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.
A 5G, community network strategy for Cuba (and other developing nations)
In a previous post, I suggested that Cuba might be able to leap over 4G to 5G wireless infrastructure using satellite and terrestrial networks for backhaul. While that would require political and policy change, it would be a good fit with Cuban culture and skills.
Before talking about Cuba, let me say a bit about wireless generations.
Each mobile technology generation used new technology and enabled new applications:
1G: Voice calls
2G: Digital data for text and sending small images
3G: Smartphones for low-quality video, Web browsing, and GPS
4G: High speed, lower latency communication for video streaming and chat and interaction with complex Web content
Fifth-generation wireless will be faster than today's 4G and latency is expected be on the order of 1 ms within the 5G network. Radios will be capable of beamforming -- rapidly switching focused beams among large numbers of devices -- and simultaneous two-way (full duplex) transmission at a given frequency. This will enable real-time applications like control of autonomous vehicles, remote medical procedures and augmented and virtual reality as well as fast file transfer and streaming and other, un-imagined applications.
Do not think of this as the evolution of the cell-phone network; think of it as a discontinuity in wireless communication to mobile and fixed users.
In addition to enabling new applications, each mobile computing generation uses different frequency bands and 5G is being designed to use very high frequencies. High-frequency radio waves enable high-speed transmission and small antennas. Being able to fit multiple small, cooperating antennas in a phone or other device (multiple inputs and outputs (MIMO) increases transmission range and speed. However, there is a high-frequency tradeoff -- low-frequency waves travel farther and are better able to penetrate obstacles like buildings and trees than high-frequency waves.
Small cell on the terrace of a building in Bangalore
High-frequency networks will require a multi-tier architecture. With the current cellular network, phones and other devices communicate with a relatively distant base station that is connected by fiber or high-speed wireless to the Internet. Fifth-generation wireless will require many "small cell" radios that communicate with those high-capacity base stations.
Upgrading from 2G to 3G requires new equipment and also more backhaul capacity between a base station and the Internet because 3G transmission speeds are greater than 2G and 3G applications use more data. For most Cubans, it would also require the purchase of a new phone. High-speed, 5G service would require much more backhaul capacity and new phones.
In densely populated areas it will be economically feasible to provide that backhaul using fiber, but fiber to support 5G capacity throughout the island would be very expensive. In many locations, satellite connectivity may turn out to be a better backhaul medium than fiber. SES Networks (O3b) will be offering connectivity using their middle-Earth orbit satellites before Cuba is ready for 5G and by the time they are ready, low-Earth orbit satellite connectivity from vendors like OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink will be available.
But what about the large number of small-cell radios that be feeding 5G base stations?
Small cell radios will be semi-automatically configured and simpler to install and maintain than the WiFi radios used in today's street nets, but that is the easy part. Decentralized technology calls for decentralized decision making. Local people who are locally elected should decide questions like how many small cells to deploy in a neighborhood or rural area, where they should be located and how to pay for them. Would the current municipal electoral districts (from 200-3,000 inhabitants) be an appropriate locus of network control?
ETECSA would cede local control but be responsible for acquiring international bandwidth and providing backhaul over fiber or satellite from their base stations. They would also serve as consultants to local communities and could negotiate high-volume discount purchases of locally-owned equipment.
Note that I am still assuming a major role for ETECSA in spite of the fact that historically, nations like Cuba have privatized telecommunication and licensed foreign operators in exchange for investment in infrastructure. In previous posts I have suggested that vested interest and bureaucracy at ETECSA and uncertainty over control may be stifling Cuban Internet expansion. To the extent that that is the case, the new administration would have to change the organizational culture to focus on Cuba's stated economic and social policy goals -- leapfrogging current regulation and policy along with the technology. That may be wishful thinking, but if they are able to do so, they will have an advantage over nations in which private company profit trumps (no pun intended) social goals.
