Thursday, May 25, 2017

Crooked media interviews on Cuba

"We were just trying to get Alan Gross out of prison at first" Ben Rhodes, Obama Administration Cuba negotiator

Crooked Media, which was created by three senior Obama White House staff members, produces several excellent (pro-Democratic) podcasts. One of those is PodSavetheWorld, hosted by Tommy Vietor, who spent nearly a decade as a spokesman for President Obama, specializing in foreign policy and national security issues.

Two episodes of PodSavetheWorld include interviews with high-level Obama staff members who were involved in forming our Cuba policy. The following describe and link to exceprts from those interviews.

The first excerpt is from an interview of Dan Restrepo, who served as a top Latin America advisor to President Obama. Restrepo had written a Cuban-rapprochement roadmap for candidate Obama during his first campaign and he returned to the topic in 2013. He says Obama was playing a "long game," knowing that his executive authority was limited and he could not move faster than US public opinion. Restrepo characterizes Obama's strategy as a bet that by creating a degree of freedom among the Cuban people, for example by expanding reparations and undermining Castro's excuse of blaming all problems on the Evil Empire, the Cuban government would be forced to change. He noted that the blame-US game was a hard sell after the Cuban people saw the Evil Emperor, who looked more like them than the current Cuban leaders, giving a speech on TV or at a baseball game with Raúl Castro.

The excerpt (14:20) is here and the full podcast (48:37) here.

The second excerpt is from an interview of Ben Rhodes, who served as a speechwriter and emissary for President Obama and was one of two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba. Rhodes and his colleague Ricardo Zuniga traveled to Canada for 12-15 secret meetings with Cuban representatives while working out the rapprochement details. At the start, they were only negotiating for the release of Alan Gross because Obama reasoned that rapprochement would be politically unacceptable if Gross remained in a Cuban prison. Early in the negotiation for Gross, they realized more was possible and the scope of the discussion broadened. Only a few people in the White House knew of these negotiations, but the Vatican was informed early and played a key role. (If you are unfamiliar with the Alan Gross case, click here).

The excerpt (11:30) is here and the full podcast (1:00:48) is here.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Google Global Cache servers are online in Cuba

Ignore this post -- it was done in haste and is incorrect. The traceroute shown here is not from within Cuba and it was evidently directed to the specific ETECSA IP address. Sorry for being rushed and careless.

Last December, Google announced they would be placing Google Global Cache servers in Cuba, thereby speeding up access to YouTube and other Google services. My friend Jesus Martinez tells me that they are now reachable inside Cuba and working perfectly -- he is excited to report that Youtube is "great and fast."

Jesus sent me the Traceroute and Ping results shown below and, as you see, Ping time is 93 or 94 milliseconds with little variance. (I am not sure why the average is reported to be 84.73). The speed indicates that the servers are in Cuba and the IP address belongs to ETECSA. (Jesus says there are three GCC servers online).

Faster Youtube videos for those who can access them may not seem like a major practical breakthrough, but a US company being trusted to install equipment in a Cuban data center is symbolically and politically significant -- a threshold has been crossed. Cuban technicians will also gain access to and familiarity with state-of-the-art equipment.

I still have a question for Jesus or others -- which Google services are being cached?

Update 5/23/2017

I had just returned from a trip and was in a hurry, so may have spoken too soon in my haste to post the data from Jesus Martinez. It is not clear from the images he sent whether the IP address came from a domain name server or was directly entered into the traceroute and ping programs. Furthermore, the domain names in the traceroute sound like they are in Florida and the discrepancy I noted in the average ping time is strange. I have asked Jesus to clarify.

Update 5/23/2017

I received the following Ping data from a location in Cuba, but outside of Havana. It seems that at least some Cuban traffic is still being routed to Miami.

Update 5/23/2017

The traceroute shown here is not from within Cuba and it was evidently directed to the specific ETECSA IP address. Sorry for being rushed and careless.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Satellite links for interim Internet access in rural Cuba

Decentralized, possibly privately owned and operated, satellite links were a non-starter in 2013, but the technology has improved and the politics have begun to change.

Long Lamai, Malaysi (Source)
The Cuban government claims to be committed to ubiquitous Internet service and has talked about DSL connectivity to homes since 2013. Subsequently, they ran a DSL pilot study and are now offering service in a small Havana neighborhood. They are also conducting a small mobile-access trial.

Both efforts are dead-ends. The mobile trial uses 3G technology at a time when 4G is pervasive and 5G will be deployed before most Cubans own 3G-capable phones. DSL is old and slow and would require an immense investment in telephone central office equipment and replaced telephone wires. I hope ETECSA is not serious about these technologies.

I also hope to see Cuba leapfrog generations of technology and eventually have a ubiquitous, modern Internet, but they need different solutions in the interim. Public-access WiFi hotspots have been the most successful interim step taken by the Cubans, but they are not easily accessed in rural areas and they are too expensive for many.

Rural telecenter projects, India 2005
In 2013, I proposed an interim approach that could be deployed quickly throughout the island -- decentralized satellite access (Click here for a Spanish-language version). I suggested allowing ETECSA agents to own and sell time and services using satellite Internet links -- similar to the way Grameen Phone ladies in Bangladesh bought mobile phones to resell call time or telecentres were established in India and other developing nations. Alternatively, ETECSA could operate their own rural telecenters, like the Peruvian Cabinas Públicas.

The notion of privately-owned Internet-access facilities was a non-starter in 2013, but times have changed. ETECSA authorized agents to sell Internet and telephone time in 2013 and retail telecommunication agent is one of the occupations authorized for self-employment by the Cuban government. There are now 24,602 self-employed agents.

More important, Cuban policy has evolved. The opening of WiFi hotspots and navigation rooms and the home-connectivity and mobile-access trials indicate a change in attitude regardless of their limited practical impact. The government attitude toward private programmers and providers of Internet-based services has softened considerably; streetnets, while technically illegal, are tolerated and licensed and there are signs that this liberalization will accelerate when Raúl Castro steps down next year.

Decentralized, possibly privately-owned and operated, satellite links were a non-starter in 2013, but the technology has improved and the politics have begun to change. Today's geostationary satellite links should be considered as an interim means of achieving rural Internet connectivity and low-earth orbit satellites should be watched as a possible long-run solution.

Update 5/17/2017

Armando Camacho has posted a Spanish translation of this post here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cuentapropismo tecnológico en Cuba?

This is a guest post by Cuban professor Armando Camacho Costales. Armando is interested in the self-employment sector in Cuba and writes about the Internet on his blog Cuba 2.0.

Cuba tiene aprobadas 201 categorías de licencias para el trabajo por cuenta propia, mejor conocido como “cuentapropismo”, al cierre del 2016 se contabilizaban aproximadamente 520 mil 594 “personas” con licencias para ejercer la actividad del trabajo por cuenta propia. De ellos aproximadamente el 30% son menores de 25 años, 84 mil 109 son trabajadores asalariados en el sector estatal y 60 mil 897 jubilados. Resulta difícil establecer una cifra exacta debido a la propia naturaleza volátil del trabajo por cuenta propia con fuerte incidencia de altas y bajas registradas mensualmente.

Tampoco existen estadísticas oficiales del aporte del sector privado a la conformación del Producto Interno Bruto se estima que puede oscilar entre el 7% y el 15% del PIB para el 2015, y el 30% de la fuerza de trabajo económicamente activa del país.

Lo primero que llama la atención de la actualización del trabajo por cuenta propia mediante la Resolución No. 20 del 2016 del Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social es la cantidad de actividades decimonónicas o con un marcado carácter folclórico y hasta pintoresco. Por ejemplo: productor vendedor de artículos religiosos (excepto las piezas que tengan valor patrimonial según regula el Ministerio de Cultura) o vendedor de animales para estos fines, cuidador o entrenador de animales o forrador de botones. Igual la ausencia de trabajos profesionales, técnicos, en áreas que requieran estudios superiores como los relacionados con las telecomunicaciones, la informática, el cuidado de la salud, y en general los servicios terciarios de la economía.

Existen solo dos actividades relacionadas directamente con el sector tecnológico, de las telecomunicaciones, la electrónica o la informática: Programador de equipos de cómputo y Reparador de equipos eléctricos y electrónicos.

Aunque existen otras actividades aprobadas relacionadas con el sector de las telecomunicaciones que complementan los servicios de empresas estatales como Correos de Cuba y ETECSA: Agente de telecomunicaciones y Agente postal.

De una lectura y análisis de las cifras de las actividades anteriormente relacionadas
con el sector de las telecomunicaciones y la informática podemos acercarnos a interesantes
consideraciones. Al cierre del primer trimestre del 2017, existen 4620 Reparadores
de equipos eléctricos y electrónicos y 1432 Programadores de Equipos de Cómputos.

En correspondencia con estas actividades relacionadas directamente con las ICT existen otras que cuentan con cifras que las cuadruplican como por ejemplo pueden ser Comprador y Vendedor de Discos con 7505 licencias activas y Alquiler de Habitaciones con 22 338. Tal y como se puede apreciar en la siguiente tabla.

Comprador y Vendedor de Discos 7505
Alquiler de Habitaciones 22338
Agente Postal 441
Agentes de Telecomunicaciones 24602
Programador de equipos de computó 1432
Reparador de equipos eléctrico y electrónicos 4620

Comprador y Vendedor de Discos, por ejemplo es una actividad muy popular que puede resultar muy rentable al no solo establecer la comercialización de DVD y CD con contenido pirateado de multimedia nacional e internacional, sino que generalmente distribuyen y comercializan el conocido “paquete semanal."

Agentes de telecomunicaciones, igualmente pueden ofertar las recargas que ETECSA pone a disposición de sus usuarios a través de sitios en el extranjero.

Un análisis más detallado en cuanto a “programador de equipos de cómputo” podemos ver su distribución por edad y por territorios. La Habana cuenta con el 63% de los programadores activos de todo el país. El 56.22% son nacidos en la década del 80, comprendidos entre los 27 y 37 años.

Sin embargo una de las conclusiones que podemos señalar es el comportamiento entre las altas y bajas para todas las actividades estudiadas. Por ejemplo el 53.76 de los programadores de equipos de cómputo han solicitado baja de la actividad y el 51.62% de los reparadores de equipos electrónicos eléctricos. El mejor comportamiento lo tienen los agentes de telecomunicaciones con solo
28.58% de bajas. Tal y como se aprecia en la siguiente Tabla.

Un análisis más detallado y por años del comportamiento de las altas de los programadores de equipos de cómputos, del total de activos solo el 0.56% llevan más de cuatro años en la actividad. El 35.89 menos de un año. Comose puede apreciar en la siguiente tabla.

Esa volatilidad en el empleo por cuenta propia tiene una serie de condiciones multicausales, entre las que podemos citar. La escasa protección legislativa al considerar el ‘cuentapropismo” como una actividad empresarial “personal” sin el respaldo que proporcionan las sociedades mercantiles. El sistema tributario no promueve la productividad, la generación de empleo o la inversión y el ahorro, pues la carga tributaria para los trabajadores por cuenta propia puede oscilar entre un 30% y un 60% de sus ingresos netos. Imposibilidad de acceso al mercado mayorista de insumos ya sean tangibles o intangibles, el acceso a tecnologías o a los mercados nacionales o globales. Poca o nula financiación por parte de las instituciones financieras nacional, muchos de los financiamientos de estos emprendimientos se realizan con fondos de amigos o familiares residentes en el exterior sin las apropiadas garantías jurídicas o legales. Escaso acceso al internet. Imposibilidad de ejecutar directamente exportaciones o importaciones que solo son autorizadas a través de las empresas estatales adscritas y aprobadas por el Ministerio Cubano de Comercio Exterior.

No obstante todas las limitaciones y el moderado impacto de los emprendimientos tecnológicos en el total de cuentapropismo y el trabajo privado en la Isla, el potencial de dicho sector es visible en la remodelación del mercado laboral cubano, en la aplicación de nuevas tecnologías y modelos de negocios de acuerdo a las carencias y circunstancias económicas, tecnológicas y políticas de la Isla.

Cuba cuenta con una enorme cantera de profesionales bien educados y con deseos de improvisar, imaginar y mejorar las condiciones económicas de sus familias, sus comunidades y su nación.

Why not connect the Gaspar Social streetnet to the Internet?

Grupo creativo Gaspar Social (source)
I've been covering Cuban streetnets (local area networks with independent users that are not connected to the Internet) for some time. Reader Doug Madory told me about Gaspar Social, a new streetnet in Gaspar, a small town in central Cuba. Gaspar Social opened to the public last October and has grown quickly -- about 500 of Gaspar's 7,500 residents are now users.

Streetnets are illegal in Cuba and the government has ignored some and cracked down on others, but they seem to be tolerating them now as long as they remain apolitical and avoid pornography and other controversial material. Last month, Communist Party officials noticed Gaspar Social but did not shut it down. Yoandi Alvarez, one of the network creators, said "they made it clear our network was illegal but they wouldn't be taking our antennas down" and they were given instructions for applying for a permit.

So, residents of Gaspar can play games, download software, share files, socialize, etc., but they can not access the global Internet. Why not connect Gaspar Social to the Internet?

Gaspar is in the province of Ciego de Ávila and the capital city is Ciego de Ávila. ETECSA has six WiFi hotspots and three navigation rooms in Ciego de Ávila and, as a provincial capital, the city must have many government, medical and educational users. In other words, there must be relatively fast backhaul to the Internet in Ciego de Ávila.

Connecting Gaspar to Ciego de Ávila seems like it would be cheap and easy. As you see below, they are only 28.2 kilometers apart on the road (25 kilometers as the crow flies) and the terrain is flat. (Gaspar's elevation is 5.1 meters and Ciego de Ávila's 49 meters).

They could be connected with a high-speed wireless link or fiber. The flat terrain favors a wireless link and the road could provide a right-of-way for fiber. Installing 28 kilometers of fiber would be expensive in the US, but Cuba is not the US. One can imagine a community project using International Telecommunication Union (ITU) L.1700 cable. (For an example of a community fiber project, in Bhutan, click here).

ETECSA is the elephant in this hypothetical room. The ITU tracks regulatory evolution and, as of 2013, Cuba was one of the few remaining first-generation (regulated public monopoly) nations.

I suggested earlier that ETECSA consider streetnets as complementary collaborators rather than competitors or outlaws and last year they allowed a small streetnet to connect to a WiFi hotspot.

Cuba has a well-deserved reputation for improvisation and appropriate-technology innovation. I am not suggesting that they jump suddenly to fourth-generation regulation (regulation led by economic and social policy goals), but that they run a pilot test, connecting Gaspar Social to the Internet.

Here is a short video (1:56) on Gaspar Social:

And here is a longer video (13:48) with interviews of the network creators:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Trying to predict Miguel Díaz-Canel's Internet policy

I recently gave a short talk that concluded with some speculation on the attitude of Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is expected to replace Raúl Castro next year, toward the Internet. I searched online and came up with three clues -- two talks he has given and one act.

In May 2013, Díaz-Canel gave a speech at an educator's conference in which he anticipated today's preoccupation with fake news. He acknowledged the futility of trying to control information:
Today, news from all sources -- good ones, bad ones, those that are manipulated, and those that are true, and those that are half-truths, all circulate on the web and reach people and those people are aware of them.
He said the worst response to this would be silence and called upon schools to teach kids to spot fake news. The following is news coverage of his talk (2:57).

The second talk I found was the closing address to the First National Workshop on Informatization and Cybersecurity in February 2015. The three-day workshop was streamed to over 11,500 professionals in 21 auditoriums throughout the country and Díaz-Canel mentioned online discussion by over 73,000 users. (This "national workshop" sounds like a unique mass-collaboration event and I would like to hear more about the format from those who participated).

Díaz-Canel said the Cuban State would work to make (safe and comprehensive Internet) available, accessible and affordable for everyone and that the Internet should be a tool for the sustainable human development in Cuba and its effective integration into the community of nations. He recognized the Internet as a tool benefiting the economy, science, and the culture.

This positive message was dampened somewhat by his recitation of the threats posed by the US and the responsibility of the citizens to use the Internet legally. Reading between the lines, it may be that he envisions a China-like policy of reaping the benefits of the Internet by expanding it while using it as a political tool by restricting access to controversial content, surveilling users and spreading propaganda. (Freedom House considers the Cuban Internet unfree today and the only nations they consider less free are Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria and China).

The following video shows news coverage of Díaz-Canel's talk (3:26) and you can read the transcript here.

The third and perhaps most encouraging clue I found regarding Díaz-Canel's view of the Internet was not a speech, but his support of freedom of expression on the Lajovencuba Web site.

Lajovencuba, which refers to itself as a "socialist project of political debate speech on the web" was created at the University of Matanzas in April 2010. It was named after a political and revolutionary organization created by Antonio Guiteras in mid-1934. The original tagline was "A blog of university students that speaks of the Cuban reality" and today it is "Socialism and revolution."

Díaz-Canel and the founders of Lajovencuba
This does not sound like a pro-US blog, but in November 2012, it was blocked.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it was restored in April 2013. The better news is that Díaz-Canel met with and endorsed the founders of Lajovencuba.

I started this post thinking I would at least come to a tentative conclusion as to the likely Internet policy of Díaz-Canel and the next generation of Cuban leaders, but I am still up in the air.

Update 5/25/2017

Antonio Moltó, UPEC president, Miguel
Díaz Canel and Miriam Nicado, UCI Rector
Díaz-Canel gave a speech at the 2017 Cuba Network workshop convened by the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) and the University of Information Science (UCI).

It is dangerous to reach conclusions based on press coverage of a speech, but this report left me with the impression that while calling for increased Internet access, he is focused on Cuba's national network. He praised ETECSA for lowering rates for access to the national network and said it was necessary to develop government and e-commerce websites, and infrastructure that facilitates navigation in the national network. The report says he also addressed content citing the need to monitor the press (censorship?) prioritize Cuban press reports (trolling?), confront subversive projects (from the US?) and, above all, generate Cuban content.

Lest this sound negative, let me reiterate that it was based on a second-hand report of the speech and my Spanish is rudimentary.

Better yet, I'll end on a positive note. In March, the Cubans held a Workshop on Informatics and Communication for the Society in which self-employed programmers and representatives of state software companies met and were encouraged to collaborate. This month it is Journalists talking about the Internet. Are we seeing slow thawing?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

How many licensed, self-employed programmers are there in Cuba?

