not to arrest him.
  • He says normalizing relations between Cuba and the US will take years, both governments are working towards that end and "we need to be patient to see this relationship evolve."
  • Gross considers the U.S. trade embargo "stupid" and "a complete failure."
  • His broken teeth have been repaired and he has regained 40 of the 110 he lost while in prison.
If you'd like to read more, check out the posts I've written on the technology and politics of the Alan Gross case.

Alan Gross arriving home a year ago and today

Of course, Alan Gross is just part of the story. The most extensive Cuba coverage I have seen on the anniversary of our policy change is a week-long series of posts on Yahoo U. S. and Cuba, One Year Later.

The series features dozens of posts on various aspects of Cuban culture and the political situation. Most are human interest stories on tourism, fashion, baseball, etc., but the following are three Internet-related posts you might want to check out.

Cuba Unplugged: An Island Still Stuck in Airplane Mode -- a look at the public WiFi hotspots and the ways people are using them. There is nothing that would be new to readers of this blog, but the post is well written and accompanied by a short video and photos. My favorite snippet was this exchange between the interviewer and an about 65 year-old Cuban woman who uses Airbnb to rent rooms in her house:
“What if I told you that in America we use the Internet mostly to watch videos of cats?” There was a long awkward silence. “How terrible,” she said.
The 21st Century Is Coming to Cuba, One Hotspot at a Time -- an overview of the present state of the Cuban Internet and plans for expansion. It covers the WiFi hotspots, home connectivity plans, the presence of US companies in Cuba, early Internet-based efforts of American companies, Cuban tech startups, political and economic barriers to Cuban investment and modernization, etc. Again, nothing we have not covered on this blog, but well written for a general audience.

Despite obstacles, Instagram offers a new window into Cuba -- the way Cubans and, to a greater extent, expats are using Instagram to document life on the island. You can see a slide show here and there are links to the Instagram accounts of Cubans and foreign journalists and professional photographers. My favorite is the account of Havana-based Reuters photographer Desmond Boylan, but I'd recommend checking them all.

Strolling in Havana by Desmond Boylan

The series does not focus on the Internet, but the Internet figures in many of the stories. In general, this is timely news coverage of an important story a year after it began. The posts are not detailed or technical, but they are well written for a general audience -- like newspaper readers. (Remember newspapers)?

Update 1/24/2016

The Havana Times reports that USAID has allocated $6 million to support civil society and promote the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people with the goal of "empowering the Cuban people to decide their own destiny."

They prefer that grantee's personnel traveling to Cuba be fluent in Spanish, possess a solid understanding of Cuban culture and have prior experience on the island. It is noteworthy that "grant recipients will be going to Cuba at their own risk and may not hold USAID responsible for what might happen to them." The same goes for project staff based in Cuba.

It looks likes they have learned from the Alan Gross affair -- Gross sued the government, claiming he was unaware of the risks he was taking on behalf of USAID. The disclaimer also sends a message to conservatives in the US that the administration still considers Cuba repressive. I think they will have a hard time recruiting people to work on these projects.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cuban Internet infrastructure ownership and regulation alternatives

It is too soon and too simple to say that Google was turned away out of simple ETECSA greed.

I have suggested a number of things Google might do in Cuba, including providing Internet connectivity. Last summer it was widely reported that Google had offered free connectivity in Cuba, but the proposal was rejected, perhaps because of mistrust in Google or the US government.

Google has refused to share their proposal with me, but I have a guess as to what it may have been and, if my guess is correct, why it was rejected.

My guess is that they proposed a fiber backbone for Havana (and perhaps other cities) as part of their Project Link. Project Link is serving two metro areas in Uganda, including the capital, Kampala and is deploying fiber in three metro areas in Ghana, including the capital, Accra.

Meshed (i. e. reliable), open, wholesale Project Link fiber backbones

It is important to note that Google is not selling retail service, but providing capacity to competing Internet service providers and mobile operators. As African Internet pioneer Steve Song points out, the Ugandan service providers have come to trust in Google -- realizing that they are not competing at the retail level and that they are offering transparent, flat-rate pricing to all comers. It is noteworthy that Google is not subsidizing Project Link -- the backbones are self-sustaining.

Until now, the wholesale customers have been Internet service providers and mobile operators, but things became a bit more interesting earlier this month, when Google announced that they had deployed a wholesale WiFi network with 120 public access hotzones in Kampala and more to come. They have signed up their first retail WiFi provider Roke Telkom.

