Life beyond 64Kb

01 April 2011 | Tim Phillips


How will Cuba benefit from its new cable to Venezuela?

In March, 61-year-old American Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for crimes against the state, having been found guilty in March of: “the introduction and development of a subversive project to try to topple the revolution.”

What Gross did is a crime in Cuba. Almost anywhere else in the developing world though, he’d be thanked for his subversive project: a BGAN satellite internet terminal. Gross claimed he was innocently helping Cuba’s 1,500 Jews to communicate internationally. The Cuban government disagreed. Whether you consider them to be a US-backed subversion or international aid, satellite terminals may soon be unnecessary. In February 2011, the 1,600km ALBA-1 cable landed, connecting Cuba to Venezuela. Trading partner Venezuela paid $70 million for it, presenting Cubans with the opportunity to experience a new revolution: the public internet.

Only 3% of Cuban citizens regularly use even dial-up internet, and access is banned in private homes. Cuba also has the mother of all last mile problems: the US trade embargo prohibited vendors from importing and installing routers and other equipment. Professor Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University, has visited Cuba many times to report on its communications infrastructure. Press says that Cuba’s internet activity has been stagnant since it established a 64Kb connection to Sprint on 9 September 1996. “The US embargo has obviously hurt Cuba, and there’s the other factor: Cuba is broke,” he said.

Yet finances have not kept many of Africa’s poorest countries from developing telecommunications links, because they are open to investment. Cuba, with the least developed broadband infrastructure in the western hemisphere, has shown little interest. Since 2009, US companies can apply for licences in Cuba, but the government is reasserting control. In January, Cuban state company Rafin even bought the 27% share of Cuban telecoms company ETECSA owned by Telecom Italia for $706 million – $225 million more than TI put on its value. The government preferred to overpay, using precious foreign capital, than allow an outside partner to participate (Telefonica and C&W, among others, were interested in investing).

Press is cautiously optimistic that state controls will relax. “I can’t believe the government is so lame as not to have plans in place,” Press says, “but I haven’t been able to find those plans or anyone to talk about them.” Cuba’s excellent education system means thousands of network engineers are already in the country. Eventually Press thinks that investors can operate successfully with the government without ideology getting in the way, as in other parts of the developing world.

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk