Saturday, July 1, 2017

What does Trump's Cuba policy memorandum say about the Internet?

Trump orders the Secretary of State to create a Cuban Internet task force.

Last week I reviewed Trump's Cuban policy speech and its implications for the Internet. The speech was accompanied by a national security memorandum on strengthening US Cuba policy, which was sent to the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries, and heads of various departments.

The first thing that struck me about the memorandum was that it was a "national security" memorandum. Does Trump think Cuba poses a threat to our national security and how does his policy improve the situation? That is a topic for another discussion, but what does the memorandum say about the Internet?

The memorandum addresses the Internet in its purpose, policy and implementation sections.

The purpose section states that in Cuba "the right to speak freely, including through access to the internet, is denied, and there is no free press." One of the purposes of the memorandum is to restore the right to speak freely on the Internet. The Cuban government censors and sometimes punishes dissent and uses the Internet for propaganda, but it is not clear that Trump's policy and attitude will improve the situation. Furthermore, freedom of speech online is often abused and it is ironic that Trump should lecture anyone on this issue.

In the policy section, Trump says he will "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of Internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel." This sounds good, but, at best, it is inconsistent with the policy he outlined last month in Saudi Arabia when he promised that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust." At worst, he could be considering actions like the failed smuggling of satellite equipment into Cuba, Zunzuneo or the Alan Gross affair.

The implementation section says he will "support the expansion of direct telecommunications and Internet access for the Cuban people" by having the Secretary of State convene
a task force, composed of relevant departments and agencies, including the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and appropriate non-governmental organizations and private-sector entities, to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba, including through Federal Government support of programs and activities that encourage freedom of expression through independent media and internet freedom so that the Cuban people can enjoy the free and unregulated flow of information
I contacted the State Department to see if they could tell me more about the task force, but they offered no details at this time. I'll follow up on this.

I cannot end this post without commenting on the writing style of the memorandum. It is written in the first person, implying that Trump actually wrote it. I am sure it was drafted and revised by staff, but gratuitous adjectives as in "dissidents and peaceful protesters are arbitrarily detained and held in terrible prison conditions," sounded Trumpian to me and the call for the establishment of a task force, quoted above, reminded me of James Joyce. I also found the organization confusing in places. Some policies seemed more like goals and one of them is to "not reinstate the 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' policy." One wonders why he did not also vow not to reinstate limits on the value of rum and cigars travelers are allowed to bring back from Cuba.



Friday, June 23, 2017

Mobile coverage in Cuba -- mixed 2G and 3G

Cuba us rolling out 3G mobile service rapidly, but capacity remains a question mark.

In an earlier post, I raised a few questions about Cuba's current and planned mobile coverage. I've now found answers to one of my questions -- what is the current mobile coverage?

Hilda María Arias Pérez, Central Director of ETECSA’s Mobile Services Division, reports that there are 4,220,000 mobile accounts and 856 2G locations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population. They began the 3G rollout April 10 and by May 10 had 343 3G locations covering 13 % of the territory and 47% of the population.

Mobile accounts, May 10, 2017 (source)

2G and 3G access points, May 10, 2017 (source)

Map of 2G and 3G service areas (source)

The map shown above is consistent with this crowdsourced coverage map:

Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB,
Weak: RSSI < -99dB

The rapidity of the rollout indicates that cell tower upgrades were simple, but it does not answer the question of radio and backhaul capacities. Third-generation users will transfer more data than 2G users, who mainly use their phones for calls and text-based applications. On the other hand, ramping up of 3G usage will be limited by phone incompatibility, service cost and Trump's ban on self-directed, individual travel. (I'd be curious to know what percent of 3G traffic is used by roaming tourists).

The anecdotal reports I have seen indicate that 3G performance is good today, but the future remains unclear. Hopefully, ETECSA is planning to install backhaul capacity to deal with 3G loads in the short run and 5G loads in the future.

Engineer Arias Pérez discusses ETECSA's mobile coverage in this interview:


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trump's Cuba policy and its impact on the Cuban Internet

Overall, I don't see anything in Trump's policy that will directly impact the Cuban Internet, but it will have an indirect impact by delaying the eventual rapprochement between the US and Cuba.

On June 12th, I speculated on Trump's forthcoming Cuba policy and its impact on the Internet. He outlined his policy in a June 16th speech (transcript) and the Treasury Department published a FAQ on forthcoming regulation changes. It looks like my (safe) predictions were accurate.