Google WiFi antenna on a Kampala rooftop, BBC News

The service is only a few days old (I could not find mention of it on the Roke Web site), but I found a first-impression review. The reviewer did not say how many people were online, but the speed was fairly low -- about 100 Kbps. On the other hand, the sign-up process was painlessly handled using his mobile phone and the key "feature" is Roke's flat rate prices: 29 cents per day, $1.44 per week or $5.17 per month.

Well, that is my guess as to what Google proposed -- now for my guess as to why Cuba declined the proposal.

I do not know what ETECSA charges for access to their Havana fiber (or how they price it internally for themselves), but I would be amazed if it were nearly as low as what Google is charging in Africa. But I do know what ETECSA is charging for WiFi access -- about $2 per hour. Two dollars would buy more than a week in Kampala and it would not be necessary to stand in lines or pay scalpers to purchase time.

(You can check out a two-minute BBC News clip on the Fiber backbone and WiFi deployment here).

I wish Google's proposal was rejected for reasons of political mistrust, because political trust is growing among the Cuban people and distrust will fade, but mistrust seems a less likely cause than fear of competition for ETECSA. As I've said, I do not understand ETECSA's ownership structure, but I have been assured that it is government controlled. If the Cuban government insists upon protecting ETECSA's profit and maximizing government revenue, Kampala will leave Havana in the dust.

But, it is too soon and too simple to say that Google was turned away because of ETECSA greed.

Kampala has a Google backbone, but it also has competing retailers and there are no competing retailers in Cuba. Attracting retailers to a Google backbone in Havana would require the sort of trust that has developed in Kampala. They would have to be convinced that everyone, including ETECSA retail, would be paying the same price. (I would expect ETECSA retail to do quite well in a competitive Cuban market -- they have assets, employees, Cuban experience, brand recognition, etc.).

It is a lot easier to dig trenches and light fiber than it is to attract retail competitors, and Google may have been rejected because their offer came too soon.

Cuba needs time to plan a very difficult transition in which the roles of ETECSA, national and municipal governments and wholesale and retail connectivity providers are considered. Perhaps they will ultimately decide upon a Kampala-like solution with Google and perhaps other wholesalers operating open, transparent backbones. Another model is that of Stockholm, where the municipal government operates Stockab, a successful, open, transparent backbone.

Stokab investment and return, millions of Swedish Kronor

Looking around the world, there are other possibilities. In Singapore, the government acts as a venture capitalist, investing in Internet service providers.

Of course, Cuba needs connectivity outside of Havana and the world has models for that as well. At least 450 small towns and cities in the US have municipal broadband networks with a variety of ownership and regulation policies -- could Cuba model their success? (Note that the states shown in red on the map below have legal barriers to municipal networks).

Interactive map showing over 450 wholesale and retail municipal networks

India has a much larger rural networking task than Cuba, but Cubans might also study India's national fiber network, which hopes to reach 250,000 rural villages and offer non-discriminatory access to all service providers.

If the Cuban government is serious about making a transition away from ETECSA's current wholesale/retail monopoly, they need to be working on an infrastructure ownership/regulation plan. We have seen a leaked executive summary of an infrastructure plan for the next five years, but it is not focused on future technologies or ownership and regulation policies and it was leaked, not openly developed by multiple stakeholders.

Cuba needs to consider alternative infrastructure ownership and regulation policies if they hope to achieve an affordable, modern Internet. Doing so will take political will and time. The time to start planning is now.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Beginning a discussion of Cuban Internet policy

Number of countries with broadband plans, source ITU

The policy research process, like the policy it produces, should be open and transparent.

Norges Rodriguez wrote a recent post surveying the historical causes of the sorry state of the Cuban Internet and calling for a digital revolution. At the end of that post, he promised a followup post suggesting steps to take on the road to Cuban connectivity.

He has now published the followup post. You should read Rodriguez' post, but here are a few points I took from it:
  • He advocates competition and is wary of partnerships with Google or other large firms.
  • ETECSA has an important role to play, but it must be re-defined -- a national monopoly on wholesale and retail service is clearly a bad idea. (Note that incumbent monopolies often prove to be strong competitors after markets are opened to competition).
  • The government has a significant role to play in subsidising connectivity to public institutions and poor people, encouraging digital literacy, reducing the digital gap between rural and urban areas and creating content.
  • Transparency in policy setting, enforcement and business is mandatory.
His post is not a plan, but a call to start the discussion. The road to connectivity is a long one and the time to start planning is now.

