Since December 17, when President Obama announced the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, there has been a frenzy of speculation over how foreign investment will target the island. Much of the talk has been grossly at odds with the reality on the ground in Cuba, where most of the population lives in subsistence conditions and basic infrastructure lags far behind most of the world.
To get a better handle on the real state of Cuba’s IT sector, Nexus 2015 convened a special panel with Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn. Hailed by the Washington Post as “the man who can see the Internet,” Madory monitors Internet traffic in order to gauge trends, and forecast how networks can be connected and optimized.
At the outset of his Nexus presentation, Madory painted a picture of just how far behind Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is, even when compared with other developing countries in the region. For instance, the size of the Haitian economy is just one-eighth that of Cuba’s, yet Haiti’s telecom sector is far more advanced in terms of services offered by competing telecom providers. Nattcom, Digicel and Access Haiti all service Haiti.
Meanwhile, Cuba was until recently forced to rely on patchy and sluggish satellite Internet. To remedy this and improve Internet service on the island the Cuban and Venezuelan governments partnered to install a submarine fiber optic cable, known as ALBA-1. Yet even though construction on ALBA-1 concluded in 2011, there has been no significant change in Internet service since the cable’s completion, reinforcing the country’s digital isolation at a time of ever-quickening change.
Part of the problem is Internet access to Cuba, be it transmitted through satellite or via the ALBA-1 cable, is dominated by a single provider, a state office known as ETECSA (Empresa de Telecommunicaciones de Cuba S.A.). Madory diagnosed this as a single point of failure. So, if there is a technical problem that ETECSA cannot fix, it affects every Cuban. This was certainly the case in 2013, when Madory noted that an asymmetry in Internet traffic suggested a misconfiguration. After days of working to repair the problem, Havana confirmed the analysis of Madory’s team. But since then Internet service does not appear to have become more widely available in Cuba.
Moreover, Madory has monitored latency spikes, a common problem of congesting links that owes to many people using the Internet. During the times when many users are online, Internet connection times often slow down. In Cuba, the latency spikes are heaviest during the business week, whereas the opposite could be expected in the United States. The low level of Internet traffic during the weekend suggests most Cubans simply don’t have access to the Internet from their homes.
How Cuba May Catch Up
Although the challenges that face Cuba’s IT industry are sobering, there is plenty of reason for optimism in the medium term. Other countries that were until recently digital laggards have opened up their telecom markets, welcoming foreign investment to finance the creation of modern telecom networks while also bringing in the expertise to get systems up and running.
Madory noted that Myanmar may offer lessons for how Cuba could modernize its telecom sector. For decades the country had been run by a military junta that intended to keep the country largely shut off from the outside world. In 2013, less than one percent of the population had access to stable Internet in Myanmar. But that is changing fast as the government has sought to open up the country. The government decided to auction off bandwidth to foreign firms, and those firms have proven eager to modernize the country’s IT infrastructure. According to a recent article in Newsweek, as much as 75-80% of the country will have access to 3G or 4G Internet less than a year from now.
While Cuba is currently at levels of Internet penetration akin to Myanmar a few years ago, the Caribbean island faces if anything fewer challenges when it comes to scaling up its telecom offerings. For one, as Madory noted, the island’s terrain would be more welcoming to the installation of telecom infrastructure than the South East Asian nation that is covered in jungle. Should Havana move in a similar direction by auctioning off bandwidth, access to the Internet on the island could expand by leaps and bounds in just a few years.
And in at least one sense, Madory says there is no parallel. Cuba boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates—99.8% of Cubans aged 15 and older can read and write. With low levels of Internet access but a highly educated population, Cubans could quickly make the most of opportunities that expanded Internet access brings their way.