I predicted he would attack President Obama, brag about what he had done, make relatively minor changes that would not upset businesses like cruise lines, airlines, and telecommunication and hotel companies. I also said he would criticize Cuban human rights, while hypocritically ignoring the issue in other countries.

For example, he slammed President Obama and bragged that "I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

This does not come close to passing a fact-check. He said he was going to restrict people-to-people travel and stop people from doing business with companies owned by the Cuban Military, but that is far from canceling President Obama's "deal," which included little things like establishing diplomatic relations, reducing constraints on remittances, dropping the wet-foot-dry-foot policy, allowing US companies to do business with self-employed Cubans, allowing US companies to sell telecommunication equipment and services, agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices in Cuba, taking Cuba off the list of state-sponsors of terrorism, etc. You get the idea -- he canceled none of this, not even President Obama's lifting of restrictions on rum and cigar imports for personal use.

His statements on Cuban human rights are either 100% hypocritical or he has changed his mind since his speech in Saudi Arabia last month. At that time, he promised that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust."

If he really has changed his live-and-let-live human-rights policy, we can expect a spate of new sanctions, from Manila to Moscow.

I had one surprise -- his singling out hotels and other businesses operated by the military-run conglomerate, Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA). Officials say existing hotel deals will not be effected, but the detailed regulations have not yet been released. This change will cut Cuban worker's jobs and GAESA's profit, but I guess the ban is good news for AirBnB and any future Trump hotel or resort in Cuba.

How about changes affecting the Cuban Internet?


I read the Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy, looking for changes that would affect the Internet, and did not find much.

The first "key policy change" is "allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba." Someone should let him know that President Obama made such changes some time ago, for example in allowing software imports from the private sector.

In fact, someone should read him President Obama's 2009 Fact Sheet - Reaching out to the Cuban people. That document introduced many changes which enhance the ability of Cuban private, small businesses to "develop ties to the US," for example by authorizing "greater telecommunications links with Cuba to advance people-to-people interaction at no cost to the U.S. government." The fact sheet lists seven concrete telecommunication policy changes, none of which were "canceled" by Trump.

He has canceled none of President Obama's changes to encourage private Cuban business and added nothing new himself.

One change he did make is stopping "self-directed, individual travel" to Cuba. That will force would-be tourists to join fake groups and fake their travel reports or go to Aruba instead of Cuba, but it will not slow the deployment of Chinese telecommunication infrastructure.

I hope Trump's policy will not undo the progress made by Google in establishing a relationship with Cuba and gaining permission to install Google Global Cache servers on the island. The servers are not yet in use, and when they go online they will have a small practical impact, but they indicate that Google has built trust and a relationship with the Cuban government and Internet community. I bet representatives of Google and other companies who have established relationships with Cuba are trying to reassure their counterparts that this is a temporary, unpopular change in US policy.

Overall, I don't see anything in Trump's policy that will directly impact the Cuban Internet, but it will have an indirect impact by delaying the eventual rapprochement between the US and Cuba. The Cuban government will enjoy a few more years of claiming their economic problems are the result of the US embargo, the integration of the Cuban and American people will be slowed and The Chinese, Russians, and Iranians will have more time to establish political and business relationships in Cuba with diminished competition from the US.

Trump's speech did not change much practically -- its intent and impact were symbolic. It let him say he had carried out a campaign pledge, which was music to the ears of the Cuba-hardline audience at the Manuel Artime auditorium, named for a leader of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The talk lasted about 39 minutes with 53 applause breaks (50 for Trump, 3 for others) and a violin rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Add to that the fact that Trump speaks slowly and repeats a lot of words and phrases, you realize that the speech was 90% political cheerleading and 10% content. You can watch the speech below, but reading the transcript is a lot quicker.


For a more comprehensive critique of Trump's Cuba policy see this article by Ben Rhodes, who was one of two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba. I also recommend the podcast interviews of Rhodes and Dan Restrepo, who served as a top Latin America advisor to President Obama and wrote a Cuban-rapprochement roadmap for candidate Obama before he was elected President. The interviews reveal President Obama's strategy and describe the negotiation process.

-----
Update 6/22/2017

Airbnb has published a report on their Cuba rentals. The following table summarizes their activity since they began Cuban operations in April, 2015:


Airbnb specializes in people-people rentals and contact so my guess is that the majority of their Cuba business has been "self-directed, individual travel," which Trump has banned. Thus, one of the two major changes he has introduced will work against his "key policy change" of "allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba." It will also cut the goodwill and mutual understanding resulting from home-stay tourism. But, I bet he got a round of applause when he announced it in his speech last Friday.

