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.

At the end of the free trial, a friend told me that around 700 of the 2,000 of eligible Havana homes agreed to pay to continue the service. He also said 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 they 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 ubiqutius, 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 about 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The cost of doing business in Cuba

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council reports that the Google Global Cache project is being paid for by Google and will cost the government of Cuba nothing.

That is not surprising since Google will gain public visibility and their services will improve. More important, it establishes a business relationship with ETECSA and the cost is a drop in their bucket -- much less than the cost of selling themselves to the Cuban government has been.

The post also states that
People’s Republic of China-based companies have and continue to provide (either at no cost or with long-term favorable financing backed by the government of the People’s Republic of China) telecommunications and communications infrastructure and consumer communication devices to the Republic of Cuba.
That is more surprising since Chinese companies, especially Huawei, are selling a lot of phones, installing a lot of infrastructure and already have business relationships with Cuba. China was also involved in the installation, and some say financing, of the undersea cable connecting Cuba to the Internet.

This post reminds me of a Wikileak from 2010 in which it was disclosed that Cuba was having trouble repaying Chinese debt.

Excerpt from US diplomatic report (Wikileaks)

Friday, December 9, 2016

Google Global Cache coming to Cuba

A win for Cuba, Google and the US administration

There have been rumors this week that Google was about to announce some sort of deal in Cuba and I had speculated (wished really) that they might be collaborating with ETECSA, Cuba's government telecommunication monopoly, in their forthcoming fiber trial in Havana -- hopefully leading eventually to a city-wide fiber backbone.

That wish may not be granted, but it seems a big deal is in the offing. The Associated Press reports that on Monday Eric Schmidt will be in Havana to sign a deal bringing Google Global Cache to Cuba. The AP post does not reveal any details -- I guess we will have to wait till Monday for that -- but if Eric Schmidt is travelling to Havana for the announcement, my guess is that Google's content and services will be cached on ETECSA servers in Cuba.

I've speculated earlier on the possibility of Google investing in a Cuban data center and this would be the first such investment. If Google content and services are cached on the Island, Cubans will see improved performance and it will reduce the load on the undersea cable connecting Cuba to the Internet. Multiple caches within Cuba could reduce the load on their national backbone as well.

I don't know if Google will be covering the cost of the project or not, but even if they don't, Cuba will be getting access to and training on state of the art technology. That would be more valuable than the cost of servers. (It would be cool if Cuban universities were involved in the project).

Google will also win. If Google performance improves significantly, they will gain users who click on ads and use services like YouTube, Google Plus, Google Drive and Gmail. These payoffs would not come for some time, but eventually change will come to Cuba. (And, I'd love to see a country -- even a small one -- in which Google Plus was more popular than Facebook).

Chinese companies have dominated the Cuban infrastructure market to date and Huawei is a partner in the aforementioned fiber trial. If Google collaborates with ETECSA in content delivery and data center infrastructure, it will establish them as a business partner, gaining them a seat at the table when other Cuban infrastructure -- like a fiber backbone in Havana -- is planned and procured.

It would also be good publicity for Google and a win for the US administration and President Obama's legacy. Trump says he wants to renegotiate "the deal" with Cuba, but if this Google/ETECSA partnership materializes, Google will be added to the list of US airlines, telephone companies, hotel chains, cruise lines, etc. who have begun doing business in Cuba under the terms of the current "deal."

We will know more on Monday, but I hope the AP report turns out to be accurate.

Update 12/10/2016

We are seeing pushes by Cuba and by the US to close business deals before Trump becomes president. It is hard to imagine Trump -- a business man -- killing business deals when the majority of Americans favor more liberal relations with Cuba.

Update 13/13/2017

The deal has been signed -- Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and ETECSA Executive President Mayra Arevich Marín announced that Google Global Cache will be coming to Cuba.

Eric Schmidt and Mayra Arevich Marín.Foto: Oscar Figueredo Reinaldo/ Cubadebate.

No details have been released, but I've been told by a friend that Google's content will in fact be cached in Cuba.

Update 12/12/2016

Google has an interactive map of Global Cache servers around the world, but for now, it shows no servers in Cuba.

Update 12/13/2016

Google network engineer Mike Axelrod gave a presentation on the working and advantages of Google Global Cache at an Internet Society conference in 2008. He estimates a 20% latency improvement over slow links when content is cached within the ISP network (ETECSA in this case), but that will depend upon many factors.

I do not know when the system will go live, but the impact will be minimal at first because of other congestion points in the Cuban Internet. But that is short term. The real significance of this deal is the acceptance and inclusion of Google as a vendor, a willingness of Cuba to begin moving to modern technology and one more relationship that helps lock in the political progress of the last two years.

(Armando Camacho has translated a portion of Axelrod's presentation into to Spanish in long comment on a post on his blog).

Update 12/15/2016

It has been reported that this project was done at Google's expense. Chinese companies have also supported Cuban Internet projects with below-market loans or grants.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council reports that the Google Global Cache project is being paid for by Google and will cost the government of Cuba nothing.

That is not surprising since Google will gain public visibility and their services will improve. More important, it establishes a business relationship with ETECSA and the cost is a drop in their bucket -- much less even than the cost of selling themselves to the Cuban government has been.

The post also states that
People’s Republic of China-based companies have and continue to provide (either at no cost or with long-term favorable financing backed by the government of the People’s Republic of China) telecommunications and communications infrastructure and consumer communication devices to the Republic of Cuba.
That is more surprising since Chinese companies, especially Huawei are selling a lot of phones, installing a lot of infrastructure and already have business relationships with Cuba. China was also involved in the installation, and some say financing, of the undersea cable connecting Cuba to the Internet.