The starting point is setting infrastructure and application goals. Infrastructure goals are things like affordable fixed and mobile broadband, connectivity to homes and public buildings and high usage rates in rural and urban areas and by men and women. Application goals would focus on areas like health, education, industry, government and entertainment. (For an early definition of this sort of framework, in which Cuba is used as an example, see this article).

Infrastructure regulation and ownership policies are equally important. What should be the role of the national government, local governments, private cooperatives and companies, foreign investors and the owners of homes and other premises?

The bad news is that Cuba is late to the game, but the good news is that many other national and local governments have implemented a diverse array of infrastructure ownership strategies and Cuba can learn from their experience -- what works and what does not. Cuba is also free to adopt emerging technologies.

We have seen a leaked executive summary of an infrastructure plan for the next five years, but it is not focused on future technologies or ownership policies. Furthermore, it had to be leaked.

If Cuba wishes to jump to a modern Internet, policy research and planning should begin today. The policy research process, like the policy it produces, should be open and transparent. Norges Rodriguez has outlined several principles, but the government, ETECSA, universities and others must join the conversation.


This post was translated into Spanish by a friend, Armando Camacho. (Scroll down for the Spanish version). It is on his blog, Carpe Diem, which covers the Internet and a lot more.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Alan Gross interviewed on Sixty Minutes

Alan Gross gave his first interview last night on CBS 60 Minutes. He spoke of his suffering in prison, his 20 years as a contractor installing communication equipment in 54 countries, and his surprise at not being quickly freed by the US Government. The segment also told of the key role played by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont in arranging for the prisoner swap that freed Gross and the effort of Alan's wife Judy, who worked tirelessly to keep the case in the public eye -- losing her house in the process.

I have said that the equipment Alan Gross actually brought to Cuba would have had no political impact if he had succeeded -- it would have been a drop in the bucket and a waste of US resources. As it turned out, it provided Cuba with a propaganda opportunity and a bargaining chip in negotiations with the US. I think Alan Gross agreed with me in his Sixty Minutes interview last night -- he described it as a "cockamamie" program.

That opinion was shared by senator Leahy who considered the effort "stupid" and "a disservice to all the men and women who work so well for our country with USAID around the world."

I share Gross's belief that "access to information is a right for everyone" and am happy to see him home. The best part of the interview for me was to see Gross smiling and relaxed with a sense of humor.

(You can see more background on the Alan Gross case here).

Alan Gross, before, during and near the end of his imprisonment

Alan and Judy Gross when he returned

Gross being greeted by Secretary of State Kerry

Smiling and relaxed on Sixty Minutes

NY Times editorial on the Internet in Cuba

The New York Times has published an editorial call to "bring Cuba online." they say "millions of Cuban citizens could have affordable access to the Internet in a matter of months" if only the government were willing to allow Google to go forward with a Project Link installation or invite companies to bid on mobile licenses, as was done in Myanmar.

I appreciate their goal, but there are stumbling blocks and problems with their proposal.

Google made an unspecified proposal to build Internet infrastructure in Cuba, but some in the Cuban government did not trust Google's representatives. The Times suggests Google's Project Link, which has been implemented in Kampala and Accra, as a model, but Project Project Link only provides a wholesale fiber backbone in a city, not national, retail coverage -- and it would take more than a few months to implement.

The editorial also ignores the interests of ETECSA, the Cuban telecommunication monopoly. If ETECSA's goal is to maximize profit or government revenue, Cuba will fall short of the vision of the Times. (I speak from the experience of being a customer of a monopoly Internet service provider, Time Warner Cable).

They also overlook Cuban commitments to and history of doing business with Chinese telecommunication firms.

Even if the government were willing, inviting in Google or accepting Myanmar-like bids for mobile licenses, would limit Cuban technology and, more important, policy choices. Cuba has an opportunity to leapfrog technology and implement policies that will benefit the Cuban people.

I am not optimistic that that will happen, but it is possible that after 2018, when Raúl Castro has retired and the Cuban economy has improved, Cuba will have the funds and will to implement a uniquely Cuban, modern Internet.