For further discussion of the Airbnb report in Spanish, click here.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Speculation on Trump's forthcoming Cuba policy speech and its impact on the Cuban Internet

Trump has a dilemma. He has to take some executive action that will allow him to ridicule President Obama and show that he is punishing Cuba for its human rights violations and the confiscation of businesses and property after the revolution, but not harm US telephone companies, hotel chains, airlines and cruise lines.

Trump is expected to announce his Cuba policy next Friday in Miami. There can be little doubt that he will reverse some of President Obama's executive orders in order to brag to his base supporters and try to make the Cuban diaspora hardliners happy. He will say the President was weak and made a terrible "deal," which the world is ridiculing. He may even take yet another shot at Hillary Clinton.

Cuban people trust and like President Obama. He opened diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba and implemented a policy of reaching out to the Cuban people. He is shown here at a baseball game with the wife of Jackie Robinson.
Cubans do not see President Obama as
an "Evil Emperor."
There are some things that I bet he does not say. He will not compare Cuban human rights with those of his friends in Turkey, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Russia, et al. and he will not mention that he is lending credence to the tired claim that the US is the Evil Empire that is responsible for Cuban economic problems. He probably won't note the unpopularity of his action in Latin America and I don't expect him to say much about the security implications of alienating Cuba at a time when Russia, China, and Iran are moving closer either. (Someone should tell him about the Cuban missile crisis).

But, I can't imagine that he would do something major like break off diplomatic relations or do anything to harm the tourism and travel industries. That would hurt our economy, cost jobs and be unpopular with the general public which favors lifting the trade embargo.

What about the Internet?


By and large, the Cuban Internet is constrained by political/power considerations, tired political rhetoric and mistrust, the cost of infrastructure, the bureaucracy and economic interests of the ETECSA monopoly and Cuban government bureaucracy, not US policy.

But, what Internet-related changes might Trump reverse?

During his first hundred days, President Obama "reached out to the Cuban people" (emphasis added) by easing restrictions on remittances, family travel and gifts.¹ Increased remittances and gifts meant more Cuban people had laptops, tablets and smartphones to use in public access hotspots and access rooms as well as the money to pay for time online. Reversing these changes would deny ETECSA Interent-access revenue, but it would harm Cuban citizens with family abroad and give the government anti-US talking points. I will be surprised if Trump reverses these changes, but that does not mean he won't do it.

At the same time, the president eased restrictions on telecommunications allowing:
  • Phone companies to offer voice and data roaming
  • People in the US to pay for Internet-access and other telecommunication bills for Cubans
  • US Companies to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite links to Cuba
  • Satellite Internet and TV companies to serve Cuban companies
  • Companies to export personal communication equipment like mobile phones, computers and software and satellite receivers to Cuba
Cutting roaming would hurt US tourism and telephone companies -- it is hard to imagine Trump doing that. He might be willing prohibit Americans from buying phone and data minutes for Cubans -- that would only hurt Cuban people and payment services like Ding.com (an Irish company).

While US companies have permission to sell communication equipment and infrastructure to Cuba, I am not aware of any significant sales. Since China has dominated the Cuban Internet infrastructure market, stopping infrastructure sales would have little or no immediate impact, but it could become significant next year when Miguel Díaz-Canel, who seems to be pro-Internet, replaces Raúl Castro.

The FCC removed Cuba from their exclusion and reversing that might cause Google to remove their Cuban caching servers. If that were to happen, there would be little practical impact, but it would be symbolically significant.

President Obama also moved to allow US citizens and companies to pay self-employed Cuban entrepreneurs for software and services as long as they were developed by self-employed entrepreneurs. I don't know the extent to which this occurs, but it is hard to see what would be gained by trying to stop the practice and who would be pleased to see it happen. I doubt that he will roll this one back.

A number of organizations and universities have sponsored conferences, training courses, hackathons, etc. in support of Cuban software entrepreneurs. I am not sure whether Trump could somehow block that sort of activity, but I cannot imagine why he would do so.

How about attacking President Obama's trip to Cuba? During that trip, he addressed Cuban entrepreneurs and announced a couple of concrete commitments, but they have all fizzled. Trump may point that out.

Trump has a dilemma. He has to take some executive action that will allow him to ridicule President Obama and show that he is punishing Cuba for its human rights violations and the confiscation of businesses and property after the revolution, but not harm US telephone companies, hotel chains, airlines and cruise lines. It does not seem that reversing any of President Obama's Internet-related changes will achieve that end.