This post reminds me of a Wikileak from 2010 in which it was disclosed that Cuba was having trouble repaying Chinese debt.

Excerpt from US diplomatic report (Wikileaks)

Update 12/27/2016

Blogger Mario Felix Lleonart has raised an interesting question -- will the presence of Google servers in Cuba facilitate surveillance and censorship? (His post in English is here). My initial reaction was that it will not because ETECSA has the ability to monitor and control all traffic going to Google servers whether they are on or off the island.

That being said, having the servers inside ETECSA's network would make surveillance faster just as it would make watching YouTube videos faster so they might be able to afford to do more.

I also realize that I have only a very simple understanding of Google's caching algorithm. For example, if someone does an "in:anywhere" search in Gmail, will that cause the contents of all of their Gmail folders to be cached in Cuba? And, if it does, does the Cuban government have a right to see that data?

If so, in what form will it be delivered? Could they be compelled to turn over all of someone's email history in clear text? Would the government have access to Google's machine learning technology for surveillance?

The devil is in the details and there are a lot of details here. We do not know what the legal and technical arrangements are between Google and Cuba or any other nation in which Google caching servers are located.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Wishful thinking -- Google Fiber in Havana

Might ETECSA, Cuba's government-monopoly telecommunication company, collaborate with Google to provide connectivity in Havana? This post offers conjecture, but it is informed conjecture.

Consider the following:
  • When Google Fiber started in Kansas City, most people assumed that it was a demonstration project, intended to spur investment by the incumbent US Internet service providers (ISPs). Few thought that Google wanted to become a retail ISP.
  • Google Fiber garnered a lot of publicity and Google, began speaking of it as a real, profit-making business. They announced other cities and started laying fiber in some of them.
  • Last June, Google bought Webpass, a small ISP that deploys fiber and was experimenting with unproven, but perhaps revolutionary pCell wireless technology from Artemis Networks. I speculated that they might be thinking of shifting Google Fiber to a hybrid fiber-wireless model based on that acquisition and other experiments they were conducting.
  • Last October Google Fiber announced that their work would continue in cities where they had launched or were under construction, but they would "pause operations and offices" in cities in which they had been conducting exploratory discussions and they took many, but not all workers off the Google Fiber project.
  • Google's Project Link has installed wholesale fiber backbones in two African capitals and I have suggested and speculated that they might do the same in Havana (with the caveat that they do it in conjunction with ETECSA, since there are no competing retail ISPs in Cuba as there are in Africa).
  • Google fiber backbones in Kampala and Accra
  • Last July ETECSA announced that they would be running a fiber trial in parts of Old Havana. They did not specify if it was fiber to the premises or neighborhood.
  • A month ago, a friend told me that a friend of his who worked at ETECSA said the fiber trial would begin December 5.
  • Last week, Trump threatened to "terminate the deal" (whatever that means to him) if Cuba would not make it better.
  • Yesterday, nearly identical stories suggesting that the White House was pushing Cuba on deals with Google and General Electric were published in the Wall Street Journal and El Nuevo Herald.

That is all for real -- now for the conjecture ...

Maybe the trial in Old Havana will be a joint project between Google and ETECSA. Google has considerable fiber installation experience with Project Link in Africa and Google Fiber in the US. A joint project with ETECSA would be relatively simple because they would not have to deal with competing ISPs as in Africa or lawsuits and other obstacles from incumbent ISPs as in the United States.

It could either be a pilot experiment -- a trial -- or the first step in leapfrogging Havana's connectivity infrastructure. One can imagine Google installing a fiber backbone in Havana like they have done in Accra and Kampala and leaving it up to ETECSA to connect premises using a mix of fiber, coaxial cable and wireless technology.

If that were to happen, Havana could "leapfrog" from one of the worst connected capital cities in the world to a model of next-generation technology. If things went well in Havana, which city would be next?

The partnership between Google and ETECSA could take many forms. Google might supply expertise and capital and ETECSA could supply labor and deal with the Cuban and Havana bureaucracies.

In return, Google would get terrific publicity, a seat at the table when other Cuban infrastructure like data centers or video production facilities were discussed and more users to click on their ads. (Take that Facebook). Havana could also serve as a model and reference-sell for cooperation between Google and other cities. (Take that Comcast and AT&T). There might even be some revenue sharing, with ETECSA paying Google as the ISPs do in Africa.

This would also be a win for the US administration and President Obama's legacy. Trump says he wants to renegotiate "the deal" with Cuba. If so, he would find Google (and GE?) at the negotiating table along with US airlines, telephone companies, hotel chains, cruise lines, etc.

Again -- this is conjecture ... but would the Wall Street Journal print something if it were not more than a rumor -- perhaps something leaked by the White House?

A Google-ETECSA collaboration in Old Havana?

Update 12/7/2016

Well, it looks like my conjecture was off base. December 5th has come and gone without an announcement of the fiber trial in Havana with or without Google's participation.

The US-Cuba Bilateral Commission met today and their press release enumerated considerable progress in several areas, but said nothing about deals with Google or other companies.

An article in OnCuba says that agreements were reached with Google, General Electric, Goodyear, Caterpillar and Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Pearl Seas Cruises. It restates that Cubans have access to the Play Store and mentions their collaborated on Kcho's WiFi hotspot, but it says nothing about more connectivity or collaboration with ETECSA.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cuban ICT statistics report for 2015

I look at the ICT statistics reported anually by ONEI, the Cuban Office of statistics and information, every year. This year's report has been out for a while, but I have been too focused on the impact of the Internet on the US election and its aftermath to look at it until now.

