Cuba's forthcoming 3G pricing model -- protection and control
Zero-rating or other forms of subsidy are particularly problematic when the Internet service provider is a government-owned monopoly.
Jorge Luis Valdés Hernández
Jorge Luis Valdés Hernández, Director de Servicios Convergentes de la Vicepresidencia de Integración Comercial de ETECSA, described forthcoming changes to their mobile Internet service in a recent press conference. (He also has a very long job title).
To be honest, the press conference coverage left me a bit confused, but this is some of what he said as I understood it:
There are 5.1 million active mobile accounts today and of those 35% use 2G phones, 45% 3G and 20% 4G. (ETECSA will be selling a lot of 3 and 4G phones).
Fourth generation LTE service is being tested in Varadero and deployment will begin in 2019. (Armando Camacho has reported on the tests and found the preliminary speeds surprisingly slow).
I believe that access to selected sites will be free or subsidized -- zero-rated -- and others will be capped by the amount of data transferred. My guess is that the majority of the free sites will be on the national intranet as opposed to the global Internet.
While not defining plans or prices, he presented two hypothetical paid plans -- one for "moderate" users at 500 MB per month and a second for "intense" users at 2.5 GB per month -- and showed typical data utilization for various applications:
This press conference was not about new technology, but about new pricing, which favors government-approved political content and protects local content and services from global competition.
Subsidized content delivery is an attractive consumer marketing tool, but proponents of network neutrality argue that it gives the Internet service provider (ISP) the power to pick winners and losers. For example, AT&T could begin zero rating -- delivering content produced by its recently acquired Time-Warner subsidiary -- at no cost to the user.
Zero-rating or other forms of subsidy are even more problematical when the Internet service provider is a government-owned monopoly, as it is in Cuba. If you live in the US, depending upon your point of view, you probably consider Fox News or MSNBC politically biased, but your ISP does not give you a discount on either. Will Granma.cu be zero-rated?
Going beyond political information, the new pricing continues the Cuban policy of favoring content or service on the national intranet over that on the global Internet. Valdés asserted that in addition to increasing the consumption of national service, this policy would help offset the increased cost of delivering international content, but that increase is marginal and the national intranet discount amounts to a protectionist tariff on foreign content and services. (And, I bet ETECSA will make a handsome profit even with this national-intranet discount).
The idea of opening a production space in Havana makes even more sense today than it did in 2015.
Google Global Cache (GGC) servers are now installed and operating on the Island. That means Google content can be viewed and uploaded faster than in 2015 and the result is that YouTube has made substantial gains since GCC went online last April:
There is also a growing, enthusiastic community of young Cuban YouTubers, several of whom are profiled in this YucaByte article and you can "meet" a few others in this short (5:36) video from Periodismo de Barrio:
(The YucaByte article also contains a short video sampler showing enthusiastic YouTubers).
Not exactly being a millennial myself, I am not likely to become a follower of these youthful YouTubers, but they are inheritors of a rich history of Cuban music, cinema and education.
Google executives and Senator Jeff Flake just met with Cuban president Diaz-Canel and former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt who said “We already have an agreement signed that allows easier access to data. We would like to do more.”
How about opening a YouTube video production space in Havana?
The Internet in Cuba -- a Periodismo de Barrio anthology
Periodismo de Barrio has edited a collection of 13 articles on the Cuban Internet in collaboration with the Internet Policy Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. The articles cover the history of the Cuban Internet, the legal framework, services, communities, and projects. It is a diverse collection -- something for everyone. Here are thumbnail summaries of each article:
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this collection is not any one of the articles, but the fact that they were pulled together and edited as an innovative online "dossier" -- an anthology of articles on the Internet in Cuba.
Finally, the editor, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez. asked me for feedback on her opening contribution ¿Puede Estados Unidos conectar a Internet a los cubanos? and I might as well share my comments.
Elaine covered several US efforts to influence the Cuban Internet, most recently Trump's Cuban Internet Task Force. I've written a couple of posts on the Task Force, which I see as a political act. That being said, the Task Force participant's hearts are in the right place for the most part and we can hope that genuine aid and investment might be possible in the future if Trump is defeated and Diaz-Canel adopts Internet-friendly policies.
Elaine also drilled down on the Alan Gross fiasco. I've written many posts about Alan Gross, including several on what he actually did, how little difference he would have made had he succeeded and how much the Cubans overstated the impact it would have had.
I agree with Elaine that nothing happened as a result of President Obama's trip to Cuba. That being said, Google has worked diligently, before and after President Obama's trip, to establish relationships in Cuba. The only concrete result has been their caching server (GCC) in Cuba, but the relationships they have built may pay off in the long run. (GCC has resulted in a noticeable increase in YouTube traffic relative to Facebook).
I've speculated on the question raised in the essay Internet en Cuba: ¿limitada por la política o la economía?. From the early days of the Internet, it has been both the economy and politics, but I would add vested interests and bureaucracy today.
Another post asks ¿Quién eres, Etecsa?, a question I've also asked, but can't answer.
The post Te quiero, mi sangre shows WiFi hotspots being used to communicate emotion and presence, in the tradition of the pioneering Hole in Space performance art project.
I've also looked at Nauta Hogar, and, while I agree that it is useful for some tech and other small businesses, it is a dead end on the road to home connectivity.
The articles include photos and other images as well as original illustrations.
===== Update 5/31/2018
Periodismo de Barrio is also experimenting with short video documentaries about the Cuban Internet. Here are links to their first five videos:
Cubans now have 5 million mobile accounts. The five-millionth account was recently opened Guanabacoa, in the eastern part of Havana and we see here that growth slowed last year, but has resumed -- perhaps due to increased 3G availability.
Most Cubans have 2G phones, which are used primarily for making calls and sending text messages that may have attached images. As of June 2017 there were 856 2G base stations, covering 75% of Cuban territory and 85% of the population.
Cuba is rolling out 3G connectivity and ETECSA reports that 47% of the population is now covered and, as of last June, there was some coverage in all provincial capitals and tourist resorts.
The only speed data I have seen was gathered by Armando Camacho who 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. The latter is fast enough to allow Web browsing and other applications, particularly those like YouTube Go, that are designed for use over slow, expensive connections in conjunction with offline SD-card storage.
Armando observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources and performance would be frustrating at times. (Have others run similar tests)?
I don't have any statistics, but many Cuban phones are incompatible with ETECSA's 3G service, so users will be stuck with 2G until they get new 3G phones.
Upgrading to 3G technology when 4G is common in many nations and 5G is close on the horizon may sound discouraging, but it makes sense as a stopgap strategy for Cuba since it keeps backhaul load down and phones are cheap. That being said, I hope they are evaluating the possibility of leapfrogging to 5G technology when it matures and they can afford it.
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