Update 12/9/2015

Norges C. Rodríguez Almiñán has written a thoughtful blog post, inspired by this New York Times editorial.

He starts by surveying Cuba's history of the supression of free expression and communication technology and recalls Cuba-US conflicts from the Bay of Pigs to ZunZuneo with events like the Cuban Missle Crisis and downed aircraft in between. There are bad deeds all around.

In spite of this, we have December 17th, progress is being made and Rodríguez says it is time for Cuba's digital revolution. Better yet, he promises that in his next post he will suggest steps to take on the road to Cuban connectivity -- I can't wait to read it!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Cuban Internet interruptions

Is there a connection between Cuba's email interruption and access to the Reflejos blogs?

Cuban email has been interrupted and colleague Doug Madory discovered that access to Cuba's Reflejos blogs at is inconsistent. One can access the Reflejos home page, but some links work and others do not. For example, try these permalinks:

or the blog home pages: and

The connections to these requests are inconsistent. Sometimes they work and others not. When they fail, they do not time out, they just take forever, so a handshake must at least be made.

Does that suggest some sort of flooding DoS attack? Do these problems have a common cause?

Update 11/21/2015

The Reflejos blogs seem to be working again, but I've not seen an update on Nauta email.

Update 12/1/2015

I've been told that Nauta email is only working on the WiFi network from 7am to 11pm and it will not work in the Nauta rooms.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

ETECSA will sell -- and service -- Huawei phones.

ETECSA has agreed to sell and service Huawei phones. Since Cuban cell service is 2G, they will be used for voice calls and Internet access at WiFi hotspots and elsewhere. (I have heard that there is a little 3G coverage in Cuba -- is that the case)?

Javier Villariño, Huawei’s director of sales in Cuba, said the phones would “improve the voice quality and data services offered by ETECSA." Perhaps more important, he said Etecsa would be able to distribute spare parts and accessories, and train repair staff. That sounds like ETECSA will be competing with independent, self-employed phone repair people.

Since I am a customer (victim) of a mobile access oligopoly and a fixed access monopoly (Sprint and Time Warner Cable), that sounds ominous to me.

Photos of the phones are shown below -- does anyone recognize them or know their specs?

China has dominated the Cuban Internet infrastructure market in recent years and Chinese exports to Cuba are increasing in all sectors, reaching $1.33 billion in the first three quarters of this year, up by 82.4 percent. On the other hand, Cuban exports to China have dropped, due to a decrease in the production of nickel, which is the country's principal export. Over 40 Chinese companies participated in the 33rd Havana International Fair, which ends today.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Merchise Startup Circle meetup and Startup Weekend

The Merchise Startup Circle, which has been encouraging Cuban software startups for some time has organized a Havana Startup Weekend for November 6-8.

Here is the weekend schedule:
  • Friday evening people will present short proposals for startups and those voted best will be worked on during the weekend. Teams will be formed around the chosen ideas so people will collaborate and learn from each other.
  • Saturday, the teams will meet at 9 AM and work on their proposed projects with the assistance of technical and business mentors. There will be food and the teams can work late into the night if they want to.
  • Sunday will be for demos and judging. The winners will advance to compete in the regional event of the Global Startup Battle..
Merchise will also host a meetup the day before the Startup Weekend, Thursday November 5.

They've had some trouble with the online registration system -- if you have trouble send an email to giving your name and a brief description of your background, like "Programmer/freelancer/ruby & prolog" or "graphic designer/etc").

You can also check it out on Facebook or Twitter.

I wish I could there!

Update 11/9/2015

Forty eight people took part in the weekend and 27 projects were proposed. The group voted on the proposals and selected eight to be worked on by teams during the rest of the weekend.

At the end of the weekend, the jury awarded first place to My Storefront, an app to enable people to exchange used clothing; second place went to the team working on Help Yourself, an app that matches recipes to the ingredients in your refrigerator, and third place went to Up Up, an app for creating off line posts on social networks. Sport City, a community of sports fans in the city, received an honorable mention.

Here is a five minute video giving a quick recap of the Startup Weekend and the projects people worked on:

For more words and pictures, check out @swhavana.

My guess is that the exchange of ideas and energy and new connections among people was the most important result of the meeting -- what next?

Update 11/14/2015

Third place in the Startup Weekend went to an app for creating off-line posts to social networks -- an app well suited to a place with Cuba's minimal connectivity. If I had been there, I would have proposed an app that went in the other direction.