The Cuban government has licensed more self-employed computer programmers than clowns and button coverers combined.

The other day I wrote a somewhat optimistic post pointing out that the Cuban government and government software companies are reaching out to self-employed programmers. One of the reasons for my optimism was a recent informatics and communication workshop, TICS 2017, billed as an exchange between state and non-state sectors working together for the society.

Cubadebate covered the workshop and wrote that about 5% of the roughly 900 self-employed programmers in Havana attended. An anonymous source told me there are 904 licensed programmers in Havana and provided the following license counts for three of the 201 occupations eligible for private employment.

Number of Cuban self-employment licenses

It is encouraging to see that the number of licensed programmers exceeds the number of clowns and button coverers combined. That being said, licensed programmers are more likely to be inactive and the opposite holds true for both clowns and button coverers.

Joking aside, we see another positive trend -- the number of active, self-employed programmers has grown steadily and the growth rate has increased every year:

Number of active programmer licenses each year

A couple years ago, I wrote a post asking whether Cuba would allow software exports -- it seems the answer may be "yes."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Exporting Cuban software and programming -- the times they are a changin'

TICS 2017 taglines: Intercambio entre los sectores estatal y no estatal and Juntos por la sociedad

I've been tracking the nascent Cuban software industry for some time and, after the US decided to allow the import of services provided by independent Cuban entrepreneurs, I wondered if the Cuban government would allow software exports.

I've been away for the last few weeks and, upon my return, discovered some positive signs. Foremost was the first Workshop on Informatics and Communication for the Society (TICS 2017), held in Havana on March 29-30. Fifteen projects were presented and the attendees "succeeded in identifying business opportunities in a collaborative and supportive environment." The workshop was notable because it brought together representatives of the government, state software companies, academia and the private sector and it included discussion of legal matters hindering the development of relations between the private and government sectors. About five percent of Cuba's self-employed programmers attended.

There is also indirect evidence that the outlook is improving. Consider the evolution of the government attitude toward Revolico, a Cuban version of Craigslist classified ads. The Cuban government blocked access to Revolico three months after it was founded at the end of 2007. Co-founder Hiram Centelles countered by frequently changing the IP address, but the site was illegal, and, fearing the authorities, Centelles left Cuba for Spain, where Revolico co-founder Carlos Peña lived.

They began distributing Revolico on El Paquete Semanal and it took off. Today, Centelles has traveled to Cuba, speaks publically of the history of Revolico and the site is posting over 10,000 ads per day. More important, Revolico has three competitors. (More on the history of Revolico here).

Revolico and its competitors

I also see that while I was away, Granma published a positive article on the popular restaurant-directory app AlaMesa, calling it "the first and most comprehensive directory of restaurants in the Greater Antilles."
I suspect these examples are the tip of an iceberg. I've been told that there are 607 registered, self-employed programmers in Cuba. It is an open secret that Cuban programmers are doing off-shore work and services like Cubaoutsource and Ninjacuba are facilitating freelance engagement. The wheels of government turn slowly -- slower than most in Cuba -- but it does seem that the times may be a changin'.


Update 4/14/2017

In the first version of this post, I understated the number of Cuban computer programmers with self-employment licenses. My source corrected me, saying there are currently 3,097 licensed programmers, 1,432 of whom are active. That's more than clowns and button coverers combined.

Number of Cuban self-employment licenses

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Limited 3G mobile deployment -- hopefully an interim step

Cuba has begun rolling out 3G mobile access to users with 900 Mhz GSM phones.

Radio Rebelde reports that 3G is operating smoothly in Varadero and will soon be available in Jaguey Grande and the Zapata swamp area. My guess is that these locations were picked because of tourism and good backhaul to the Internet, but that's just a guess. The article mentions a speed of 3 Mbps, which would make it significantly faster than the WiFi hotspots.

Like the WiFi hotspots and recent home "broadband" offering, I hope this is a small interim step -- a stop-gap measure until Cuba is willing and able to afford a truly modern Internet and regulatory policy. (See several other possible interim measures here).

I hope I am right in assuming this is an interim step -- it would be sad to see Cuba making a major investment in 3G mobile less than a month after the International Telecommunication Union agreed on 5G wireless performance requirements.

Update 5/1/2017

ETECSA plans 3G access this year in the dark green areas shown on the following map:


(Since the beginning of the Internet, Cuba has tended to distribute infrastructure geographically rather than concentrate solely on the capital or major ciites as is often the case in developing nations).

Monday, March 20, 2017

First International Cybersociety Congress

The Unión de Informáticos de Cuba (UIC), Cuba's IT professional society will hold their First International Cybersociety Congress during October 16-20, 2017 in Varadero, Cuba. The Congress focuses on the year 2030 and will include a large number of themes -- something for everyone:

• Cloud Computing
• Big data
• Artificial intelligence, intelligent machines and robotics
• Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities
• Virtual reality and augmented reality
• Cognitive intelligence
• Business and government architectures
• Industry 4.0
• Cybersecurity
• Open data and standards, Semantic Web
• Emerging development platforms (software and hardware)

There will be refereed scientific papers and presentations of solutions to societal problems.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Three generations of Cuban WiFi hotspot sharing

Nano connected to WiFi access point
As soon as ETECSA began installing public access WiFi hotspots, black market resellers began sharing connections. They would connect a laptop to an ETECSA account then use pirated copies of Connectify, a connection sharing program running on the laptop, to create small WiFi hotspots of their own. At the time, ETECSA charged 2 CUC per hour online (two day's pay for many Cubans) and the re-sellers typically charged 1 CUC per hour. They broke even with two users and made a profit with more.

Connectify got wind of this use of their software and instead of complaining about the piracy, they decided to give free licenses to anyone in Cuba. Last summer, I spoke with Bhana Grover, Connectify CEO, and she said they were seeing around 25,000 Cuban hotpots start each month and an average of around 2,100 daily users of those hotspots. (A "start" occurs every time the program is launched).