This table shows the Internet-related statistics from the latest report:

And this table shows the percent changes over the years:

The first thing that jumps out is a 28% increase in the number of number of users of Internet services, while the number of computers connected to the net is up by only 2.3%. That means either many more people are sharing computers or they are reporting apples and oranges. While I am sure many people use shared land-line computers to access the net at work or school, the count of users of Internet services must include users who bring their own portable devices to public-access WiFi hotspots.

Furthermore, they combine the number of users with international Internet access and those whose access is restricted to the domestic Cuban intranet. Users at public-access locations can reach most, but not all, of the Internet since the Cuban government and some US companies block some sites and services. I frequently see it stated that 5% of Cubans have international Internet access, but have never seen any data to support that arbitrary number.

Finally, we must remember that the experience of a Cuban Internet or intranet user is not the same as that in most other nations -- connections are slow and unreliable and the cost is extremely high.

We also note that the number of .cu domains has remained essentially flat for two years, probably an indication that most new Cuban Internet sites and services are being registered as .com, .es, etc. I suspect that most new .cu registrations are by government agencies or enterprises, but have no data to support that. I also wonder if some change in Cuban law caused the .cu registration to drop precipitously in 2014.

The report also covers telephone service. Only one new central office was added this year, bringing the total to 741 (689 digital). That is relevant to the Internet because a plan that was leaked in 2015 said that by 2020, Internet connectivity using DSL technology would be available to 50% of Cuban homes. (Note that they say connectivity would be available, but do not project prices or say that 50% of homes would subscribe).

For that to occur, the equipment in central offices must be upgraded and/or phone wires running to many homes replaced. This report says nothing about either and we can not be sure that the plan is being executed. Regardless, if it is carried out, the DSL speeds will be slow. DSL is a poor technology choice, especially in a nation with old telephone wiring.

Cuba should look at other options for home connectivity, and there is an indication that they are doing so in a fiber trial that is expected to begin in Havana this month. (A friend told me it would start on December 5 -- stay tuned).

Update 12/4/2016

Professor Armando Camacho has posted his analysis of the latest ONEI ICT statistics report (in Spanish). He comments critically on the report and also discusses Cuban ICT statistics in context by comparing them to those of other nations.

He has followed up with an online survey of Cuban Internet users, which you are invited to complete.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Would you like to write a post for this blog? ¿Le gustaria publicar en este blog?

Would you like to write a guest post for this blog? I've had a couple of recent guest posts and would welcome others. It may be an original contribution or something you have published previously. You may write in English or Spanish (or both) and you may write anonymously if you wish. The topic must be relevant to the Cuban Internet -- its technology, applications or implications for individuals, organizations or society.

¿Le gustaria publicar en este blog? He recibido algunas pocas contribuciones en el pasado y me gustaria recibir mas. Puede ser una contribución original o algo que haya publicado anteriormente. Usted puede escribir en inglés o español (o en ambos) y puede escribir anónimamente si lo desea. El tema tiene que ver con la Internet Cubana -- su tecnologia, applicaciones o la manera en que la red ha afectado a individuos, organizaciones o a la sociedad.

Update 12/4/2016

Armando Camacho has offered to forward guest contributions to this blog for those who do not have Internet access. Gracias, amigo!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Internet in Cuba

Guest post by Cuban professor Armando Camacho Costales

Nearly two years after December 17th, Cuban youth are aware of the Internet -- the genie is out of the bottle -- but access remains severely limited and slow. It is clear that the Internet will impact individuals, organizations and society in ways we can not predict, and that generates fear, but Armando looks forward to universal access. He is confident that the Internet will lead to "creative destruction."


Casi dos años del 17 de diciembre uno de los cambios más evidentes y de mayor impacto en la vida cotidiana del cubano ha sido la posibilidad de acceder a la INTERNET. En toda la geografía nacional se ha incorporado al paisaje urbano y rural cientos de jóvenes con sus portátiles, tabletas, teléfonos inteligentes “navegando por la internet”. Pero la mayoría de esos jóvenes aún pueden hacer la distinción entre estar “on-line” y “off-line”.

Narraba Kafka: “A partir de cierto punto en adelante no hay regreso. Es el punto que hay que alcanzar”. Ese es el punto de no retorno que hay que alcanzar en la INTERNET en Cuba; cuando nuestros jóvenes no sepan distinguir entre estar “conectados” o “desconectados”.


La INTERNET no está exenta de limitaciones. ETECSA es un monopolio. El único proveedor de servicios de INTERNET en Cuba (ISP, por sus siglas en inglés). El único proveedor de telefonía fija y móvil, local y de larga distancia, la que despliega, administra y gestiona la totalidad de las redes de telecomunicaciones cubanas. Además de otros variados servicios. ETECSA impone precios de monopolio que nada tienen que ver con la dinámica de la oferta o la demanda; ejemplo: 10 horas de conexión a la INTERNET equivalen a 20 CUC o 500 CUP, el 85.6% del salario medio mensual nacional del año 2014 según las cifras oficiales de la ONEI.

ETECSA posee estándares de calidad en la prestación de dichos servicios ISP que pueden ser considerados medios o bajos si los comparamos con naciones latinoamericanas como Chile, República Dominicana o Ecuador; resulta común que la conectividad a la INTERNET desde sus salas de navegación NAUTA (fija) o puntos WIFI (móviles) se vea afectada por una variedad de problemas técnicos o de infraestructura, incluso hasta de gestión y administrativos.

