O3b's MEO satellites orbit at an altitude of around 8,012 km above the equator while Intelsat's geosynchronous satellites are at around 35,786 km, therefore the time for a data packet to travel from earth to an O3b satellite and back to Earth is significantly less than to an Intelsat satellite. This move to O3b may be related to ETECSA's recent decision to offer SMS messaging service to the US (at an exorbitant price) and it will surely improve the speed of interactive applications.
That is today's situation as I understand it, but now I want to speculate on the future of Cuban satellite connectivity -- say in the early 2020s.
First a little background on O3b Networks. O3b is a wholly owned subsidiary of SES but it was founded in 2007 by Greg Wyler, who has since moved on to a new venture called OneWeb. While O3b provides service to companies like ETECSA, OneWeb plans to also provide fast global connectivity to individuals in fixed locations like homes and schools as well as the "Internet of things."
This animation was prepared by Teledesic, formed in 1990 to provide LEO satellite connectivity. Teledesic failed, but technology, the market and executive skill have changed since that time.
OneWeb plans to connect the "other 3 billion" people using a constellation of around 1,600 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 1,200 km and another 1,300 in MEO at 8,500 km. They are working with many vendors and partners and plan to launch their first satellites in March 2018. They will begin offering service in Alaska in 2019 and hope to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020. By 2025 they expect to have 1 billion subscribers and their mission is to eliminate the global digital divide by 2027.
Now, back to Cuba. ETECSA is doing business with Wyler's previous company O3b. Might they also be talking with his current company, OneWeb? It takes time to launch hundreds of satellites, so service is being phased in -- might Cuba come online sometime after Alaska? By connecting Cuba, OneWeb would gain publicity, the goodwill of many nations and access to a relatively well-educated, Internet-starved market and it would enable Cuba to quickly deploy broadband technology.
As I said, this is pure speculation. OneWeb faces significant technical, business and political challenges and may fail. Politics would be particularly challenging in the case of Cuba. Both the US and Cuba would have to make major policy changes, but maybe the time is right for that -- the Cuban government will change in 2018 and the US government is likely to change in 2020 when Alaska comes online.
OneWeb has established a relationship with ETECSA through O3b, but other companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, are working on similar LEO projects. Might ETECSA be talking to the others? You can see a survey of LEO satellite plans and issues here.
Community networks like SNET and Guifi.net are compatible with Cuba's tradition of innovation subject to constraints and socialist values.
In an earlier post, I described Havana's community network, SNET, and wondered what it could become if the government and ETECSA were willing to legitimatize and support it. Spain's Guifi.net provides a possible answer to that question.
Guifi.net is said to be the largest community network in the world. It began in 2004 and has grown to have 34,165 nodes online with 16,758 planned, 407 building, 612 testing and 4,043 inactive. The nodes are linked by WiFi and fiber and there are over 50,000 users throughout Spain. (See the chart and map below).
Community networks like SNET and Guifi.net are compatible with Cuba's tradition of innovation subject to constraints and socialist values. Could SNET grow to serve people throughout Cuba if it had access to ETECSA fiber and the global Internet? While community networks may not be a long-run solution for Cuba, they should be considered as an interim, stopgap means of extending affordable Internet connectivity.
I also recommend the Internet Society policy brief Spectrum Approaches for Community Networks. It is a concise document with specific recommendations. For example, the section on spectrum management recommends allocating unlicensed spectrum, dynamic sharing of licensed spectrum and innovative licensing like granting licenses for social purposes or small rural communities and give examples of networks employing each of these. There are similar sections with recommendations and examples for policymakers, network organizers, and network operators. The report also has a list of links to other resources and annotated endnotes.
Working in collaboration with SNET operators, we describe the network’s infrastructure and map its topology, and we measure bandwidth, available services, usage patterns, and user demographics. Qualitatively, we attempt to answer why the SNET exists and what benefits it has afforded its users. We go on to discuss technical challenges the network faces, including scalability, security, and organizational issues.
You should read the paper -- it's interesting and well-written -- but I can summarize a few points that caught my attention.
SNET is a decentralized network comprised of local nodes, each serving up to 200 users in a neighborhood. The users connect to local nodes using Ethernet cables strung over rooftops, etc. or WiFi. The local nodes connect to regional "pillars" and the pillars peer with each other over fixed wireless links. The node and pillar administrators form a decentralized organization, setting policy, supporting users and keeping their servers running and online as best they can. (This reminds me of my school's first Web server -- a Windows 3 PC on my desk that crashed frequently).
The average utilized bandwidth between two pillars during a 24-hour period was 120 Mb/s of a maximum throughput of 250 Mb/s and the authors concluded that throughput is generally constrained by the available bandwidth in the WiFi links between pillars. As such, faster inter-pillar links and/or adding new pillars would improve performance. Faster links from local nodes to pillars, new node servers, etc. would also add to capacity and availability, but that hardware would cost money. The Cuban government would probably see the provision of outside funds as subversive, but what would be the impact of, say, a $100,000 equipment grant from ETECSA to SNET?
The paper drills down on the network topology, discusses applications and presents usage and performance statistics. Forums are one of the applications and one of the forums is Netlab, a technical community of over 6,000 registered members who have made over 81,000 posts. They focus on open-source development and have written a SNET search engine and technical guides on topics like Android device repair. The export of Cuban content and technology has been a long-standing focus of this blog, and it would be cool to see Netlab available to others on the open Internet.
Netlab forum growth
The authors of the paper say that as far as they know, "SNET is the largest isolated community-driven network in existence" (my italics). While it may be the largest isolated community network there are larger Internet-connected community networks and that is a shame. I hope Cuba plans to "leapfrog" to next-generation technology and policy) while implementing stopgap measures like WiFi hotspots, 3G mobile and DSL. If SNET and other community networks were legitimized, supported and linked to the Internet (or even the Cuban intranet), they would be useful stopgap technology. ETECSA could also use the skills of the street net builders.