There were two big problems with this connection sharing. One was performance, which was bad with two or more users sharing a single 1 mbps ETECSA connection. The other was proximity -- the laptop had to be withing WiFi range of the ETECSA access point and the users had to be within range of the hotspot. The hotspots were violating ETECSA terms of use and being close to the ETECSA access point made them easy to catch -- they were cutting into ETECSA revenue.

Last summer, I learned of a different approach to connecting to ETECSA hotspots. A street net in Pinar del Rio provided a gateway to a nearby ETECSA hotspot and allowed users to log on to their own ETECSA accounts from the comfort of their homes for a flat fee of 4 CUC per month, on top of the ETECSA charge. They used Ubiquity Nanostations with directional antennae so could be further from the ETECSA hotspot. Since the users were paying ETECSA the full access fee, they turned a blind eye toward the project, but the performance must have been degraded by hops through the street net.

I've just learned of a third variation on the theme from Internet researcher Olga Khrustaleva, who was in Havana late last year. Olga said it was now common to see connectivity resellers, but they were now using Ubiquity Nanostations to connect to ETECSA, enabling them to be further away and therefore more difficult to detect. The reseller points the Nanostation antenna to the ETECSA access point, then connects that to a WiFi router in or near his or her car. Olga says the nanostations are selling for around $200 in Cuba (and as low as $50 for some models on Amazon), but ETECSA has cut the price of a connection from 2 to 1.5 CUC per hour and Olga does not know whether the resale price was reduced.

I presume they power the access point using a car battery and an AC inverter and according to Olga, they assign sub-accounts to their users with a smart phone app. If you or someone you know is doing this, I'd like more technology and configuration details as well as a photo. (The photo shown above was not taken in Cuba).

These jury-rigged networks and the small businesses they enable are reminiscent of the taxi business based on creatively maintained old cars, street nets, motorized bicycles, etc. -- appropriate, do-it yourself technology developed under constraints.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Cuba remains analog in a digital world

This is a guest post by Google Policy Fellow, journalist and PhD student Olga Khrustaleva. Olga’s dissertation is on the Cuban Internet and she wrote the following after a research trip last year. I was surprised to learn that one can get black market cable TV in Havana and extent to which people are reselling ETECSA WiFi connections using Ubiquity Nano routers (as opposed to local hotspots using Connectivity software on laptops) in spite of their being illegal.

Raul announces death of Fidel, video
I was in Cuba when Fidel Castro died. That evening we went to bed early and were about to turn the lights off when my partner heard our upstairs neighbor tell her husband that the leader of the Revolution had passed. Neither of us could believe it and my partner shouted loudly:

-          Murio Fidel?
-          Si, the neighbor shouted back.

We turned the TV on and after a regular and uninterrupted newscast Raul Castro made an official announcement.
The apartment building where we stayed in the (quite marginal) neighborhood of Centro la Habana didn’t have glass windows, only wooden shades, so our neighbors’ lives inevitably became a part of ours. One neighbor woke us (and probably the entire house) up every morning shouting the name of the maintenance boy. Another one probably had bronchitis or something worse as she was coughing all day and night long. Some never turned their TV off; others always kept their door open. The night Fidel died everyone was watching the same channel – we could hear the echo of Raul’s voice from all neighboring apartments.
              Unlike the rest of the world that has been digitizing rapidly in the past 20 years Cuba still continues to live in analog mode. It’s much more convenient and customary for many to shout than to make a call or send a costly text. Public phones are still widely used and a phone conversation in Cuba usually starts not with polite “Hola, como estas?” (Hi, how are you?) but with “Dime” (tell me) – right to the point. First it sounded rude to me, but I quickly understood that people here simply can’t afford small talk. From 7 am to 11 pm a minute costs 35 cents, with the average official salary still being about $25 a month. Soon I became used to asking whether the person I was calling on the cellphone wanted to call me back from landline, an offer everyone gladly accepted. 
              Tricking the system?
Even with various restrictions at place, Cubans manage to get access to things. Cable TV is illegal, but easy to get for anyone ready to pay 10 CUC a month. The day after Fidel’s death we went to see a lady who changed dollars without the commission charged by official banks. The lady, let’s call her Monica, travelled abroad – to a few countries that still didn’t require visas for Cubans – every month or two to buy merchandise to sell in Havana. When we came by, Telemundo was showing people partying on the streets of Miami. Monica told us that if police saw what they were watching, they could have problems, but on normal days no one really cared much about cable.
The wifi provided by ETECSA is available in public parks, squares and hotels. To access it one needs a card (1.5 CUC for hour) with a user name and password. The first time I went to use wifi at a little park close to my house I was approached by a guy who offered Internet connection for 1 CUC an hour (back in November the ETECSA price was 2 CUC for hour). The park was full of people and few had ETECSA cards. Soon I learned that there were at least four different groups at that park offering Internet access. Each of them used "nanos, Ubiquity NanStations, to create wifi hotspots that shared a single ETECSA connection.
              To run a sub-network the guys logged in using ETECSA cards and then sold the connection to the people in the park. When someone wanted to connect, one of the guys would type in a password on the person’s phone and, when the time was over, delete it. Back in November they paid 2 CUC per hour connecting maybe 10-15 people an hour for 1 CUC. With so many people using the same link, the speed was so bad that sometimes I couldn’t even check email. Yet, many people around me were video-chatting using an app called IMO (Skype and several other popular apps doesn’t work in Cuba). Several people I met had nano stations (which are sold for around $200 in Cuba and for $50 on Amazon) in their homes in Havana so that they could use Internet without having to go to a park or hotel.
              I briefly talked to Ricardo (name changed), one of the guys who ran one of the sub-networks. He said they had the nano in the car parked nearby and that they had to be careful because there were cameras in the park and if the police saw them with someone else’s phone they could have problems. “Recently they took [to the police] some guys for sitting on the back of the bench,” Ricardo said. “And next day we went out to work a bit nervous.”
              Recently ETECSA lowered the price to 1.5 CUC for hour, but my guess is that the sub-networks will continue to exist as they benefit both, the guys who sell access as well as people who get the opportunity to connect to Internet paying less. ETECSA and the government likely are aware of the sub-networks, which exist in almost every park or square with ETECSA wifi, but tolerate them. Like El Paquete, this wifi businesses doesn’t present any danger to the government. The main connection is still managed by ETECSA, with access to some websites blocked and the majority of people are connecting to communicate with their families abroad, but they may worry that they are losing revenue.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Documentary on the Alan Gross case -- recommended

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and Television Martí, has produced a 45-minute documentary on Alan Gross.