Las condiciones de infraestructura en las Salas de Navegación son bien pobres. Un ejemplo, en el Tele Punto Comercial, ubicado en la transitada calle Obispo, necesitas hacer una “cola” de una hora para adquirir una tarjeta para conectarte, después otra media hora para acceder a la Sala de Navegación. De las doce estaciones de trabajo solo están en servicio cinco, de estas cinco dos tienen defectuosos los puertos USB, el teclado es ilegible, los navegadores están desactualizados o no tienen instalados todos los componentes necesarios que te permitan visualizar, descargar o gestionar las facilidades con que cuenta la Red. Lo mismo ocurre con los puntos de acceso WIFI.

Finalmente accedes, comienza a transcurrir el tiempo esta vez ya con el precio de ETECSA, una hora “on-line” por dos pesos cubanos convertibles; para enfrentarnos a mensajes cómo estos:

Entonces enfrentas otra de las limitaciones de la Red en Cuba. La imposibilidad de acceder a la totalidad de la INTERNET. Solo tienes acceso a una versión de la Red, una INTERNET (re)definida y controlada por visiones censuradas y (re)construidas por una diplomacia electrónica, el dilema del dictador o una “neoguerra fría” fraguada esta vez en nuestros campos de batallas virtuales.

Entendimientos y anarquías

En cuanto a la interpretación del presente y a la proyección del futuro de la INTERNET en Cuba; y, como punto de partida prefiero enfocarme en la famosa frase de Eric Schmidt:
Internet es la primera cosa que la humanidad ha creado y que la humanidad no entiende, el mayor experimento de anarquía que hemos tenido.
La frase de Schmidt tiene total vigencia en la Cuba de Hoy. Estamos confrontando esas múltiples confrontaciones entre “entendimientos” y “anarquías” de ese experimento llamado INTERNET; y no solo a nivel técnico o académico, sino a nivel de toda una sociedad.

Los debates actuales que se producen en torno a la libertad de prensa en la Isla, el periodismo, los medios de información, el acceso a la información son consecuencia directa de una sociedad que se acomoda e intenta “entender esa anarquía”. Concebir en nuestra “vita activa” nacional la “libertad de INTERNET”.

“Entender esa anarquía” conlleva a enormes esperanzas de cambios pero también comporta diversas actitudes e inquietudes sociales, políticas, culturales y económicas. Pues afecta los paradigmas económicos, sociales y políticos.

Por cuestiones profesionales conozco del impacto y las correlaciones del despliegue de las tecnologías de la información y las comunicaciones (ICT por sus siglas en inglés) en el crecimiento del Producto Interno Bruto o en otras variables económicas como pueden ser la productividad, el trabajo, la movilidad laboral... Pero la INTERNET es mucho más, ya que genera una dinámica otra en aspectos menos tangibles como la propia inteligencia humana, el funcionamiento de sus redes neuronales, la percepción de bienestar en las personas y la colectividad, las relaciones interpersonales y sociales, la cultura y nuestra propia visión como especie de nuestro mundo.

Temores y fantasías- Sociedad en Red

Según un estudio publicado por Martin Hilbert en la revista Science en 2010, el 95% de toda la información existente en el planeta está digitalizado y en su mayor parte accesible desde la INTERNET.

El acceso del 50% de la población para el año 2020 resulta una meta aceptable, pero no suficiente. Una meta aceptable y suficiente sería que el 90% de los cubanos accedan a ese 95% de toda la información humana digitalizada. Ahora.

Ese ahora será nuestro reto. La (re)construcción de un dialogo nacional y multidisciplinario para definir y establecer las políticas indispensables con los instrumentos técnicos, legales, sociales, económicos y políticos necesarios para maximizar el valor único que tiene la INTERNET como herramienta de colaboración y cooperación, como instrumento difusor de conocimientos y pluralidad, como motor generador de libertades y conexiones, como experiencia de educación e innovación, facilitadora para establecer redes digitales y humanas que nos dignifiquen. Para que por igual individuos como la sociedad en su conjunto expandir y explorar todas sus posibilidades. Nuestro reto es definir y establecer nuestra Cuba en Red. Ahora…

Una mayor penetración de las ICT y de las redes fijas y móviles y de la infraestructura necesaria que facilite un mayor y mejor acceso de la INTERNET para un aprovechamiento de todas sus potencialidades por parte de una población con altos índices de educación y altas expectativas sociales y económicas, facilidades para importar tecnología, políticas que promuevan la red de dominio .cu con contenidos educativos, comerciales, entretenimiento, desarrollados por emprendedores cubanos y las instituciones y empresas nacionales.

Escribía Manuel Castells por allá por el lejano 2009:
Poder y contrapoder, relaciones fundamentales en la sociedad, se estructuran en la mente humana mediante la construcción de significado y mediante el procesamiento de la información de acuerdo a unos determinados valores e intereses.
Desde la aparición del concepto Sociedad en Red la propia conectividad a la INTERNET resulta un poderoso instrumento de comunicación y una efectiva y autónoma organización colaborativa para contraponerse a los particulares intereses ideológicos y económicos y a todas las inercias que impidan la propia dinámica social de cambios.

En los próximos años asistiremos a la asimilación de esos valores e intereses mediante la asimilación no solo de información sino de una redefinición de nuestros propios significados como individuos y sociedad en transición. Dinámica de cambios que promueve un acceso al enorme reservorio de experiencias humanas que es la INTERNET.

Asistimos en Cuba a la “destrucción creativa” teorizada por los economistas de la Escuela de Viena. De ahí que los cambios en nuestros paradigmas de comunicación y la dinámica social resulten tan significativos y relevantes cuando analizamos el impacto que el acceso a la INTERNET tiene sobre Cuba.

El propio Manuel Castells concluye su ensayo:
Una tecnología de comunicaciones digitales que ya es una segunda piel para los jóvenes, mientras que, por otro lado, alimenta los temores y las fantasías de los que siguen gobernando una sociedad que ya apenas comprenden.

Monday, October 17, 2016

El Internet que hay en Cuba

A guest post by Damián Fernández Suárez

Blogger Damián Fernández Suárez has written a guest post for laredcubana. He discusses three ways Cubans access the net and describes an old hack.

Decir que “en Cuba hay internet” pudiera resultar una frase contradictoria, a pesar de las dos décadas de haberse realizado la conexión definitiva a internet, solo personal del gobierno y muy pocas instituciones tienen el privilegio de acceder a este servicio en todo su esplendor, demonizando ese término hasta hacerlo casi inalcanzable,  para muchos es una quimera acceder a un lugar donde se encuentre un equipo conectado a la red, dada las fuertes medidas que imponen las reglas de seguridad informática, todo esto en instituciones del estado donde no tiene costo alguno, únase a ello el fuerte criterio que siempre existió fueras de las fronteras del país de que no existía internet dentro de la Isla, criterio que prevalece,  pero veamos las diferentes vías que usan los cubanos para romper con el mito.


En estos últimos tiempos, las universidades, los centros de salud y algunas empresas se han beneficiado con un programa de informatización subvencionado por el gobierno el cual pretende dar números positivos (pero verdaderamente fríos y nada creíbles) de conexión desde dentro de la isla, donde prevalece la palabra  “limitación" y la gran mayoría de estaciones de trabajo solo tienen acceso a sitios nacionales (intranet), los que corren con más suerte acceden a las 3 W (www) mediante un proxy, método este que permite identificar que usuario, PC que usan y que sitio visitan con regularidad, tomando represalias por ejemplo, si visitas páginas de corte crítico al gobierno, así que, los interesados en no perder el privilegio se limitan a entrar en alguna que otras redes sociales, autorizadas por la fuerte presión que ejerció la opinión pública en su momento, aun así exigen unirte a grupos agnadas al estado, y después de un “Viva Cuba” en cualquier perfil visible para todos puedes dedicarte a un poco de ocio y saludar algunas que otros amigos y familiares.


Los accesos telefónicos se realizan específicamente a los organismos estatales que cuentan con este servicio, dígase el sector de la salud y universidades, son superlentas donde casi nunca alcanzan los 30 kbits/seg. por la anticuada infraestructura, es lo que más se parece a internet en las casas, pero no se engañe, existen diferentes variantes y muchas “made in Cuba”,  como aquellas que solo permiten acceso a un cliente web de correo que la bandeja de entrada ni siquiera puede recibir mensajes internacionales, hasta una conexión ENET, el cual cuesta unos 200 dólares por unas 200 horas al mes y solo autorizadas a extranjeros con residencia temporal en Cuba, nada que ver con la aspiración de los que devengamos un salario que ni siquiera se considera digno.


Se trata de locales en el interior de ETECSA habilitados con computadoras personales que solo tienen acceso a un navegador desactualizado y sin posibilidad de softwares que permitan por ejemplo webcams o similares, para ello es necesario acceder a los espacios públicos de conexión WIFI, todo esto por 2 CUC la hora y por mucho, la más usada, y si eres  de los que se preguntarán si es la más cara… ¿como tanta gente puede acceder?, se dice que hasta unos 100 000 diarios, la respuesta está en cambiar el enfoque de la pregunta, no se trata de poder, sino de tener que usarla obligatoriamente pues es la única opción viable y relativamente menos costosa que otras prestaciones como por ejemplo hacer una llamada telefónica desde Cuba al exterior, es por ello que la Internet para muchos (definiendo el término) se trata la comunicación menos encarecida entre personas, sin saber, ni siquiera, que internet está llena de conocimientos y noticias que están disponibles en cuestiones de segundos.


La conexión a internet mediante Roaming, aunque se crea sea nuevo, es un suceso que viene ocurriendo desde hace más de 7 años, redes europeas fueron pioneras en este sentido acordando este servicio con Cuba, algunos visitantes dejaron sus líneas a familiares para facilitar el envío de SMS que por aquel tiempo costaba 1 CUC cada uno (ahora 0.60 CUC), pero los más avezados descubrieron métodos para encontrar conectividad sin ningún costo. Estas fueron limitándose cada vez más hasta prácticamente dejar de existir, hasta que algunas líneas canadienses y ahora recientemente americanas devuelven la idea, aunque con cierta cuantía.

De que hay internet, hay… y de eso deberían estar orgullosos los que se vanaglorian de decir que estamos conectados, lo que el orgullo debería caer al piso cuando intentaran explicar a qué costo. Yo aún vivo en Cuba, de los derechos que aún se oye hablar es el de la salud, la educación… etc, una pretérita oratoria que no deja de retumbar en nuestras mentes y que nos mutilan las ansias de decir y crecer, pero a mi juicio, nos están despojando del derecho al conocimiento y ya es hora de cambiar la mentalidad.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

An annotated presentation on the past, present and future of the Internet in Cuba

I recently made a presentation on the "past, present and future of the Cuban Internet." The presentation consisted of 27 annotated slides and many links. Here are the slides:

If it looks interesting, you can download a Word document with the slides and their notes and links here.

If you would like a PowerPoint version, it's here.

(The notes and links are a bit more complete in the Word version, but the slides are the same).

Thursday, September 15, 2016

US-Cuba diplomacy is picking up.

