Cuba/Internet: Dreaming of Sea Monsters

Fernando Ravsberg*

Since the laying of the underwater telephone cable, several senior officials in the Ministry of Communications were relieved of their posts. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban authorities finally decided to talk about the underwater telephone cable that disappeared from official speeches and the national press a couple years ago. Now they’re saying that testing is being conducted, but they warn that we shouldn’t have any illusions as we will have to continue waiting.

“In peace like in war, we will keep up our communications,” is the official slogan of Cuba’s Ministry of Communications, but its efforts have been so dismal that Cuban humor adapted that slogan to reality by saying “We will keep down our communications” here.

But of all the fiascos, the underwater telephone cable and its two-year delay is certainly the most talked about. Nonetheless, the brief official statement didn’t explain the reasons why the telephone company has taken so long to carry out the tests.

Secrecy during this long gestation period has led to much speculation and rumors, which was contributed to by the replacements of two ministers of communications and two of their deputies. It could have all been pure coincidence, but such occurrences are rare in politics.

The rumors include the mention of a scam in the millions of dollars that allegedly led to officials in the Ministry of Communications and in the ETECSA telephone company being implicated. Apparently, the ruse involved buying cheaper materials at the expense of reducing connectivity.

Witnesses told me that several executives left the telephone company’s offices handcuffed while others fled overseas. Nevertheless, the authorities officially insist on speaking as if no problem ever occurred.

Since August 2012, the submarine telephone cable has been operating for international calls. Photo: Raquel Perez

The ministry and ETECSA should give an explanation to the citizens because the cable cost more than $68 million, which means that every Cuban family paid $20 for 640 gigabytes of bandwidth, multiplying the current connection speed by 3,000 times [as had been announced].

That cable doesn’t belong to the ETECSA Telephone Company, since it doesn’t even own itself, being a state-owned nationwide entity. Its directors therefore have an obligation to explain to the public what their money is spent on and why projects are delayed.

For the telephone company and the ministry, it would be easy to eliminate rumors. All they would have to do is issue a new statement clarifying that the appropriate materials were purchased, none of their officials are suspected of corruption and that the cable possesses the promised gigabytes.

During those two years, the limited information concerning the issue came only from abroad. In May 2012, the Minister of Science and Technology of Venezuela, Jorge Arreaza, said publicly that the underground telephone cable was already operating. However the Cuban silence continued unchanged.

A couple of weeks ago, a US company that monitors the Internet reported that it had detected increased activity in Cuba at speeds just below 400 milliseconds, which could only result from a cable transmission.

Faced with this evidence, ETECSA admitted: “Since this past January 10, we have conducted quality-control testing of Internet traffic on the system. These have been realized using real traffic to and from Cuba with the aim of normalizing this means of communication.”

According the Cuban telephone company (ETECSA), the operationalization of underwater telephone cable will not guarantee an immediate increase in connectivity. Photo: Raquel Perez

The message contained a huge surprise, the cable “has been operational since August 2012, initially involving international telephone voice traffic” – at least we now know that it works for phone conversations.

Regarding the Internet, the company again put us in the dark when it warned us that “this does not mean that the possibilities for access will automatically increase” – which is to say that not even when it’s operational will there be widespread connectivity.

Apparently ETECSA wants to do things slowly and calmly because it “aims to achieve growth gradually.” If it’s true that their initial objective was to move slowly, no one can deny they’ve been more than successful.

Now they’re arguing that it will take more “internal investments in the telecommunications infrastructure and increased foreign exchange resources.” After reading this, Cubans are jokingly saying that the authorities are asking for more money because the funds in the cable project weren’t enough to line everyone’s pocket.

It certainly doesn’t make sense to hand them more of the nation’s financial resources. The least that could be asked is that they first explain how the $70 million was spent and that they submit a detailed plan that clearly establishes the goals, timelines and results.

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


6 thoughts on “Cuba/Internet: Dreaming of Sea Monsters

  • No big mystery here. AT&T is not authorized to engage in extraterritorial connections without fed approval. They are a regulated public utility. As such, Cuba was not willing to pay market rates for service to and from the island leaving American ratepayers to subsidize the difference. Americans subsidizing the Castros….ain’t gonna happen! BTW, one man’s terrorists is another man’s freedom fighter. History is written by the victors, ergo, Iran and Afghanistan-terrorists, Libya and Syria-freedom fighters. No contradiction.

  • Clap, clap, clap, ac.

  • As always you have unquestionably authoritative knowledge on all things to do with Cuba. Your closing statement, however, has me in a whirl:

    “This information is available on-line and will be just a few clicks away should high-speed internet access be enabled.”

    One wonders then, if your scenario is true, why your government, your CANF and your Cuban-American congressional delegation would not have taken advantage of this and pulled the rug from under the feet of the Cuban government by authorizing the underwater connection from Florida to Cuba by AT & T. Why would they instead choose to spend a whopping half a billion plus dollars of taxpayer money on the ineffective Radio & TV Marti broadcasts in a mere 7 years (90 – 97)? Truly a “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, if I may paraphrase the famous quotation. But then again one has seen more puzzling phenomenon. It is possible, for example, for certain nations, with absolutely no contradiction, to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan but support it in Libya and Syria!

  • Is not about supporters or detractors, is the reality of the telecommunications infrastructure in Cuba. For starters, the cable only goes to Santiago de Cuba, from there is supposed to connect to the rest of the provinces, but I’m pretty sure the link goes at a fraction of optical fiber speeds.

    The main issue come afterwards, Cuba’s telephony network is for the most part obsolete and conceived in a time when data transmission wasn’t available. So, in order to minimize energy waste, all the replication devices filter out the bands over 8khz, meaning that most customers can’t even use cheap DSL and are forced to use archaic 56kbps modems (and switch manually between voice calls and data transfer like in the good old times, since both kind of signals share the same frequency band).

    This is not the kind of issue that can be fixed without a huge inversion and lots of time, and I don’t see happening at a satisfactory rate in a foreseeable future. In the other hand, connecting directly to the fiber optic network is out of react to most of the customers due to the monthly huge fees:

    So, in practical terms the deployment of a data network for cell carriers should be the easiest alternative to implement, specially since the customers pay in hard currency and they can recouple the inversion in relative short terms. The downside, of course would be a de facto communications apartheid, where people with access to hard currency enjoying the service while most of the population would have to deal with slow speeds until the infrastructure issues are properly addressed or sharing a slow connection between lots of people in their schools and workplaces how they’ve been doing until now.

  • Some Castro supporters here on HT have argued that Cuba’s delay in implementing internet access through the Venezuelan cable is owed to poor internal infrastructure. Others have blamed the fiasco on the cable itself. They allege that low-quality materials led to operational failures. Answering both claims is simple. Infrastructure buildout is typically done in stages. You construct and connect a node and everyone between the switcher and the node is then up and running. Then you construct and connect a second node, then a third and so on. This industry norm does not support the claim that because the entire infrastructure is not yet complete, that the system must be delayed. The second claim that the cable itself, due to resource mismanagement is non-operational is also now moot. Therefore, the only reason Cubans are still held captive by Internet 1.0 technology at dial-up speeds is because the Castros are afraid of what high-speed technology will do to undermine their desire to isolate Cubans. Radio/TV Marti and many other anticastrista video propaganda sent through the airwaves as an analog signal can be blocked and is largely inaccessible to Cubans. This information is available on-line and will be just a few clicks away should high-speed internet access be enabled.

  • Fernando wrote, “The ministry and ETECSA should give an explanation to the citizens because the cable cost more than $68 million, which means that every Cuban family paid $20 for 640 gigabytes of bandwidth,”

    From what was reported in the Economist, in August 2011, the entire cost of the cable was paid for by Venezuela:

    “Last month officials celebrated the arrival of a 1,600km (1,000-mile) fibre-optic cable laid along the seabed from Venezuela by a consortium including France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Britain’s Cable & Wireless. Venezuela’s government has put up the $70m it cost (including a second link from Cuba to Jamaica).”

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