Cuba: No Country for Slow DSL Home Internet Plans

cuban internet cuba home internet trials havana larry press
Written by Larry Press

Two years ago, leakers suggested that Cuba might build its home internet plan on super-slow DSL connections. They were wrong, suggests Larry Press. Analysis

aNewDomain –There will be no Cuban home Internet plan.

That’s my conclusion after having followed Cuban Internet developments for more than two years now. Back in 2015, leakers provided details around the island nation’s so-called home-connectivity plan, which called for obsolete DSL technology.

Now that the Havana Internet trial is a wrap, though, it’s clear that won’t happen. Here’s why I say so.

Havana dreamin’

Back in 2015, Cuba’s state-owned communications provider, ETESCA, denied there was anything real about a slide deck that supposedly detailed an upcoming home Internet plan.

That presentation included a definition of broadband as “at least 256 kb/s” and a stated goal to bring that “broadband”Internet connectivity to half the homes on the island by 2020.

Slow DSL can hardly be called broadband, though. And in 2020 it will be an even bigger joke.

The free home-connectivity trial that concluded recently in Havana used the DSL technology as described in the leaked plan that ETESCA denied, but I don’t think that fact accounts for much at all.

According to a source close to the effort, 700 of the 2,000 Havana homes that participated in the Old Havana trial agreed to pay to continue service. A dozen homes have already been connected in Bayamo, Cuba, he added. The expectation is that the same will happen in the Cuban cities of Santa Clara and Las Tunas, too.

But think about it. If this home connectivity roll-out has been in the works since 2015, as the leaked slides suggested, then why is it going so slowly? Why aren’t other parts of Havana open?

And why isn’t Cuba doing large-scale trials in Bayamo, Santa Clara and Las Tunas?

Clearly, something else is up.

What makes sense

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 it had really planned to bring DSL to many Cuban homes, ETESCA  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 percent of Cuban homes by 2020.

The wisest thing Cuba could do, after all, is leapfrog today’s technology and center on some next generation tech instead.

The real connectivity plan for Cuba …

This is all speculation, but my hope is that Cuba regards efforts like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, Street Nets and El Paquete as the temporary stopgap measures they are.

I hope Cuba wants to start off things right and wait, if it must, for next-generation tech. I believe it will, too.

And if this is the case, we are likely to see progress as soon as next year, when Raúl Castro steps down.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who is expected by many to succeed him as Cuban president, has long acknowledged the inevitability of the Internet.

“Today, news from all sides, good and bad, manipulated and true, or half-true, circulates on networks … reaches people … people hear it,” Bermúdez said back in 2013, adding that “the worst thing, then, is silence.”

He also has called the Internet a social and economic necessity, saying it is government’s responsibility to providie affordable connectivity to citizens. The caveat: Government must be vigilant in assuring 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 whoever replaces Castro.

The nation needs to adopt next-generation regulation and infrastructure ownership policy if it is 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.

Potential Cuban partners

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).

In 2015, Google chief Eric Schmidt traveled to Cuba with Brett Perlmutter, who now is Google’s Cuba Strategy tsar.

Aside from relationship building, progress seems slow. Google’s most technically significant achievement in Cuba so far, actually, was to secure permission to install caching servers on the island.

However, Google’s tribute to Cuban arts and culture, including the following Google 360 VR video on Jose Marti, is a more important political and cultural contribution. Watch it below.

Google has much to offer Cuba. It’s got experience with fiber infrastructure in developed and developing nations, content development and future technologies.

More importantly, Google can profit by simply having more users in Cuba without having to sell them service or equipment. It profits not by competiting with ETESCA, but by collaborating with it.

Cuba should consider other partners, but Google is a particularly good choice for Google’s first and best one.

ETESCA’s Perlmutter sounded enthusiastic about the idea. In a recent interview about a potential Google partnership, he said: “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.

“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,” Perlmutter added.

Now does that sound to you like Cuba is going to bring 256 kb/s DSL to Cuban homes?

I didn’t think so.

For aNewDomain, I’m Larry Press.

Cover image: University of Connecticut, All Rights Reserved.

An earlier version of this piece ran on Larry Press’ LaredCubana blog. Read it here. Ed.