This is somewhat off the subject of this blog, but it seems that US-Cuba diplomacy might be picking up steam. It may be coincidence, but three meetings have been scheduled:
Perhaps the Obama administration is accelerating negotiations before they leave office.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Criticism is not subversive

"Write criticism, the party will support you."
Raúl Castro, addressing the union of Cuban journalists, March 1980.

Josefina Vidal, Director General of the Department of the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that the Internet Freedom Conference next week is subversive -- "The illegal use of radio and television against Cuba is not enough for them, they insist on the use of the Internet as a weapon of subversion."

Her statement is based upon the fact that the conference is sponsored by the US government, but, if she would look beyond that, she would have a more nuanced view. (Note that I have been invited to participate in the conference and will have my travel expenses paid, but will not be compensated for the four days I spend).

For example, if she would read my blogs, reports and papers, she would see that I have been critical of the politics and Internet regulation and policies of both Cuba and the United States, but I am not trying to subvert either government. She would also see that I have recognized Cuban achievements and made many suggestions for improving Cuba's Internet infrastructure and policy. Whatever I have written or done has been pro-Internet, not anti-Cuban government.

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

There are hard-liners in Cuba and the US, but after many years they seem to be following bureaucratic, party-line protocols, which call for rote repetition of tired sentences. I am confident that there are Cuban technicians and policy makers who realize the possibility of leapfrogging today's technology and policy just as there are many in the US who realize that our Cuba policy has been unproductive. It is time to look to the future.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Check out this report on Cuban digital media

Anne Nelson has written a report entitled Cuba’s Parallel Worlds: Digital Media Crosses the Divide. It is based on her earlier work in Cuba and a subsequent graduate seminar and field work in Cuba. The report is organized as follows:
  • Cuba’s Traditional Media
  • The Fiber Optic Cable: Cuba’s Big Little Bang
  • China’s Role
  • Enter the Americans
  • Who Makes Cuba’s Digital Policy?
  • Cuba’s Hacker Culture
  • Conclusion
The following are a few quotes that caught my eye:
  • "Cuba’s landlines, print culture, and broadcasting market have not only failed to advance beyond the mid-twentieth century standards, they have actually eroded."
  • "Cuba’s decades of news blackout will have a dramatic impact on the shape of the information culture in Cuba. It is entirely possible that Cuba could skip over the fact-based journalism models of the late twentieth century, straight into a digital maelstrom of rumor, data, marketing — and, somewhere amid the tumult—news." (See also William Davies' "post-truth news").
  • "Even as the regime’s controls appear to be loosening, its members have positioned themselves, their relations, and their supporters to reap the benefits." (This sounds a bit like the Russian transition -- Estonia provides a better model).
  • "Cuba has many features that make it an effective laboratory for ICT4D innovations: a highly literate, educated workforce; a manageable geography; and the urgent incentive of a broken system."
  • "We should not discount what the Cubans have to offer. Vast regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America struggle with erratic electrical grids and low bandwidth. The Cubans’ ingenious approach to offline apps might suggest solutions in these areas, just as Cuban doctors have proved helpful in low-resourced medical emergencies."
The report also shines a little light on the obscure production and distribution processes of El Paquete Semanal:
The production of the service is somewhat secretive. According to the Columbia research team, the content is downloaded by small teams across Cuba that receive passwords and usernames from the “Paquete owners,” who then pay to download content by the hour. The local managers download the content that will appeal to their specific audiences; university students might want to read the week’s New York Times, the Economist, and the BBC, while rural audiences might prefer South American telenovelas and variety shows. Most local managers download the content directly from the Internet, then copy and distribute it to a larger network that dispatches couriers to deliver it by public bus throughout the country. Customers pay around $2 to download the material to external disks and flash drives, often plugging them directly into a port on their flat screens; then returning for new content.
It also includes the following diagram, summarizing ETECSA's monopoly over all telephony and fixed and mobile Internet access:

My one question on the diagram has to do with the often quoted statement that ETECSA is entirely state owned. I am confused on the relationship of the state to the ETECSA stockholders and the division of decision making authority between ETECSA and the Ministry of Communication.

This post is the tip of the iceberg -- you should read the full report.

In addition to their field work, Nelson's students also compiled a project wiki, which is informative and also serves as a cool example of the use of the Internet for collaboration in education.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Impressions of the first Cuban Android community meetup

It would be great if Cuba could find a sustainable middle ground between the economy and culture of the early hobby and academic days and the dominance of money and advertising we have today in the US.

The first meeting of the Cuban Android community was held last Saturday. OnCuba Magazine reported on the meetup and you should read their coverage, but here are a couple of things I noticed:

The meetup was organized by the people who contribute to the TuAndroid blog, which they insist is not a blog, but a family.

The meetup tagline was "For a technological culture accessible to all."

Ailyn Febles, president of the Unión de Informáticos de Cuba, a State professional society with 8,000 members, called for an exchange between academia, state professionals and the non-state tech community.

TuAndroid founder Jorge Noris also called for cooperation between the state and non-state tech communities -- maybe this signals a policy change.

One of the speakers was Phillip Oertel, a Google engineer who worked on the Play Store. I was hoping he would say something about mirroring the Play Store on SNET or somewhere else in Cuba via, say, weekly batch updates, but evidently he did not. (It seems he is now working on a different project, Android Instant Aps, which, when launched, would be useful in a low-bandwidth nation like Cuba.

The meeting was held at the studio of the artist Kcho, which has a hands-on space with Google Chromebooks, Cardboard and phones, sponsored in part by Google. Kcho said his was a "space of sovereignty and freedom, which shows the daily struggle against the blockade" -- perhaps a necessary dollop of political correctness.