I would like a program or an Internet service that would take a blog like this one, and convert it to a single file in a common format like Word or PDF. That would allow me to create a snapshopt of the entire history of the blog -- including links, images and comments -- and share it with people in Cuba who do not have fast, online access to it.

The blog is on Google's Blogger site, so I would have to supply the template and current XML file with the contents. If it was being read off-line, the posts would be readily available and, since most of the links are internal to the blog, they would work also. External links would require a live Internet connection.

If someone built such an app for Blogger and for Wordpress, most blogs could be read off-line in Cuba.

Update 11/17/2015

More Startup Weekend video -- a lot of energy and enthusiasm!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Before and after Cuba's shift to the ALBA 1 undersea cable

Northwestern researchers Zachary S. Bischof, John P. Rula and Fabian E. Bustamante have published In and out of Cuba, a paper characterizing Cuba's connectivity.

They gathered data during March and April 2015 and found that traffic going out of Cuba typically traveled through the ALBA-1 cable, but traffic coming into Cuba was often routed over satellite links, adding about 200 ms to round trip times (RTTs).

The data was gathered using RIPE Atlas probes, small, USB-powered hardware devices that hosts attach to an Ethernet port on their router. There are 8,771 of these probes around the world, including one in Havana. Upstream results from that probe may or may not have been representative of the nation as a whole.

While the study results were accurate last Spring, they do not reflect the current situation. Last July, Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn Research alerted me to the fact that Cuba's international traffic had largely shifted to the undersea cable.

I forwarded the Northwestern paper to Doug and he sent me the following graphs, showing traffic to both of Cuba's autonomous network operators for March 30, 2015 and October 30, 2015:

In March, there was considerable satellite traffic from NewCom and Intelsat.

By October, there was little satellite traffic.

As mentioned above, the Atlas probe may not have been representative. The graph on the left side of the following figure shows traffic to the IP address range the Atlas probe resides in. During the time the Northwestern team gathered their data, inbound traffic was almost entirely via satellite (Intelsat or NewCom), but it shifted subsequently. The graph on the right shows that the majority of traffic coming to representative destinations of the Cuban ISP ETECSA was routed over the cable during the study period. In July, it nearly all shifted to the cable, where it is today.

Most traffic to the probe shifted to cable in June (left). ETECSA received relatively
little satellite traffic during the study period and essentially none after June (right).

The analysis by the Northwestern team is thorough and insightful, but it seems they have been caught by academic publishing delays. They say this was just the start of ongoing study of the Cuban Internet and I am looking forward to seeing their future work.

Finally, today's Internet access and speeds in Cuba are very poor but, given today's low Internet penetration, domestic infrastructure, not international capacity is the key constraint.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Freedom House report on Internet Freedom 2015: Cuba passes Ethiopia, but remains "unfree"

Freedom House reported on 65 nations (88% of the world population) in their 2015 Freedom on the Net report, which came out this week. Cuba ranked 61st this year -- only four nations -- Ethiopia, Iran, Syria and China were less free than Cuba. The next lowest Latin American nation was Cuban ally Venezuela, which ranked 45th.

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:

Cuba's rank improved slightly in each of the sub-indices and, with a total of 81, they moved from 62nd overall to 61st, passing Ethiopia.

Their absolute score on each sub-index also improved (lower scores are best).

While there was slight improvement, Cuba remains the only "not free" nation in the western hemisphere:

For my money, the best part of the Freedom House study is their detailed essays on the state of the Internet in each nation. These essays are organized around the three sub-indices and they are well referenced and go into some detail.

Here is the summary figure from the essay on Cuba:

You will find the essay on Cuba here. Check it out.

Update 10/31/2015

In a post last year, I looked at the 2014 Freedom House report and several other documents to put the Cuban Internet in context. The one sentence summary is that the Cuban Internet lags far behind what one would expect from a nation with Cuba's economy and levels of health and education.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Cuban UN report condemns the embargo -- their telecommunication claims are overstated..

The embargo is one obstacle faced by the Cuban Internet -- the claim overlooks the impact of the Cuban economy and the government's fear of information freedom

On October 23th, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution urging the United States to end its economic embargo on Cuba.

Last June, Cuba issued a report arguing against the embargo and claiming that it has cost the Cuban people $833.7 billion -- $57,122,900 of that in the sector of "communications and informatics, including telecommunications."