The technology is also ill-defined and unproven. While the standard for the first version of the 5G radio interface between a device and base station is complete, other hardware and software standards are still being developed and 5G is based on technologies that have been tested in trials, but not in large scale practice. The first deployments are not expected until next year, user and network equipment prices are not set and competing technologies like Starry may impact pricing and deployment.
There are 673 WIFI hotspots, 207 fixed navigation rooms and 771 navigation areas in hotels, Joven Clubs and post offices.
As an indication of capacity, she said they had achieved up to 124,400 simultaneous connections.
They plan to add 150 new wired and wireless areas in 2018, bringing coverage to 44% of the Popular Councils.
They installed DSL in 14,634 homes last year and expect to add 52,500 this year. They've installed 12,682 so far this year.
Ninety-five percent of the home DSL accounts are at the slowest speed of 1 mb/s. I wonder how much of that is due to poor wiring that will not allow higher speeds in an area and how much is due to cost. The 1 mb/s service costs 15 CUC for 30 hours online.
Three G wireless is available throughout Havana and and she estimated 47% of the population was covered.
In 2017, more than 3,992 new data links to institutions of 23 national organizations and entities were installed and they plan to install 5,000 new data services to them this year. I assume she was referring to 5,000 new links and wonder what their speed will be.
Maimir Mesa Ramos, Minister of Communications, also gave a few statistics during his opening speech.
There are now 614 Joven Clubs throughout the island.
The Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas has graduated over 14,400 engineers since it was founded.
There are 4.6 million Cuban cell-phone subscribers and that number is expected to exceed 5 million this year. (I wonder how many of those use 3G data and how many 3G-compatible handsets Cubans own).
He referred to the development of "modest" content and services like Infomed, Ecured and Cubarte -- Cuba could do much more as a producer and distributor of educational and entertainment content for the Spanish-speaking world
This post is speculative, but I think Cuba may use satellite for 3G backhaul and, when the technologies are ready, leapfrog over 4G to 5G mobile connectivity and next-generation satellite. ETECSA began rolling out 3G connectivity for Cubans about a year ago and a few things have led me to believe they will continue:
Miguel Díaz-Canel, who many expect to replace Raúl Castro, has stated that "The State will work to make [the Internet] available, accessible, affordable for all." He also cites problems and responsibilities but seems on balance to favor connectivity.
WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms and home DSL cannot scale to bring "accessible, affordable" connectivity to all, but mobile phones can.
During 2017, ETECSA, Cuba's government telecommunication monopoly, installed 279 3G base stations, bringing the total number of base stations to 409 and reaching 47% of the population
The following crowd-sourced maps show Cuba's mobile rollout. (Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB).
Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, February 2017 (Source)
Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, November 2017 (Source)
Given the choice, people would prefer the flexibility, convenience and comfort of mobile or home access over access at a fixed location like a WiFi park or navigation room. Cuba cannot afford the infrastructure upgrade to make home DSL "available, accessible, and affordable for all" and if they could it would require an enormous investment in obsolete technology.
But, could they provide widespread 3G mobile? Doing so would require more base stations and more backhaul from those base stations to the Intenet. I have been told that O3b currently has a satellite-Internet gateway in Jarusco, near Havana, but my guess is that they will install others to provide 3G backhaul. This would not be unprecedented -- for example, O3b provides mobile backhaul for Digicell, which has over 40,000 LTE accounts in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Could Cuba employ a PNG-like strategy for a portion of their mobile backhaul?
Cuba is not identical to PNG. PNG's population is only about 72% of Cuba's, but Cuba has several advantages over PNG. The area of PNG is more than four times that of Cuba and Cuba has superior, universal education, a GDP per capita about 3.5 times that of PNG and more terrestrial Internet infrastructure.
But, shouldn't Cuba install modern 4G technology instead of 3G?
I have long advocated a strategy of relying on stopgap measures like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms, street nets, El Paquete Semanal and 3G mobile service while planning to leapfrog over current technology. Third generation mobile is significantly slower than 4G/LTE, which means much less backhaul and international bandwidth is required. Furthermore, Google, industrious Cubans and other are developing applications that are tailored to work on slow connections and offline on low-cost handsets. (There were 1,432 active, self-employed programmers in Cuba as of last April).
If 3G is a stopgap while waiting for 5G wireless technology to become available, what might the future look like?
As mentioned above O3b plans to deploy their next-generation mPOWER satellite constellation in 2021. MPOWER will be a major advance. Their current satellites can link to 10 edge terminals, but mPOWER satellites will be capable of over 4,000 links each and O3b will offer several terminal models, ranging from very cheap and small (perhaps suitable for an individual cellular base station) to very large. While we may see a limited 5G rollout in advanced nations in 2019, it will not go mainstream for a year or more and will still be maturing and too expensive for either Cuba, PNG or other developing nations for some time after that, so mPOWER will be ready by the time Cuba is ready to "leap" to 5G.
Seven satellites, each with over 4,000 steerable, fully-shapeable beams
It is noteworthy that 5G terrestrial wireless is expected to be used for fixed as well as mobile access, further reducing the need for investment in terrestrial infrastructure. When we speak of 5G connectivity to fixed locations, we are moving beyond the mobile phone as a user terminal. Handheld computers work well for conversation and consuming media but not for content creation. I could have written this blog post on a laptop with a 5G connection, but not on a mobile phone.
At an mPower press conference (video), Steve Collar, SES Networks CEO asked himself a rhetorical question -- "If we wanted to deliver all of the capability that PNG would require for the next 15 years, could we do it on mPOWER without having to use any sort of meaningful terrestrial infrastructure?" and his answer to that was "yes." He went on to say that "If we can deliver the international and domestic traffic for a country on this system ... then we've got something that is genuinely unique." (Collar's comment is roughly 6 minutes before the end of the video).
Several years ago, I suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not go for that idea. Last month, I suggested that they consider low-Earth orbit satellite Internet service. This post splits the difference by suggesting medium-Earth orbit service from O3b. Since ETECSA is already an O3b customer and SES is a European company, this one may be closer to reality -- I'll save those political considerations for a future post.
SpaceX Starlink and Cuba -- a match made in low-Earth orbit?
I've suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit (GSO) satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not pick up on that stopgap suggestion, but how about low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite Internet service as a next-generation solution?
Cuba should follow and consider each potential system, but let's focus on SpaceX since their plan is ambitious and they might have the best marketing/political fit with Cuba.
LEO satellite service will hopefully reach a milestone this week when SpaceX launches two test satellites. If the tests go well, SpaceX plans to begin launching operational satellites in 2019 and begin offering commercial service in the 2020-21 time frame. They will complete their first constellation of 4,425 satellites by 2024. (To put that in context, there are fewer than 2,000 operational satellites in orbit today).
SpaceX has named their future service "Starlink," and, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer Cuba service as early as 2020 and no later than 2024 depending upon which areas they plan to service first.
What has stopped the Cuban Internet and why might LEO satellites look good to Cuba?
Cuba blames their lack of connectivity on the US embargo, but President Obama cleared the way for the export of telecommunication equipment and services to Cuba and Trump has not reversed that decision.
I suspect that fear of losing political control -- the inability to filter and surveil traffic -- stopped Cuba from allowing GSO satellite service. Raúl Castro and others feared loss of control of information when Cuba first connected to the Internet in 1996, but Castro is about to step down and perhaps the next government will be more aware of the benefits of Internet connectivity and more confident in their ability to use it to their advantage.
A lack of funds has also constrained the Cuban Internet -- they cannot afford a large terrestrial infrastructure buildout and are reluctant (for good and bad reasons) to accept foreign investment. SpaceX is building global infrastructure so the marginal cost of serving Cuba would be near zero.
They say that the capital equipment for providing high-speed, low-latency service to a Cuban home, school, clinic, etc. would be a low-cost, user-installed ground-station. I've not seen ground-station price estimates from SpaceX, but their rival OneWeb says their $250 ground-station will handle a 50 Mbps, 30 ms latency Internet link and serve as a hot-spot for WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connectivity.
Since the marginal cost of serving a nation would be small and they hope to provide affordable global connectivity, I expect their service price will vary among nations. Prices would be relatively high in wealthy and low in poor nations -- there would be no point in having idle satellites flying over Cuba or any other place.
In summary, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer affordable, ubiquitous high-speed Internet, saving Cuba the cost of investing in expensive terrestrial infrastructure and allowing ETECSA to maintain its monopoly. The only intangible roadblock would be a loss of control of traffic. (But Cuban propagandists and trolls would be able to reach a wider audience :-).
That is the rosy picture from the Cuban point of view, what about SpaceX?
I don't know the SpaceX constellation rollout plan, but satellites that serve Cuba would also be capable of serving the eastern US and FCC licenses are conditional upon providing US service in a timely manner.
Since Cuba is an island nation, portions of the footprint of satellites serving Cuba would fall on the uninhabited ocean. That would reduce population destiny in the satellite footprint area, freeing capacity for use by customers in relatively urban areas.
Selecting Cuba as their initial service market would be an audacious move, but Elon Musk is not a conventional, conservative businessman. SpaceX would get a lot of publicity from a Cuba opening and, like the roadster they just launched into orbit, first offering Starlink service in Cuba would have symbolic value -- marking an opening to Cuba.
There is pent-up demand for Internet access in Cuba since they have very poor Internet access given their level of education and development.
Cuba is 166th among the 176 nations the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranks on access to telecommunications. Haiti, ranked 167th, is the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (LA&C) that ranks below Cuba, yet Cuba ranks 9th in the region on the ITU telecommunication-skills index. Cuba ranks tenth in LA&C on the United Nations Development Programme's human-development index and their mean years of schooling is the highest in the region.
Cuba's relatively high human-development and IT-skill indices reflect their emphasis on free public education at all levels. This is exemplified by the curriculum at Cuba's Information Science University, where students pay no tuition but are required to work on useful applications in education, health, sport, and online government.
But, perhaps the biggest contributor to pent-up demand is El Paquete Semanal, a weekly distribution of current, pirated Internet content that is distributed throughout the nation. I've heard the claim that 95% of Cubans see El Paquete content each week. That sounds high, but it is very popular and has been alleged to be Cuba's largest private employer.
The political situation is the elephant in the room. The US has formed a Cuba Internet Task Force and Trump is following President Obama's lead in seeking to strengthen the Cuban Internet, so it unlikely that the US government would object to SpaceX offering Starlink service to Cubans.
That being said, such a move would be unpopular among some members of Trump's Cuban "base." While there might be some domestic political cost to SpaceX, an opening to Cuba would be seen as extremely positive in Latin America and the rest of the world and SpaceX and Tesla are global companies. (Only Israel supports the US embargo of Cuba).
If you guys want to talk about this, DM @RaulCastroR and @elonmusk.
===== Update 2/27/2018
Two years ago, Google invested $900 million in SpaceX, stating that they expected the acquisition would be used “to keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery and, over time, improve Internet access and disaster relief.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Google began providing mobile phone and Internet connectivity in Puerto Rico using their Project Loon balloons and today they are serving 200,000 Puerto Rican users. They have learned from this effort and demonstrated the ability to provide Project Loon connectivity. How about using Starlink when it is available?
Starlink envisions low-cost, user-installed terminals at homes and other end-user sites, but their satellites will also have to connect to ground-stations and it turns out that Google has a lot of terrestrial points of presence on the Internet. Some of them are shown on the following map:
Note that one of those points of presence is in Havana and two others are in Puerto Rico.
SpaceX rocketry, Starlink satellites and service plus Google's terrestrial infrastructure sounds like a formidable combination -- perhaps too formidable. A part of me would love to see such a combination succeed and eventually provide a truly global Internet, but I am also afraid of the market and political power that enterprise would have. Would this or any other global Internet service provider require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?
If a global ISP monopoly (or even an oligopoly) doesn't worry you, what about adding strong AI -- is the Earth beginning to grow a nervous system -- with us as biological components (for the time being)?
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