People helping each other after the formal talks

When the talks finished, there was an open session during which people helped each other -- answering questions, installing apps, upgrading Android, jailbreaking phones, etc. This sharing and assistance was done without charge and with a spirit of community building. It sounds like the days of the hobby computer clubs in the US. People helped each other freely and openly -- even the early businesses like Apple. The early academic and research days of the Internet felt the same.

It would be great if Cuba could find a sustainable middle ground between the economy and culture of the early hobby and academic days and the dominance of money and advertising we have today in the US.

Some related posts.

Update 10/4/2016

Members of the independent Android community toured the headquarters of State-owned DESOFT and heard a talk sponsored by the Union of Information of Cuba. This might be further indication of progress toward cooperation and collaboration between independent and state software developers. I am far removed from Cuba to know, but, offhand, it seems like a step in the right direction.

Dr. Orestes Febles speaking at the conference

Monday, August 29, 2016

Si hablas mal de internet, Hablas mal del gobierno...

A guest post by Damián Fernández Suárez

Criticism of the Cuban Internet is considered criticism of the government, which is not tolerated, and looks forward to a day when Cubans have connectivity at home without censorship and fear of disconnection.

Los contenidos referentes a la Internet en Cuba son tan espinosos que difícilmente encontramos espacios (sitios webs) dentro de la Isla que convoquen al debate directo y con criterios libres sobre lo que se piensa del tema en la actualidad. Tanto el especialista como los interesados en el tema que se atrevan a escribir en esta rama deben rebuscar palabras que no afecten los intereses de aquellos que ponen la tecnología (por ejemplo, blogs) en función de cualquier forma de hacer periodismo, no aceptando para ello críticas que crucen la línea que han hecho llamar lo admisible… ¿pero alguna vez se han preguntado por qué? 

Lo admisible en Cuba es propiciar mediante criterios un ambiente positivo de conectividad que disfrace la realidad, ya una vez que se aventuran en violar esta propuesta, entonces caes en lo que se denomina “comentarios molestos” a los que se le trata de aplicar el MUTE. Claro está, “ el poco internet que se distribuye entre las universidades y organismos estatales las administra el gobierno” y por tanto, si criticas la internet, su infraestructura, la forma en que se veda para el pueblo… estás criticando al mismo gobierno, y por mucho que se intente hacer creer que se respete la libertad de expresión o derechos universales, está bien claro que distamos mucho de vivir en un país que se respeten los “criterios molestos” y muchos menos se nos escuche como quisiéramos que fuera. De ser así, el tema de Internet para los Cubanos ya fuera historia.

Sé que un día llegará en que dispongamos en los hogares de este preciado servicio, y la desconexión será parte del pasado, y no tendrán sentido este sitio y otros donde se alzan las voces para pedir lo que nos pertenece, pero hasta entonces emitiré mis criterios como especialista en el tema.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

IBM's SoftLayer cloud infrastructure service blocks Cuba -- why now?

Cachivache Media recently reported that the Bitly URL-trimming service had stopped working in Cuba. Cubans had been using the service for several years, so this resulted in many broken links.

Cachivache did not know what had happened, but published a traceroute that timed out at an Akamai router. I contacted Akamai, and they said they could not say anything -- they would only talk with their customers -- Bitly in this case.

This traceroute from Cuba to Bitly times out in the Akamai network.

So I contacted Bitly and had an email exchange with one of their support people. (The press and operations departments failed to answer my emails and I could not find a phone number to call). This is a transcript of my email conversation with their support representative:

Larry: My colleagues in Cuba are unable to reach their account. They say it failed some time ago, worked yesterday and is now broken again. I attach a traceroute.

Support: Unfortunately, Bitly links do not function correctly in Cuba. This is not an issue on our end – I believe that Cuba and Iran are both unable to access Bitly links, due to government regulations.

I wish I had more info! Let me know if you need help with anything else.

Larry: Cubans have been using Bitly for years and they are no longer on the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- it just recently became unreachable. It was back up for a day earlier in the week then went down again. There is some sort of intermittent failure.

Could you follow up with Akamai on this? Or, if it is a change in your company policy, could someone confirm that?

Support: Thanks for getting back to me. Unfortunately there is not much I can do here, we’ve had reported problems with our links in Cuba, and are working diligently to rectify the issue.

Larry: I am confused -- are you now saying that it is a technical issue rather than policy? If so, by when do you expect to rectify it? The traceroute times out at an Akamai router -- have you filed a help ticket with them?

Support: I wouldn’t necessarily say this is an issue on our end. We know that our links don’t always work in Cuba – we’re not in touch with the Cuban government about this however.

I really wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t unfortunately! I hope you still find value in our free tool.

Larry: Are you doing it in compliance with a request of the US government? Is Akamai?

Support: As I mentioned, we’re aware of this issue, our engineers are aware and are working to solve the problem.

I can’t provide any more additional info at this time, I apologize for the inconvenience.

Well, that was inconsistent, but I guess a tech support person does not have authority to answer such questions.

Next, I heard from a friend in Cuba who told me it was not only Bitly -- other sites that used Bitly to trim their URLs were also blocked. Confused, I asked a colleague, Doug Madory, who monitors the Internet at Dyn Research, what he thought was going on. It turned out Doug had also been looking into this case. He told me the culprit was Softlayer, Bitly's hosting service, and that he would be providing more technical detail soon.

I checked with SoftLayer and the answer was on their Web site -- they block traffic from countries that are subject to U.S. trade and economic sanctions -- Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The rationalle for the SoftLayer policy is found in a Commerce Department guidance document.