I looked at the telecommunication claims. The first dealt with infrastructure:
In the area of telecommunications, the export of products and services to Cuba has been authorized as well as funding for the creation of infrastructure facilities. Its principal limitation is the requirement of paying in cash and in advance, even when foreign or US banks based outside of the United States are now able to provide financing for these purchases. This is incongruous with international trade practices where this type of payment is not used and companies provide loans to the buyer in order to ensure the sale of their products and services. The possibility of carrying out these operations becomes more complicated because of the banks being worried about making transactions related to Cuba due to the policy of financial harassment applied under the government of President Obama.
I'll abstain from commenting on the financial regulations and customs, because I don't know about them, but I will point out that the US is not the only telecommunication infrastructure supplier in the world. Most notably, China has provided a lot of Cuban telecommunication infrastructure.

The second claim is that the embargo has violated Cuba's right to development:
In the sector of communications and informatics, including telecommunications, there were adverse effects recorded in the period that totaled 57,122,900 dollars. Losses associated with revenues not earned and for the geographical relocation of business of the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA S.A. for its acronym in Spanish) add up to over 38 million dollars due to the impossibility of accessing leading, high quality brands and/or equipment on the telecommunications market distributed by US entities. For similar reasons, the Cuban firm Copextel, dedicated to supplying and repairing telecommunications equipment, suffered losses of 2.5 million dollars.

The blockade continues to be the principal obstacle to development of infrastructure in Cuba that would allow for improved access to the Internet. The US is the worldwide emporium for informatics technologies and it exercises hegemonic control over the network of networks. Because it is subject to the laws of the Federal Communications Commission and the US Department of State, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICAN) that provides IP addresses and names to the rest of the world is limited in terms of the services it can provide to Cuba.

Despite visits to Cuba of senior Google executives and the marked interest in bringing their products and services into the Cuban market, the blockade still prevents the use of unrestricted services and applications such as Google Chrome, Google Analytics and Google Play Store.
I have several problems with this:
  • They say it is impossible to access "leading, high quality brands," but they have done considerable business with Huawei and others. (Cisco will be happy to hear that Huawei is not a leading, high quality brand).
  • They seem to believe that the FCC and US State Department have limited ICAN (sic) in providing services to Cuba. I'd like to know which services have been withheld and how removing the embargo would change ICANN's policy.
  • US regulations allow Cuban mobile apps to be sold in the Google Play Store (and any other venue), but Google has not yet authorized that.
  • Google will; however, list free Cuban apps in the Play Store. More important, the Google executives mentioned above offered (unspecified) free Internet infrastructure to Cuba and the offer was refused. I think it is safe to say that Google, like Huawei, is a world class Internet infrastructure company.
These are relatively specific points, but they are subsumed in the general statement that:
The blockade continues to be the principal obstacle to development of infrastructure in Cuba that would allow for improved access to the Internet.
The embargo is only one obstacle faced by the Cuban Internet -- the claim overlooks the impact of the Cuban economy and the government's fear of information freedom. The impact of the embargo and the poor state of the Cuban economy on the Internet have diminished over time -- I am not sure about government fear.

This will be the 24th annual vote on resolutions calling for the end of the embargo. Last year, only the US and Israel voted no. There has been speculation that the US might abstain this year, since President Obama favors ending the embargo. I wonder how Israel will vote :-).

Update 10/23/2015

The Guardian reports that the US has decided not to abstain from a vote on the resolution because it does not fully reflect the new spirit of engagement between the US and Cuba. Evidently the US asked for revisions that would let them abstain, but the revisions that were offered were insufficient.

I've only looked at the section on telecommunication, but if the rest of the resolution is as far off base as that section, I understand the administrations decision.

The vote is now set for October 27th.

Update 10/27/2015

The vote is in and the resultion condemning the embargo passed by a vote of 192-2. Last year it was 182-2, but this year no nations abstained.

In his remarks, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez acknowledged the new relationship with the United States, but said “the facts show crystal clear” that embargo is still being “fully and completely implemented.”

It is not fair for Rodriguez to claim that the embargo is “fully and completely implemented” since the Obama adminstration has removed meaningful restrictions. Sadly, that sort of one-sided rhetoric -- and the overstated telecommunications claims in the resolution -- is endemic in politics. that's what keeps in business.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez at the UN General assembly