Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES, August 6 — The “ALBA-1” double fiber optic cable still doesn’t offer service to Internet and telephone users in Cuba. The date for activating the project has been put back several times, with the last missed benchmark being July.
Boris Moreno Cordoves, the vice minister of Communications & Informatics, now says that improved services could begin in September or October of this year.
The laying of the cable from Venezuela to Santiago de Cuba was completed in February.
Announcements have repeatedly been made concerning the implementation of a project that promises to multiply the speed of data, image and voice transmissions by 3,000 times the capacity that Cuba currently possesses.
Meanwhile, islanders have been waiting for the arrival of that moment with great expectations.
Internet users continue experiencing the same frustratingly slow and difficult access to the web (Cuba has one of the lowest connection rates in the hemisphere).
According to official figures, 1.6 million users accessed the Internet in Cuba in 2009 (of a population of 11.2 million). Nevertheless, that figure includes the great majority of those who don’t have full access; rather, they enjoy limited e-mail service or simply the national intranet, with many sites that are outdated.
For many years Cuba has attributed its connection limitations to the United States embargo, which has forced the island to use a satellite connection that is much slower and significantly more expensive than a physical connection.
The “ALBA-1 cable”
A Cuban-Venezuelan joint-venture (Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe), owned by the state-run telecommunications companies of the two countries, is the entity that has moved the project forward. Responsibility for installing the line was held by Shanghai Bell, the Chinese subsidiary of the French firm Alcatel-Lucent. Shanghai Bell is experienced in the installation of lines having done this in many parts of the world.
According to Jose Ignacio Quintero, the project manager for the installation, the cable will have a capacity of around 80 million simultaneous telephone calls, though part of that bandwidth will be for Internet service. In addition, it will have 640 gigabytes of capacity for connections abroad.
After the final connection, users will be able to “have access to international calls” to and from Cuba “without having to wait,” commented Quintero when the ship arrived with the fiber optic cable from Venezuela this past February.
The Cuban-American owned TeleCuba Company had previously proposed running a cable from Key West to the island — only 108 miles, and therefore cheaper than the Venezuelan connection — but Cuba did not respond to the offer.
The current cable had to travel almost ten times that distance (994 miles from Camuri Venezuela to Siboney Cuba) at a cost of more than US $70,000,000.
According to the Granma newspaper, “The blockade prevents Cuba from being connected to any one of nearly a dozen international connections that surround us. For example, one of these cables (Cancun-Miami) passes as close as only 20 miles from the Havana seawall.”
Getting online in Cuba
Notwithstanding the Cuban government’s attempt to socialize Internet service in state-run schools, workplaces, health, research and cultural facilities, sentiment on the island contradicts such aims. For many Cubans, the services offered are highly insufficient.
In the majority of the cases access to open Internet is conditioned by strict regulations that prohibit personal and creative use of available services.
In the opinion of blogger and activist Yasmin S. Portales, access to the Internet at government institutions is achieved through the “professional, educational or political contacts” of the user, as well as according to the “judgments of the directors of those centers relative to the social purpose of their terminals.” Under such controls, “those who access will be alienated from their freedom to navigate the web a priori, limited by the standards of political/moral correctness of its network’s administrator,” stressed Portales.
Generally, the regulations of computer security are applied in a discretionary manner, varying from ministry to ministry. Nor are the standards of censorship uniform.
Optometry technician Jimmy Roque Martinez explained that in the last few weeks, instead of increasing the navigational speed and accessibility of the Infomed network, which belongs to the Cuban Ministry of Health, these capacities have declined. Roque, who is also an activist member of the Critical Observatory, reports that when using his personal Infomed account he can no longer even access certain national websites such as Granma, Juventud Rebelde or Trabajadores newspapers.
Nevertheless, he checked to find that it’s still possible to access these sites from institutional health system connections.
One source (who wished not to be identified) told HT that the Youth Computer Club they attend in an eastern province generally offers very limited connection time and without the ability to log onto Facebook. However, if a user declares that they intend to “speak well of the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban Five” on some website — including Facebook — they are granted limitless time.
Cultural institutions seem to be those that offer services (free as well as at moderate rates) to the greatest number of people. The Cubarte network accommodates many institutions and national creators by offering a range of payment plans. As part of their missions, several of these institutions offer Internet surfing services to their users, but with the aforementioned limitations.
Yes, but no
At the end of 2008, computerization process official Carlos Oporto explained that Cuba’s strategy was related to an “orderly and intensive social use of the media and connectivity.” This was stated in a workshop where another official of the Telecommunications & Informatics Ministry — when referring to the Internet — revealed that “We don’t have the infrastructure for this.”
It’s been almost three years and yet they still don’t seem prepared.
Before the International Relations Commission of the Cuban National Assembly, Bruno Moreno just pointed out to the deputies: “The Cuba-Venezuela cable is just short of going into operation, and now it’s necessary to begin transferring the channels, which implies sitting down with the service providers and beginning to transfer services in September or October.”
The Granma newspaper, as well as the rest of the printed Cuban press, has omitted all information related to the Internet. According to Yohandry Fontana’s blog, the vice minister emphasized that the responsible position for Cuba is that in this context of financial limitations, blockade and aggression, “We will continue improving access where it’s necessary for the country’s development.”
Months ago, Granma, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party had already made it clear that, “The underwater cable will provide greater quality in info-communication, but this will not necessarily mean an expansion of these services. The socialization of service will depend more on seeking efficiency than on the amplification of the network.”
During his presentation last week to the parliament committee, Boris Moreno commented that, “The political will exists for expanding the services of the Internet to the degree that economic resources allow the development of the infrastructure necessary for it, because the massive entry onto the Internet requires significant investments for that to be progressively carried out, and that depends on the number of users to serve. Access for personal use will be offered to the degree that the capacity allows this.”
Back in 2008 Carlos Oporto stated that fiber optics already existed internally in Cuba, so it was only a question of waiting a few years for the authorities responsible to prepare the necessary infrastructure. But because the recent statements by vice minister Moreno were not made public, we don’t know how much work has still yet to be carried out, or whether he even told the deputies.
Contradicting Waldo Reboredo, the vice-president of Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, who had stated months earlier that the fiber optic cable “would reduce the costs of current operations by 25 percent,” Moreno told the National Assembly committee that “this investment will guarantee safer access and will improve the quality of the connections, but it won’t mean a reduction in the costs that Cuba pays for Internet access.”
For the moment, the public’s expectations are yet to be fulfilled. The privileged few who have their slow connections to the Internet are waiting anxiously for a change. Will Cubans be able to contract for Internet services in their homes? Will the price for the service be reduced at tourist centers? Will speed improve for everyone? Will they reduce the charges for telephone services?
The answer remains: Who knows?