Steve Bannon may be able to come up with some ideas, but, if he can't, I have a suggestion. One of the properties the Castro government seized after the revolution was the Riviera, a waterfront hotel and casino that is now run by the Cuban government. The hotel was built by the gangster Meyer Lansky and Lansky's grandson, Gary Rapoport, has claimed it. Perhaps he and Trump could work out a deal with the Cuban government, rebranding it the Trump Rivera.

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¹ The initial announcement of this was removed from the Whitehouse.gov Web site, but it was captured by the Internet Archive and is also on the Obamawhitehouse.gov Web site.






Friday, June 9, 2017

Questions about Cuba's 3G mobile expansion

I hope ETECSA is planning for the future and views this 3G rollout as an interim stopgap.

ETECSA is rolling out 3G mobile service in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba and Telegeography reports that there are now 229 3G base stations in Cuba.

Where and how extensive is the coverage?

ETECSA says 3G coverage is available in all of Havana, provincial capitals and tourist resorts. AT&T says there is GSM/GPRS coverage for 85% of national territory.

Here is a crowdsourced 3G coverage map of Cuba as of February 17, 2017:


Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB

Again, this is a crowd-sourced map, so it represents a lower bound on coverage, but it paints an unsurprising picture of 3G deployment -- near a backbone and strongest in cities.

Who has access to the 3G network and what can they access?

Google Fi service was
available earlier this year.
Tourists and foreign business travelers have had expensive Internet access while roaming in Cuba for some time. For example, AT&T and T-Mobile charge $2 per megabyte. Recently Digicel recently announced much lower cost roaming on a "dedicated tourist-only 3G mobile network," which sounds like the network described by ETECSA above. They charge between 17 and 25 cents per megabyte, depending on the size of the prepaid order.

The best deal of all was fleetingly offered by Google on their Fi mobile service. Earlier this year, users reported that Google was treating roaming data the same as domestic data -- $10 per gigabyte. Unfortunately, that capability has been turned off, but it may be a hint of things to come.

But which Cubans -- other than Raúl Castro -- have 3G access? I have been told that some people have 3G access because of their work, but have no confirmation of that. I've also been told that some hackers have been able to get 3G access, but, again, have no confirmation.

Assuming that some Cubans have access to the 3G network, are they able to see the global Internet or are they restricted to services offered on the national network? (I bet Raúl has international access).

(source)
How about speed?

Armando Camacho ran a number of 3G speed tests in Havana (near the corner of Patrocinio and 10 de Octubre) and observed ping time to a server in Miami as ranging from 91 to 127 milliseconds, upload speed from .48 to 1.58 Mbps and download speed from .85 to 10.42 Mbps. He observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources.

What is the interim plan for 3G access?

Today the 3G network serves tourists, foreign business people, and perhaps some Cubans at work or in government. ETECSA may be planning to extend the service to subscribers as a much-needed supplement to their current public-access centers. I don't know what their plans are, but more 3G will require more fiber and microwave connectivity for backhaul. Only ETECSA knows what they are installing today.

They may also be planning to extend 3G mobile to rural areas. In April, the Ministry of Agriculture announced plans to bring Internet connectivity and other computer services to rural areas beginning in Granma, Ciego de Ávila and Isla de la Juventud. Will 3G be part of this promised rural coverage? Again, backhaul would have to be provided.

What is the long-run mobile plan?

Regardless of the short-run, 3G technology is only an interim step. Since Cuba has so little legacy infrastructure, they are in a position to leapfrog today's 4G technology and plan for 5G mobile connectivity. If that is the case, they should be investing in fiber for backhaul in places that microwave can serve today -- long, microwave "daisy chains" will not have the speed or capacity for a modern Internet in five or ten years. They should also be planning on fiber to the curb, building, and home in order to support the myriad devices expected to comprise the Internet of things as well as fixed connectivity.

Fifth generation standards are not yet set, but the migration of base-station function to the "cloud" will occur as the number of base stations and backhaul speed increase. That implies the need for datacenter planning and investment for the future. (See this Stragey& analysis for more on the 5G architecture).

As usual, I have more questions than answers, but I hope ETECSA is planning for the future and views this 3G rollout as an interim stopgap.

-----
6/12/2017

Tu Android, the Cuba Android community blog, has a post on determining whether your smartphone is compatible with Cuban 3G. The post begins with an overview of the requirements and lists compatible phones sold by ETECSA and the Blu phones that are compatible. Evidently, that was not enough, because there are currently 316 comments in which users are helping each other out.

The comments are reminiscent of the early PC hobby days in the US -- questions and answers are coming from uncertain users and expert hackers. As the Tu Android tagline reads -- "this is a family, not a blog." (I am naively hopeful that Cuban culture may produce a unique Internet from which we can all learn).