Freelist hosts a couple of Cuban email lists -- create one of your own?
If you have an idea for a list of your own, check out Freelists.
Freelists.org hosts Internet mailing lists at no cost. (They ask for donations on their site). Freelist uses an open source server called Ecartis, which appears to have a command interface similar to the popular Listserv (which has been around since 1986).
Freelists host over 11,000 lists, two of which pertain to Cuba and the Internet judging by their names: Cubacel and Emprendedorescubanos.
The Cubacel welcome message says it is for discussion of Cubacel and its network and asks people stick to the topic of mobile networks, post plain text messages, not HTML, and only attach files like .pdfs and images when necessary and to compress them if you do. (This feels so 1980s).
I subscribed to Cubacel about four hours ago, and have seen one user ask when 4G might come to Cuba and receive an answer that trials using 1800 Mhz Band 3 had been run near the Miramar Business Center, but that did not give a clue to if and when 4G would be available.
Another person said they had heard that ETECSA was limiting 3G roaming transfer speed to 300 kbps and asked what speeds people were getting, but so far no one has replied. (I've received reports of much faster service).
I've not yet received any messages from the Emprendedorescubanos list.
You can read a bit more about user's experience with and opinion of the Cubacel list here.
If you have an idea for a list of your own, check Freelists out -- it takes only a minute to create a list. (Let me know if you do).
Home ADSL is less important than other interim, stopgap measures like WiFi parks and El Paquete Semanal.
In 2015, ETECSA announced/leaked a plan to make ADSL service available in 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. I was skeptical. Doing so would mean investing a lot of money for obsolete technology between 2015 and 2020.
ETECSA first tested, then offered ADSL service in Old Havana. Only 600 customers opened accounts after the test period, leading me to speculate (and hope) that the ADSL project would end given the low acceptance rate. I was wrong, but I still don't think ADSL will or should reach anywhere near 50% of Cuban homes.
Let me digress a bit to explain why I think ADSL is a bad idea. ADSL requires a telephone line from one's home to a phone company central office where the DSL equipment is installed and the central office needs a fast enough connection to the Internet to handle the traffic of all the customers it serves. Deteriorated wiring, a long distance from a home to the central office or a lack of backhaul capacity from the central office to the Internet reduce connection speed.
For example, in my neighborhood Frontier offers ADSL service at speeds ranging from 1.61 Mbps to 6 Mbps. (The FCC defines "broadband" as 25 Mbps or more). My home is about two miles from my central office and it was built just after World War II, so the fastest speed they can offer me is 3 Mbps. That has not changed since I discontinued ADSL in the 1990s. ADSL technology has improved since that time, but Frontier has not invested in new equipment because their ADSL service is clearly inferior to that offered by cable TV companies.
Perhaps ETECSA has a commitment to their DSL equipment vendor, Huawei, or they are able to make a profit serving a few customers at the high prices they are charging today, but I can't imagine them making a large investment in this technology. (see prices below).
I don't have the details, but my guess is that only a few central offices will be equipped for ADSL in each new city and a relatively small number of people in served neighborhoods will choose to pay the prices they are charging for home Internet service. (I wonder what percent of their current Havana and Bayamo customers are businesses or homes of people who rent rooms or work at home).
As such, I don't see this slow, expensive, restricted service as very important. It should be considered an interim, stopgap measure, like WiFi parks or El Paquete Semanal, while ETECSA plans "leapfrogging" to next-generation technology and, more important, regulation and infrastructure ownership policy in the 2020s.
In 2016 there were 764 central offices in Cuba (719 of them digital). I don't know if some central offices serve homes in more than one popular council or if there are some popular councils served by more than one central office, but even with this expansion, ADSL is only available to and affordable by a small portion of Cuban homes.
My guess would be that the central offices that have been upgraded to allow for ADSL are in relatively affluent neighborhoods and many subscribers are businesses or people renting rooms in their homes, but that is just a guess and it would be interesting to see a survey of ADSL subscribers.
===== Update 10/16/2017
When ETECSA held a home connectivity trial in Havana last year, 868 people participated and over 600 contracted for the service. They are now extending the availability of home connectivity to portions of seven Havana municipalities: La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, Revolution Square, Havana del Este, San Miguel del Padrón, La Lisa and beach. (It had been available in only two up till now).
Note that all locations in those municipalities will not be covered -- I suspect that is due to distance from an ETECSA central office, a lack of backhaul capacity and/or the poor wiring condition.
They also announced a home service price cut -- 15 CUC for 30 hours per month will now get you 1 Mbps instead of 256 kbps. (The release said 1 megabyte, but I suspect that was a typo).
Perhaps ETECSA is able to recover the cost of their DSL and infrastructure investment at the speeds and prices they are offering, but this is clearly not the path to widespread home connectivity.
===== Update 10/17/2017
ETECSA has released the number of Nauta Hogar subscribers outside of Havana: 232 in Pinar del Río, 225 in Holguín, 134 in Guantanamo, 79 in Granma and 142 in Las Tunas. Most of those are 1 or 2 Mbps.
With a reported subscriber count of 600 in Havana, this brings the total number of homes with ADSL connectivity to a little over 1,400. As of 2015, there were 996,063 residential phone lines in Cuba. They clearly can not and should not count on using ADSL to reach the 50% availability level mentioned above.
On December 15, the former f(x) member and actress shared the videos on Instagram below with the message, "Something came up, so I came back 2 weeks earlier than I planned. T.T Still, I got to learn salsa. Hehe. This was from my first salsa lesson.
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