The first month of Cuban 3G mobile Internet service
Oracle DNS server query rate. (Plot by Matt Prosser).
ETECSA, Cuba's government monopoly ISP, is offering a number of stopgap Internet services -- navigation rooms, home DSL and public WiFi hotspots, but the recently rolled out 3G mobile service is the most important. The plot to the right shows the normalized rate of Cuban domain name requests to Oracle servers during the first full month of operation -- a surrogate estimate of Internet traffic volume. During the limited 3G rollout period of December 4-6, DNS hits were roughly double the previous level. When the full rollout was complete, Oracle DNS queries doubled again -- roughly 4 times that of the pre-rollout level.
ETECSA released 3G mobile sales data for the first month at the recent National Workshop on Computerization and Territorial Cybersecurity and the results were impressive -- there were nearly 2 million transactions and the revenue was over 13 million CUC.
I have argued that as soon as they have the capacity to handle the traffic, ETECSA should cut 3G mobile prices and eventually make this slow, obsolete service free. Doing so would expand and train their user base and lead to the development of new applications. For example, a month after the service was introduced, Sube, a taxi application similar to Uber, but with cash payment directly to the driver, is available.
What could the Cuban government do with Russia-style access to Facebook data? What sorts of fake news could they create and circulate on YouTube and Pinterest? What can be done to control the dark side of the Cuban Internet?
Cuba is about to hold a referendum on a proposed constitution that the government supports and Eduardo Sanchez posted a test showing that SMS messages with anti-referendum terms like #YoVotoNo, #YoNoVoto or abstenciónare being blocked.
This form of censorship is not new. In 2016, 14Ymedio posted a story documenting the blocking of SMS messages containing terms like "human rights" or the names of certain dissidents.
But screening texts for key words could be just a start. As shown here, Cubans are already users of Facebook, YouTube and other social media services.
Cuban social media market shares, January 2018-19 (source)
I have long advocated improved Internet access in Cuba -- most recently suggesting several reasons for making 3G mobile access free as soon as capacity would allow, but what might the Cuban government do with Russia-style access to Facebook data? What sorts of fake news could they create and circulate on YouTube or Pinterest?
In the early days of the Internet, we naivly saw it a force for Good, but China, which came online in 1993, showed us (& Cuba) the dark side. Like China in the 1990s, Cuba is a near "green field." What can be done to control the dark side of the Cuban Internet?
I have seen mobile speed tests in Havana ranging from .5 to 1 Mbps and want to put that in context.
In the 1990s, the ITU specified a minimum speed of 2Mbit/s for stationary or walking users and 348 kbit/s in a moving vehicle. Commercial service began rolling out in the early 2000s.
I have seen anecdotal reports putting 3G speed in Havana as being between .5 and 1 Mbps.
I had a hard time finding any actual 3G performance data since service providers have nearly all converted to 4G LTE, but I found two sources.
One, from 2014, reported 3G speeds ranging from 384Kbps to 2Mbps, but they gave no explanation of how they gathered their data.
The other is recent and better documented. Professor Peter Heinzmann the University of Applied Sciences, Rapperswil Switzerland sent a report on 3G speeds in Switzerland for the year between December 16 2017 and December 16 2018. They took 16,942 download measurements from 1,762 devices and 16,766 upload measurements from 1,757 devices. The median download speed was 4 Mbps and the mean was 6 Mbps. The median and mean upload speeds were 1 Mbps.
Here are the cumulative upload (green) and download (blue) speed distributions:
These speeds are well above those reported so far in Cuba. Since the Cuban towers were installed recently and some in Switzerland might be quite old, I suspect that the difference is due to congestion at the towers or in backhaul. Only ETECSA really knows what is going on.
The case for making 3G mobile Internet access free in Cuba
The economic and social benefits of free 3G Internet connectivity would easily outweigh the cost.
Last week ETECSA began offering 3G mobile access to Cuba's national intranet and the global Internet and President Diaz-Canal tweeted the news:
His tweet has received 216 comments so far and reading through them, many are effusively positive, like:
"This is without a doubt a breakthrough that will benefit millions of Cuban families!! Congratulations!!" and "Excellent news comrade!"
Others were critical, noting that the prices are high relative to Cuban incomes (one said "absurd") and the technology is obsolete -- "Congratulations, but they're 20 years late."
I cannot agree with the de rigueur/obligatory congratulations -- third generation mobile is over 15 years old, only 66% of the population is covered, the price is very high relative to Cuban salaries (access to the national intranet is cheaper than global Internet access) and performance is unknown -- but this is a faltering first step and, like WiFi hotspots, street nets, El Paquete Semanal, navigation rooms and home DSL, it should be seen as an interim, stopgap measure. Hopefully, the Cuban Internet will eventually leapfrog over current technology to next-generation technology -- in the meantime stopgaps are better than nothing.
The next stopgap goal should be to make ubiquitous 3G mobile Internet access free -- like free streets, sidewalks, education, etc. Doing so would create a nation of trained, demanding users leading to the development of innovative, practical applications.