Alan Gross was imprisoned for five years after being found guilty of bringing a few personal satellite-Internet ground stations into Cuba. I've reported on the technology, the propaganda and the legal effort to free him, but this documentary adds a personal touch -- you "meet" Alan, his wife Judith and his former cellmate and now dear friend Rolando Garcia.

I think you will like what you see -- Gross comes across as being smart, idealistic and having a sense of humor. He was not broken and embittered by his ordeal -- he is optimistically looking forward, not dwelling on the past.

Check it out.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

There is no Cuban home Internet plan -- and that's good news.

I've followed Cuba's home-connectivity "plan" from the time it was leaked in 2015 until the recent Havana home Internet trial. I thought the plan was a bad idea when it was leaked -- it calls for installation of obsolete DSL (digital subscriber line) technology -- and now that the Havana trial is complete, I question whether the plan was real.

ETECSA denied the validity of the leaked presentation at the time and their definition of "broadband" was "at least 256 kb/s." Furthermore, the goal was stated as "Alcanzar para el 2020 que no menos del 50% de los hogares disponga de acceso de Banda Ancha a Internet." My Spanish is not very good, so I am not sure whether the plan was for connectivity in 50% of homes or connectivity being available to 50% of homes. Either way, slow DSL will be a joke in 2020.

But, the free home-connectivity trial in Havana used the DSL technology described in the leaked plan -- might it be for real? I don't think so.

During the free trial, 858 of the 2,000 of eligible Havana homes tested the service and as of April 14, there were 358 paid subscribers. I've also heard that around 12 homes have been connected in Bayamo and the same was going to happen in Santa Clara and Las Tunas. If this home connectivity roll-out has been planned since 2015, why is it going so slowly? Why aren't other parts of Havana open? Why aren't they doing large-scale trials in Bayamo, Santa Clara and Las Tunas?

The quality of a DSL connection is a function of the length and condition of the telephone wire running between a home and the central office serving it. If ETECSA had really planned to bring DSL to many Cuban homes, they would have understood the necessity of investing heavily in wiring as well as central office equipment.

My guess is that the Havana trial and the installations in Bayamo, Santa Clara and Las Tunas are not part of a national home-connectivity plan, but ends in themselves -- interim measures aimed at bringing slow DSL connectivity to small businesses and self-employed people in the most affluent parts of selected cities. That makes more sense to me than a plan to spend a lot of money upgrading copper telephone wires and central office equipment in order to be able to offer obsolete connectivity to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. (I've always hoped Cuba would leapfrog today's technology, opting for that of the next generation).

If the DSL "plan" was never a plan, what might we expect? (The following is highly speculative).

My hope is that Cuba regards efforts like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, Street Nets and El Paquete as temporary stopgap measures while waiting for next-generation technology. If that is the case, we might see progress when Raúl Castro steps down next year.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who is expected by many to succeed Castro, acknowledged the inevitability of the Internet in a 2013 talk, saying "today, news from all sides, good and bad, manipulated and true, or half-true, circulates on networks, reaches people — people hear it. The worst thing, then, is silence." (I think Donald Trump may have been in the audience :-).

In a later speech, Díaz-Canel recognized that the Internet is a social and economic necessity, therefore the government has the responsibility of providing affordable connectivity to every citizen, but there is a caveat -- the government must be vigilant in assuring that the citizens use the Internet legally. Here is a clip from that speech:

In 1997, the Cuban government decided that the political risk posed by the Internet outweighed its potential benefit and decided to suppress it. At the same time, China opted for a ubiquitous, modern Internet -- understanding they could use it as a tool for propaganda and surveillance. It sounds to me like Díaz-Canel has endorsed the Chinese model and will push for next-generation technology with propaganda and surveillance.

(Again, my Spanish is not so great and I may have mischaracterized Díaz-Canel's statements. I would welcome other's reactions to the clip shown above or other statements he has made).

If Cuba does decide to install next-generation technology, can they afford it?

I can't be certain, but I doubt that they have the expertise or the money to quickly deploy a next-generation Internet.

Cuba has many information technologists who have become proficient at improvisation and working with outdated technology. I expect that they can quickly learn to work with modern technology if it is available.

Funding is tougher. Cuba is a "green field" and a timely move to modern infrastructure will require their being open to foreign investment and partnership, which may be a hard sell for Díaz-Canel or whoever replaces Castro. They need to adopt next-generation regulation and infrastructure ownership policy if they are to obtain next-generation technology. That will not be easy, but there are cultural and historical reasons to believe that Cuba may be able to do so. (If they succeed, we can all learn from them).

Who might Cuba partner with?

As a customer of an Internet service provider (ISP) that has a monopoly in my neighborhood, I fully understand the pitfalls of the wrong partner and would be cautious in dealing with large ISPs. I don't know who the likely vendors will be, but Google has the inside track. (Huawei is well established in Cuba, but is more narrowly focused than Google).

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt traveled to Cuba in June 2014, accompanied by Brett Perlmutter, who is now their Head of Cuba Strategy & Operations. Google's progress has been slow, but they seem to be patiently investing in relationships for the long haul. Their most technically significant achievement has been securing permission to install servers that cache their content on the Island, but their production of a tribute to Cuban arts and culture on their online Cultural Institute, including the following VR video on Jose Marti, may be more important for its political and cultural significance:

Google has much to offer Cuba -- experience with fiber infrastructure in developed and developing nations, content development and future technologies. Perhaps more important, they can profit by simply having more users in Cuba without having to sell them service or equipment -- they can profit by collaborating with ETECSA rather than competing with them.

Cuba should consider other partners, but Google seems to be in a strong position. As Perlmutter said when asked about home connectivity in a recent intverview, “We’d love to do that. We’ve put everything on the table and I’m really optimistic about this because everything is still on the table. We’re holding talks and discussing all these matters.” (For a Spanish version of the interview, click here).

Perlmutter also said that "ETECSA has a plan and our goal is to work hand in hand with them and assist them with the vast experience we have piled up around the globe doing this same thing.” It doesn't sound like the plan is to bring 256 kb/s DSL to Cuban homes.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Do-it-yourself rural fiber

Could local people build local fiber backbones?