If you are a Cuban and not sure whether your phone can or can be altered to use the 3G network or are not sure why you cannot connect (evidently ETECSA is rolling out activations over time) check out the post and the comments -- ask the family.

-----
Update 6/22/2017

We now have a couple of answers to our 3G mobile questions. Hilda María Arias Pérez, Central Director of ETECSA’s Mobile Services Division, says there are 4,220,000 mobile accounts and 856 2G locations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population. They began the 3G rollout in April and now have 343 3G locations covering 13 % of the territory and 47% of the population. (For more on mobile coverage, see this post).

Engineer Arias Pérez discusses ETECSA's mobile coverage in this interview:


Monday, June 5, 2017

Cuban tech entrepreneurs -- new values?

Might Cuban entrepreneurs develop uniquely Cuban enterprises?

A while ago, I pointed out that offical Cuban attitudes toward self-employed developers and privately owned Internet service companies are improving -- government software companies say they want to cooperate with private developers and Cuban Internet services that were once attacked are now praised in government publications.

This week three positive articles on NinjaCuba, a startup service for Cuban professionals seeking freelance work, were published: here, here and here.

Two things caught my eye.

First -- the latter two articles quote the company founders, Víctor Manuel Moratón and Fabián Ruiz, as saying they would like to have Cuban state companies as clients. That would have been unimaginable in the past, but the government sponsored TICS 2017 workshop held in March, called for collaboration between state and private companies and it now seems likely. These articles support my speculation that Cuban government attitudes toward tech entrepreneurs have changed.

Second -- Moratón and Ruiz say they are not preoccupied with becoming a startup "unicorn" (a billion dollar company) -- they want to find a way to sustain the company. That may say something about Cuban culture and values since it contradicts the widely-held (false) assumption that US corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize profit and increase investor wealth, requiring constant growth and leading to tying executive compensation to stock price.

Andy Puzder, Trump's first (unconfirmed) nominee for Secretary of Labor, is a prominent supporter of the investor-return assumption. Puzder, who recently resigned as CEO of CKE Enterprises, a company that operates international fast-food chains, opposes government regulation of terms of employment or food health -- his job is to increase shareholder return and give people what they want. (I wonder how he feels about heroin).

Unfortunately, maximizing investor return ignores the interests of employees, the society, and the environment. Chobani Yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, a competitive capitalist, offers a counter example -- his company is successful and he gives back to his employees and has benefited his community. (The "alt-right" has attacked Ulukaya).

Last summer, a Copenhagen taxi driver told me he was about to leave on a three-week camping trip with his wife and children. US taxi drivers don't take three-week vacations with their families. The US is looking like a "canary in the coal mine" -- suffering the unintended side-effects of Puzder's grow-or-die strategy.

Perhaps young Cuban entrepreneurs like Moratón and Ruiz, who have been raised with communal values (regardless of what you think of the current government) and a Latin culture, will provide an example we can all learn from.

Fabián Ruiz and Víctor Manuel Moratón

Freelance ad for a developer who charges $US 3.00 per hour.











Tuesday, May 30, 2017

TechCrunch panel -- three Cuban software companies


The BBC reported (English, Spanish) on a panel featuring three Cuban software entrepreneurs at the recent TechCrunch conference in New York. The three companies were Cubazon, Knales and Kewalta.

The name "Cubazon" connotes that "It's like Amazon for Cuba, but with a difference." Looking at their Web site, it seems that the idea is for people in the Cuban diaspora in the US, Spain, etc to purchase gifts for friends and family in Cuba. The gifts are things like cakes and flowers sold by Cuban vendors.

Knales looks like an information-retrieval system in which the user can request information in over forty topic areas -- from sports scores to horoscopes -- by sending a 1 Cuba peso SMS message.

Kewalta ad categories
Kewelta (Cuban slang for "what's up?") began as an email list announcing cultural events, evolved into printing flyers and is now inviting potential advertisers to participate in a by-invitation beta of a Web site for ads. They say the ads will be free and promise to disrupt the current Web advertising model, but I was left wondering what their revenue model is.

Cuba has a history of necessity leading to invention. I hope I am misunderstanding and underestimating the Kewalta business model and they really have hit on a way to disrupt the current Web advertising model -- that would be a gift for us all -- with the exception of Facebook and Google stockholders.

(More on the Cuban startup scene).















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

This post was done in haste and was incorrect so I deleted it. The traceroute shown was 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, Malaysia (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.

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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."
607
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:

Source

(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.
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