ETECSA, Cuba's government monopoly ISP and phone company, may complain that they do not have the infrastructure to support the traffic that free 3G would generate and can not afford to build the capacity. I have no information on the specifications of the 3G base stations they are installing, but it is probably safe to assume that there is spare capacity since 3G data rates are far below those of today's LTE technology. (A friend just told me that he was seeing 1 Mbps in Havana).
O3b is operating MEO satellites today, and they will be joined in the early 2020s by low-Earth orbit satellite constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, which are also potential mobile backhaul providers.
Both ETECSA and the Cuban society can justify the investment needed to provide free 3G Internet access. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, coined "Metcalfe's Law" saying that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. While not a precise mathematical statement, there can be no doubt that the effect of a network on society and its value to whoever owns it increases rapidly as it grows.
As noted, 3G technology is obsolete and one day Cuba will be rolling out modern technology. When they do, people who have been using 3G will understand its value and the value of the applications they have been using and many will be willing to migrate to and pay for faster service.
In addition to trained users, free 3G would generate application developers and Internet entrepreneurs. They would develop 3G applications and content for Cuba and other Spanish speakers around the world and would transition to modern infrastructure when it becomes available.
I've been talking about free 3G from the standpoint of ETECSA and application developers and Internet entrepreneurs, but consider the social benefit of reducing the digital divide and improving government, education, health care, entertainment, tourism, finance, and other businesses, etc.
This has been a back-of-the-envelope case, but it seems clear that the economic and social benefits of free 3G Internet connectivity would easily outweigh the cost. Let's flesh the proposal out.
As shown below, they have upgraded 789 mobile base stations to 3G reaching 66% of the population:
Pricing can be by the megabyte (1 CUC≈$1):
or in monthly packages:
The prices are quite steep for a typical Cuban and I suspect there would be relatively few subscribers among the 34% of the population that is not yet covered. Furthermore, many users will have to buy new phones to use the service. (There are still 1,084 second-generation mobile base stations in Cuba).
Network performance during the trials mentioned above was poor -- connections were unreliable and slow. Part of that may have been due to the fact that access was free, but it remains to be seen how fast and reliable the mobile access will be. That will be determined by demand and infrastructure -- the capacity of the base stations and backhaul.
Access to the national intranet costs less than access to the global Internet. While local access saves some congestion on Cuba's international links, it also encourages a Cuban "walled-garden." Cuba is developing local content and services, but they cannot compete with what is available globally. Cuba should open to the world and also aim to be a provider of Spanish-language content and services.
There is also a political dimension. Cuba's president, Miguel Díaz-Canel hinted at a walled-garden strategy when he addressed the Parliament saying "We need to be able to put the content of the revolution online," adding that Cubans could thus "counter the avalanche of pseudo-cultural, banal and vulgar content." I can't argue about banal and vulgar content (and worse), but the cure of a walled-garden in a nation with a government-monopoly Internet service provider is worse than the disease.
(Access to the national intranet portal has been blocked in the US -- I'd be curious to hear from others who can access it).
If performance is good enough, mobile access will be more convenient and comfortable than the current WiFi hotspots or navigation rooms so it will become the way most Cubans go online. That would be an improvement, but far from ideal. As I have said many times, 3G mobile, WiFi hotspots, home DSL, public navigation rooms, street nets, and El Paquete Semanal are stopgap measures and Cuba should be planning to leapfrog current technology in the future.
We should not forget that 3G mobile technology is around 15-years old. Another interim step could be to augment Cuba's current O3b satellite and terrestrial connectivity to significantly increase backhaul capacity and offer free 3G mobile access. Doing so would lead to a population of trained, demanding users and enable many innovative, practical applications. That may sound crazy at first, but we take free sidewalks, roads, firefighting, etc. for granted and a few cities offer free public transport -- why not ubiquitous, free 3G connectivity?
Coming back to Earth — ETECSA promised to make 3G mobile access widely available by the end of the year and they did it. You can watch the video of the televised announcement here:
===== Update 1/10/2019
Oracle reported a significant increase in Cuban DNS queries immediately following the 3G rollout and, in spite of high prices, the increase persisted through mid-December. It would be interesting to know what portion of Cuban's new 3G access is paid for by ex-pat families and friends as opposed to Cuban nationals.
===== Update 1/12/2019
The DNS query rate reported by Oracle continued through the end of the year. It dropped off on December 13th and again on Christmas day, but remained much higher than during the limited activation period which was double the pre-rollout rate. (What happened on Thursday, December 13th)?
Oracle reports DNS queries and other statistics here and you can view a plot for the previous week for a nation. (Click here for Cuba last week).
DNS queries last week in Cuba are shown here:
There was a dip last Thursday as well -- coincidence?
===== Update 1/17/2019
There may be some confusion about 3G accounts -- ETECSA posted a tweet stressing the fact that charges are per amount of data rather than time online as at the WiFi hotspots and their Web site warns users that they need phones with 900 Mhz radios. I bet ETECSA is selling a lot of new phones, many of which are purchased with remittances from abroad.
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