Necessity has led Cubans to become do-it yourslef (DIY) inventors -- keeping old cars running, building strange, motorized bicycles, etc. They've also created DIY information technology like software, El Paquete Semanal, street nets and WiFi hotspot workarounds.

Last June the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) adopted a standard for "low-cost sustainable telecommunications infrastructure for rural communications in developing countries," L.1700. L.1700 cable should be of interest to both DIY technologists and ETECSA.

L.1700 is a technology-neutral "framework standard" for optical cable so there are multiple commercial offerings like these:

The cables are strong enough to be installed without being threaded through a protective duct and light and flexible enough to be installed by supervised volunteers or unskilled workers. The cables can be burried in shallow trenches, strung above ground or submerged. (For an example installation in Bhutan and more on L.1700, click here).

Large cities like Havana have expensive fiber rings intalled in tunnels and ducts under the streets. (Google has installed that sort of infrastructure in two African capitals). Could a small town construct their own fiber ring using L.1700-compliant cables and electronics -- creating a network like the one in the following ITU illustration?

What role might ETECSA play in such a network? At a minimum, they could provide backhaul to their backbone, treating the local government as a customer, but I would hope they would take a more active role -- training local people, designing the local network, making bulk purchases of cable and electronic and optical equipment, etc. (Current street net organizers could also play an important role in this process).

This relatively active role is reminiscent of a suggestion I made some time back for installing local area networks in Cuban schools or another for providing geostationary satellite connectivity as an interim step on the path to modern technology.

I've been offering suggestions like this to ETECSA since I began this blog. My suggestions might be financially, technically, politically or bureaucratically unfeasible, but I hope someone within ETECSA or the government is at least studying alternatives that go beyond today's slow, expensive and unreliable WiFi hotspots and the timid, obsolete home-connectivity plan foreshadowed by the recently-completed Havana trial.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Cuban home-connectivity trial ends this week, rollout to begin next week

The free home-connectivity trial in Old Havana will end this week. Two thousand homes were eligible for the trial and I was told, off the record, that 700 people have signed contracts to pay for the service. I am not certain, but my guess is that those two thousand homes are served by a single central office that has been upgraded to offer Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connectivity. (The revised contract count is lower -- see the 5/1/2017 update below).

I don't see home-connectivity prices on the ETECSA Web site yet, but I've been told off the record that the prices will be:
15 cuc 30 horas, 256 kb/s
30 cuc 30 horas, 512kb/s
45 cuc 30 horas, 1mb/s
The Web site Cibercuba says the prices will be approximately:
15 cuc 30 horas, 256 kb/s
50 cuc 30 horas, 512kb/s
70 cuc 30 horas, 1mb/s
115 cuc 30 horas, 2mb/s
Both sources agree that users will be required to recharge at least once per month, so these are minimum monthly charges and neither says whether unused hours will accumulate or be lost. I also assume that the speeds quoted are for downloading data from the Internet and that the upload speed is slower -- that the DSL links are asymmetric.

Regardless of which estimate, if either, is correct, the prices are high relative to Cuban incomes and the service is slow by today's standards. I was surprised to hear that 700 of the 2,000 eligible homes signed service contracts after the Old Havana trial. Some of the 700 customers may use the Internet for room rental or some other form of business to offset the cost. I recall parts of Old Havana as having stores and businesses, but am not familiar with the specific area in which the trial was held. (The revised contract count is lower -- see the 5/1/2017 update below).

I've also been told that starting next week, connectivity will be offered in Bayamo and Santa Clara -- I don't know how many central offices are in those cities, but my guess is that they will start with densely populated areas. I'm also unsure whether they will give a two-month free trial, as they did in Havana, or will charge from the start.

These installations are consistent with the home-connectivity plan that was leaked in June 2015. That plan promised to make home Internet connectivity available to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. If the acceptance rate of 700 out of 2,000 homes were to hold up, 17.5% of Cuban homes would be online by the end of 2020. (The revised contract count is lower -- see the 5/1/2017 update below).

Of course there are many factors that would throw that estimate off. The feasibility and speed of DSL connections is a function of the distance of the home from the central office serving it and the condition of the wiring between the home and the central office. Demographics and incomes also vary. I suspect that the infrastructure in the Little Havana trial area is better than average as are the incomes and degree of familiarity with the Internet.

Regardless, DSL speed ranging from 512 kb/s to 2 mb/s is extremely slow by today's standards. I had 5 mb/s DSL connectivity at my home in the 1990s.

I have consistently suggested that Cuba plan to leapfrog today's technology and consider installing next generation technology if possible. With this DSL rollout, they are recapitulating Internet infrastructure evolution from dial-up, to DSL. (They skipped ISDN :-).

I can only speculate on why they are taking the approach they are. Some would say they are afraid of the political implications of modern Internet connectivity. While that may have been the case at the time the Internet was just beginning, it is now clear that one-party governments like that of China have no problem remaining in power while exploiting the Internet. Bureaucracy may play a role, but I am sure there are people at ETECSA who understand that there are alternatives to DSL. Perhaps they are able to finance the DSL rollout on their own and are unwilling to accept foreign investment. (The role of ETECSA shareholders and their degree of control is unclear).

The end of the Old Havana trial and the availability of home connectivity in two more cities will generate a lot of publicity, but it remains a drop in the bucket if Cuba aspires to a ubiquitous, modern Internet.

Central office equipment upgrade for DSL Internet (source)

Update 1/3/2017

The Cuba 2.0 blog has done two posts on the home connectivity trial -- here and here. Those posts confirm several of the things I have been told and reported above and add several new observations. For example, some users reported that the service was unreliable, dropping connections and not being able to reach the DNS at times. It is hard to understand why that should be the case since Cuba 2.0 reports that the wiring to premises has been upgraded.

They also confirmed our speculation that the trial took place in atypical parts of the city -- areas with many self-employed people, shops and rooms for rent to tourists. That means we can not expect the same acceptance rate as seen after the end of the trial, pushing the goal of slow DSL connectivity into the distant future -- to say nothing of affordable, modern home connectivity.

Update 5/1/2017

I had been told that about 700 people had signed up to pay for ETECSA Hogar service but, evidently, that estimate was incorrect. (It may have been an estimate of the number of people using the service during the free trial). ETECSA reports that there were 858 accounts during the free trial period and 358 paid accounts as of March 14th. As shown below, the majority were low-speed accounts.


Monday, January 23, 2017

An ethnographic study -- what are Cubans doing online?

Aida Zekić, a student at the University of Uppsala, Sweden has published her masters thesis, "Internet in Public: an ethnographic account of the Internet in authoritarian Cuba."

The thesis reports on interviews of 50 Cuban Internet users at nine WiFi hotspots in Havana during September and October 2016. She asked pre-planed, but mostly open-ended questions of 25 men and 25 women. She tried to identify people between 25 and 50 years old, but a few were a little older.

She found that nearly all of the interviewees use the Internet for communication (long-distance calls and social media), over 40% use it for information seeking (for school and work, foreign and domestic news and visiting domestic Web sites) and fewer than 20% for entertainment (including sports):

(The grey ares in the figures attempt to show the precision of the estimate given by the green bars. I assume that they represent something like a 95% confidence interval for the mean, but the nature of the sample cannot support an exact inference.)

The percent of people using the Internet for entertainment -- a luxury -- would surely rise if connectivity were faster and cheaper, while communication and information seeking would rise, but to a lesser extent.

The following chart shows a somewhat finer breakdown of use cases:

This quote sums up a lot of what she observed:
Even if the Cuban Internet has grown significantly during these times of change, no vibrant online society has marched forward. A well-known group of dissidents continues to provide the international community with critical opinions from the inside, but the average netizen is busy calling their family, downloading pictures from Facebook onto their phones, or struggling to open Wikipedia in preparation for their next term paper.
This is a quick summary of the findings -- the table of contents of the full thesis is:
  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review: Internet in Authoritarian Regimes
  3. Background: Information and Communications in Cuba
  4. Theoretical Framework
  5. Methods of Study
  6. Findings
  7. Conclusion
  8. Discussion
The appendices include her questionnaire, responses and respondent's age and sex.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Two posts show little progress in a year and a half

In July 2015, a CNN News post described the then new WiFi hotspots in Havana. The post included a two-minute video clip that centered around an interview of Alexi, a university student who used the hotspot to speak with his mother in Italy. He says it is uncomfortable and expensive, but hopes it will be cheaper in the future and his "dream" is to have Internet connectivity at home.

CNN just published a new post on the WiFi hotspots, which also features interviews of WiFi users. They too are speaking with family members and their complaints are similar toAlexi's -- it is expensive, unreliable, uncomfortable and there is no privacy. In fact, the new post includes the old video of Alexi without mentioning that it was a year and a half old -- it fits right in.

After complaining, one woman concludes "But we're learning to adapt." She is resigned.

Alexi's dream is a little closer to coming true than it was in 2015. The access price is 25 percent lower and a home-connectivity trial is underway, if Internet service becomes available at his home and he can afford it, it will be much slower and more expensive than in other nations.

Both videos point out that Cuba is one of the least connected nations in the world. The hotspots are better than nothing, but they are a drop in the bucket. The Cuban Internet is marginally better than when the hotspots opened in the summer of 2015, but the gap between Cuba and the rest of the world has widened significantly during that time.

The same video is shown in both post.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

China's Haier Group will manufacture low-end tablets and laptops in Cuba

Chinese companies are the primary vendors of Cuban Internet infrastructure and consumer electronics -- now they are moving into Internet-related manufacturing.

Haier is in 29 countries
I had never heard of the Haier Group until yesterday, when I read that they would be manufacturing laptops and tablets in Cuba.

A quick Google search revealed my parochial ignorance. It turns out that Haier is one of the world's largest home appliance and consumer electronics companies, selling under its own brand name and producing "white label" products for other companies.

In 1999, when they were making one third of the refrigerators sold in China, they decided to enter the US market. It took them a year to get a meeting with Walmart and this year they finalized a $5.6 billion purchase of General Electric's appliance division.

In speaking of the GE acquisition, Bloomberg reported that Haier "had always fancied themselves the GE of China so now they get the real thing," but another Bloomberg post quotes an analyst as saying that “Haier is not interested in becoming the GE of China; they want to be the Apple of China.”

Since Haier is going to be making laptops and tablets in Cuba, I checked out their current offerings. They are low-end and very cheap -- the opposite of Apple today. For example, their 10-inch Windows 10 tablet with a detachable keyboard sells for $149.99. The reviews are not surprising. It is slow and the build quality poor, but it is fine for running a browser with 6 or 8 tabs open and Office apps -- just don't expect to edit video or run demanding games on the machine.

They say the laptops will be "6th generation," which sounds pretty cool until you see the specs -- Core i3, Celeron and Core i5 CPUs with up to 1 TB of memory. It is clear that this factory will not be churning out the "Apples of China" for some time. (Maybe they started counting Intel generations with the 4004).

They are partnering with GEDEME, a Cuban manufacturer and wholesaler of telecommunication and electronic devices as well as office furniture and radio towers. It sounds like GEDEME is a jack-of-all trades manufacturer and they will assemble the machines using Haier parts, equipment and production processes. The factory capacity is said to be 500 units per day, but only 50,000 units are planned for the first year and initially all units will be for the wholesale market and government offices.

GEDEME factory -- four managers, one worker, no robots -- symbolic if not literal.
The software partner is Cuba's University of Informatics Science, which will be responsible for drivers and customization for the operating system -- presumably Windows 10.

This reminds me of Japanese industry after World War II. They began making low-end products using local labor, but gradually moved up the value chain until they were using foreign labor and producing high-end products. Cuba is the foreign labor in this case -- low-cost and relatively well educated.

However, there has been a major shift in manufacturing technology since "made in Japan" meant low-end products -- assembly work is now heavily automated and will be more so in the future. I wonder how many Cubans will be employed in this factory and what sorts of jobs they will have.

Chinese companies are the primary vendors of Cuban Internet infrastructure and consumer electronics -- now they are moving into manufacturing.

Update 3/6/2017

Haier is now making and selling Android set-top boxes in Cuba as well as tablets and TV sets.
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