So, we know what happened, but the real question is "Why now?"

Did Bitly know Cuba and the other sanctioned nations would be cut off when they moved to SoftLayer? (It looks like Bitly moved rather recently).

It turns out that SoftLayer began blocking Iran (and presumably the other countries) last February. Was that triggered by SoftLayer (or parent company IBM) lawyers exercising caution or were they pressured to change by government officials? Are they applying for an exception to the sanction?

Regardless, cutting Cuba off seems inconsistent with the policy of the current US administration. The Commerce Department page on the sanctions refers to "the President’s policy to chart a new course in bilateral relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people, announced on December 17, 2014."

This change inconvenienced a lot of Cubans -- does the US Government really want to do that at that time? Sanctions like this are a blunt instrument -- harming "good guys" like Cuba's new, Internet media as well as "bad guys."

This incident also reminds us of the fragility of Internet applications with dependencies -- the company or service your application depends upon can change its price or terms of use or just turn it off as in this case.

I'll see if I can get a better answer to the question why now? and will let you know what Doug's analysis reveals, but for now, we at least know what happened.

Update 8/9/2016

I've asked IBM and SoftLayer why they made the decision to start blocking Cuba in February. IBM said they had no comment and SoftLayer did not return my phone call or email. I asked Amazon Web Services -- another cloud hosting company -- whether they blocked Cuban traffic and did not receive an answer to my email or phone message. (At least IBM had the courtesy of telling me "no comment").

Hitting that blank wall, I did a Google search and learned that:
  • IBM acquired SoftLayer in 2013.
  • In September 2015, the Treasury and Commerce Departments announced amendments to the Cuba sanctions regulations. "These regulatory changes build on the revisions implemented earlier this year and will further ease sanctions related to travel, telecommunications and internet-based services, business operations in Cuba, and remittances." The announcement states the desire to loosen sanctions on telecommunications & Internet-based services in order to enhance "the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba, and better providing efficient and adequate telecommunications services between the United States and Cuba."
  • In January 2016, Treasury and Commerce announced further amendments to the Cuba sanctions regulations. Treasury Secretary Lew said "We have been working to enable the free flow of information between Cubans and Americans" and the announcement goes on to say that Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security "will generally approve license applications for exports and reexports of telecommunications items that would improve communications to, from, and among the Cuban people."
  • Shortly before President Obama's trip to Cuba in March 2016, a related announcement stated that "The Cuban assets control regulations currently authorize the importation of Cuban-origin mobile applications. The Office of Foreign Assets Control will expand this authorization to allow the importation of Cuban-origin software."

The administration has increasingly relaxed Cuban sanctions on telecommunication and Internet services. So, I am still wondering why, in February 2016, SoftLayer decided to start blocking Cuban traffic.

Update 8/11/2016

Bitly CEO Mark Josephson has posted an article addressing the blocking of their site. He reiterates the fact that the decision to block Cuba was not their's and speaks in favor of an open Internet -- an "Internet you can see across," which has been a Bitly tagline since the company was founded.

He concludes that "We understand the rationale behind the rules in place from our partner and are working with them to change this. I’m confident that we’ll be able to address this with our partner, and if we can’t, we’ll try to find another way."

Update 8/18/2016

Amazon Web Services and Rackspace allow Cuban traffic and Google Cloud Platform and IBM/SoftLayer block it. (All of them seem to be in similar businesses).

Iroko Alejo says Envato, Themeforest, Attlassian and are also blocked.

Paypal allows remittances to Cuba, but they stopped a message accompanying a payment because it contained the word "Cuba." (I wonder what other words they filter for).

Reading the US policy statements on Cuban sanctions (above), it seems like the administration favors Internet communication with Cuba and would be unlikely to prosecute any of these companies for sanctions violations.

I wonder why some companies are more cautious than others.

Update 8/27/2016

PayPal froze the account of Nathaniel Parish after he bought a Cuban cigar while he was in Mexico. In the article he summarizes the US administration policies on purchases of Cuban goods, which, like our communication policy, favors exchange.

Note that his purchase of Cuban cigars was legal.

Update 8/29/2016

I have no way of estimating the number of Web sites blocked in Cuba, but we can get some idea of the number by looking at the numbers of Web sites hosted by known blockers Google and SoftLayer. tracks the number of sites served by hosting companies. Here are their current statistics for SoftLayer and Google:

As you see, Google hosts more than twice as many sites as SoftLayer, but SoftLayer hosts more of the top 10,000 sites than Google. (Follow the links above to interactive graphs of the history of these hosting platforms).

An interesting side note -- I was surprised at the amount of information Builtwith gathers on the hosted sites. For a fee, you can order a list of the sites hosted by a particular service along with the following data on each of their clients:
Domain name, Location on Site, Company, Vertical industry, Alexa and Quantcast statistics, phone numbers and email addresses, accounts on Twitter and nine other services, names, titles and email addresses of several employees and more.
For example, I could now give you information about 14 people who work for I won't).

Privacy is indeed dead.

Update 10/14/2016

Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal tweeted examples of over a dozen broken links to Softlayer and Google sites last month, followed by this rhetorical question:

I've spoken with people in the State Department and the Obama administration did not order those sites to be blocked and does not favor doing so. IBM and Google are independent companies acting on their own.

I first wrote about this blocking more than a month before Vidal's tweets -- I hope this post did not lead to her statement.

Update 11/15/2016

I have heard from several sources that Bitly is working again in Cuba. I asked Bitly about it and they confirmed that the service is working again. They promised more news soon, but implied that their service is a special case and other Softlayer sites remain blocked.

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