ETECSA, Cuba's monopoly ISP, has been running free tests of their forthcoming mobile access. It seems that the latest test is over for now, but Andy Garcia (@Dancuba96) ran a speed test before it ended:
ETECSA has not announced when commercial 3G service will commence, where it will be available at first and what it will cost, but the following image at the start of the @ETECSA_Cuba Twitter page suggests that service will begin soon and they are serious about mobile #Internet access.
One to three Mbps connectivity using a mobile device is fine for consuming and sharing content, but not for content creation. I hope Cuba regards 3G as an interim, stopgap measure and they are planning to leapfrog over today's technology to roll out next-generation technology when it and they are ready. For example, one can imagine Cuba jumping from 3G to 5G community networks.
Cuban 3G access is a positive step -- it will scale better than their current WiFi hotspots and navigation rooms -- and be more convenient, but the prices may favor access to the Cuban national intranet over access to the global Internet, creating a "walled garden" with all of its shortcomings.
Cuban "technological sovereignty" -- a walled garden strategy?
Cubans should focus on things in which they have a comparative advantage -- as the saying goes, "do what you do best and link to the rest."
ToDus can be downloaded at Apklis
ToDus, a messaging application described as a "Cuban WhatsApp" and Apklis, a distribution site for Android mobile apps, were featured at the First Computerization Workshop held recently at the Universidad de Ciencias Informáticas (UCI).
One might ask, why do we need a Cuban WhatsApp and Apklis when we already have WhatsApp itself and the Google Play Store?
ToDus seems to duplicate WhatsApp's features. Users can send messages, photos and other files to individuals or groups of up to 250 members and, like WhatsApp, it is secure -- messages are encrypted and stored on users phones, not toDus servers. (ToDus users cannot speak with each other using this version of the program, but that feature will be added). Since toDus is a free app, I believe it could be listed on the Google Play Store as well as on Apklis.
The key difference between toDus and Apkis and WhatsApp and the Play Store is that the former run on Cuba's national intranet, not the global Internet. One could argue that this duplication is done to lower operating costs or improve performance. I don't know how Cuba's international access is priced, but it seems that the marginal cost of international traffic for a chat app used by 11 million people would be very small and the latency difference imperceptible. (If Cuba is trying to save on communication cost or cut latency, they would be way better off pursuing an undersea cable between Havana and Florida).
Yadier Perdomo, Director of Networks at UCI, may have alluded to a more significant motivation when he stated that toDus "guarantees technological sovereignty, something that similar products, such as WhatsApp and Messenger (from Facebook), do not do." I am not sure what he means by "technological sovereignty," but it seems consistent with an overall effort to focus on domestic as opposed to global communication and services. Furthermore, ETECSA is rolling out 3G mobile connectivity (and experimenting with 4G) and evidently planning to charge less for access to the national intranet than the Global Internet.
Does this point to a strategy of encouraging a Cuban "walled garden" that favors intranet communication and services (and El Paquete Semanal) over Global Internet communication and services?
That policy would have two negative side effects. For one, it would create two classes of Cuban users -- the relatively poor, mass population that predominantly uses mobile phones on the intranet and elite users with access to the global Internet using computers as well as mobile phones. The Internet-enabled users would have access to more information and more powerful application and be better able to create content.
Second, while Cuba can create and support a simple application like toDus on its own, they lack the scale and resources to create complex and mass-data dependent applications -- Cuba's Ecured will never be as comprehensive as WikiPedia, their Mapa service will never be as useful as Google Maps, there can never be a Cuban equivalent of Google Translate, etc.
One might justify favoring the intranet over the Internet as an interim step to what the Cubans call "the computerization of society," but it is a drain of resources in the short run and a dead-end in the long run. Cubans should focus on things in which they have a comparative advantage -- as the saying goes, "do what you do best and link to the rest."
Well, that brings me to the end of this post, but I want to add two miscellaneous tidbits — kind of a PS:
1. If you go to the Internet portal of Cuba's intranet, you see links to toDus and Apklis. Both are broken from outside of Cuba, but the Apklis link is to https://www.apklis.cu/es/. It seems they are working on multi-language versions of the site.
2. The names and logos of Apklis and toDus are completely goofy. The toDus logo is evidently a reference to the Cuban tody bird and I cannot guess the rationale behind the Apklis butterfly. One thing is clear -- neither name or logo says anything about the corresponding service, though one might guess that Apklis has something to do with APKs.
It might be a belated drop in the bucket. UCI has only 19 trained CNA instructors while the CNA curriculum is being taught by over 20,000 instructors at over 10,000 institutions.
On the other hand, this might be the first step in a significant opening. The Castros are no longer in power -- might the US allow Cisco to sell equipment to Cuba and might the Cubans consider Cisco as a competitor to Huawei, SES, and other connectivity providers?
The Trump administration has cracked down on individual travel but has not curtailed the sales of communication equipment to Cuba. Trump would doubtless like to claim credit for any Cuban sales by Cisco and for Raúl Castro stepping down and he is indifferent to human rights violation, so my guess is that the US would allow Cisco to sell to Cuba.
Similarly, competition from Cisco would enhance Cuba's bargaining position with Huawei and, while much of their SNA material is generic, some is Cisco-specific, giving them an advantage. I don't know if Cisco is charging for their training or equipment, but they may be donating it as a marketing and international public-relations expense. (In the mainframe days, IBM gave significant discounts and subsidies to universities so students would be trained on their equipment. They even built the building to house the computers at the UCLA Western Data Processing Center where I was a student).
It's too soon to know if this is an important first step and it will be interesting to see how events unfold. A good start would be for the US to allow Cubans access to Cisco's online CNA courses and for UCI to expand their initial internal offering and to train CNA instructors at schools and organizations like the Unión de Informáticos, ETECSA, networks like Infomed, and the Joven Clubs.
President Obama announced the Cisco-UCI SNA plan over two years ago. Two years from now, we will know whether it is significant for either Cisco or Cuba.
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?
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