By Eric Caraballoso – Feb 21, 2023
OnCuba spoke with First Deputy Minister of Communications Wilfredo González Vidal about connectivity and computerization, in the first part of this interview that will continue tomorrow.
Internet connection in Cuba, with its ups and downs and tribulations, is one of the unavoidable issues in the daily life of Cubans. After years of disconnection and restrictions, the residents of the island have been increasingly entering the worldwide web since the last decade; first from public Wi-Fi zones, in parks and squares; in state surfing rooms, and then, still with very low dissemination, in homes.
The great improvement that allowed the number of customers to multiply was the commercialization of mobile data for individuals. In 2022, there were 6.7 million users ― around 60% of the population ― who were enabled to browse the Internet through their mobile devices, according to official statistics.
This increase in the use of connectivity, the result of technological modernization and a computerization program developed by the Cuban authorities, has been plagued with setbacks, internal and external obstacles that have slowed down the process, torpedoed access and made it difficult to make optimal use of resources, both of infrastructure and know-how.
The offer, in terms of coverage and quality of service ― including prices ― is still far f rom satisfying the demand, which continues to grow.
The daily difficulties in the speed and stability of Internet connection in Cuba are a constant source of complaints from the population, which have increased significantly in recent months, to the point that officials and state media have had to publicly address the issue.
A few days ago, Tania Velázquez Rodríguez, executive president of the Cuban Telecommunications Company S.A. (ETECSA), recognized that the international output capacities were “saturated” and that the growth in demand had not been accompanied by the necessary investment in infrastructure to support it.
In this context, the new underwater fiber optic cable that is being installed between Cuba and Martinique and that has been baptized as Arimao has generated questions and expectations.
According to Velázquez Rodríguez, the start of its operations could be in April and “it will offer important browsing capabilities,” although she noted that work should also be done in other directions “so that everything flows correctly.”
To learn more about the current situation of connectivity in the country, as well as other issues related to this sector, OnCuba spoke with the island’s First Deputy Minister of Communications, Wilfredo González Vidal.
Following, we present the first part of the interview, carried out last week.
What is the connectivity scenario in Cuba today and what are the difficulties reported by many users in recent times due to?
To talk about connectivity and the telecommunications network at this time in the country, we must first go back to what has happened in recent years. Since, in December 2018, Internet access from the mobile network was expanded, there has been a growing, positive slope in the number of users. But especially in the last two years there has really been an explosion in Internet access. Today we already have 7.6 million cell phone subscribers in Cuba; of them, more than 6.7 million have the possibility of accessing the Internet through mobile data.
In addition, in these last two years — which have been very complex for the country, due to the pandemic and the intensification of the blockade —, there has been an acceleration in the deployment of the 4G infrastructure in the telecommunications network. Today that network reaches 50% of population coverage and the 3G network a little more: around 77%.
At the same time, the Telecommunications Company has sought to achieve greater affordability of services for the population, while it has launched promotional offers and combined packages of voice, data and SMS, with the same prices and rates in the midst of the process of financial reorganization and in a context of inflation, not only in Cuba but in many parts of the world.
The pandemic also caused the company to hasten a group of investments for access to 4G, for everything that has to do with teleworking, remote work, with education as well, which had to continue based on the telecommunication infrastructure.
There is a group of situations that have occurred in the last two years, an increase in connectivity, an increase in attendance, objective situations that influence the quality of service, especially at certain peak times. Today there are more than 2 million Cubans who concurrently connect during those peak hours, especially between 8:00 and 10:00 at night, which is the busiest time on the network.
Combined with all this, there is the issue of the availability of financial resources, which has not been the same in recent years. It must be understood that ETECSA is a company that also suffers from the economic and financial limitations that the country is going through, and that, at the same time, has a social responsibility; it should contribute to the economy and society. There has been no availability of significant financial resources to maintain investments that were in process and others that must be executed to achieve greater stability of the country’s telecommunications network. And that has affected the service.
What is being done to solve these problems and improve connectivity and other services for the population?
There is a group of actions that are being carried out now. In the first place, it is important to take advantage of all the telecommunications infrastructure that has been achieved in the country in recent years, and this is being done with license extensions to achieve better attendance; also with the use of new frequency bands, as the president of ETECSA recently explained.
4G in Cuba began in the 1800 MHz band, which is a high-frequency band that assumes certain coverage ranges. But now we have been incorporating the 2100 MHZ band, which is also a high-frequency band, but which will allow where it is set up — it has already started in various parts of Havana, with the idea of covering the entire capital, and also in Matanzas — for users who have the possibility of using that band to connect with it to achieve better levels of concurrency and accessibility.
Work is also being done on the incorporation of the 900 MHz band, which is a little lower, which seeks more coverage, that is, it has a greater range, achieves greater penetration. This should happen in Havana in the coming months.
On the other hand, the transition to digital television has continued, and in Pinar del Río and Artemisa we have already managed to cut two channels in analog format. Those channels free up a 700 MHz band, which is even lower, and the lower the band, the more coverage it has, the more range, the more it penetrates into homes. So, by doing that, conditions are created in those territories to achieve better access, although not in all of Pinar del Río and Artemisa, but in the places where the radio bases can assimilate that particular band.
It is also necessary to say that it is not enough to work on a single layer of the infrastructure. It is necessary to consider all the layers of telecommunications. It is not just about the last mile, which is the one linked to access, to the radio base, which is closer to the user. This is a layer that needs to continue being expanded and work is being done on it: to continue placing radio bases, to use new frequency bands that allow coverage to be expanded and to achieve a better quality of service. But, at the same time, it is necessary to expand infrastructures in the transport layer, in the intermediate layers of the networks, in the equipment linked to the development of data and voice transmission.
At what point is the Internet connection at home, through the Nauta Hogar service?
The Internet service in homes is one of the fundamental lines that our ministry has declared within the social-economic development plan of the country until 2030, together with the expansion of mobile telephony.
Today the Nauta Hogar home Internet is in more than 270,000 Cuban homes, which does not mean that there cannot be difficulties. It is a facility of access that is by copper, and depending on the distance from the home to the telecommunications infrastructure, where it is already possible to use fiber, since the quality of the service could vary.
Currently there is also what is known as set wireless access, which is this variant of Nauta Hogar in which, from the same equipment, a certain frequency can be used to reach the radio base, a frequency that should not compete with that of voice so as not to affect the quality of the service, and it is true that this is a project that has been delayed.
The limited availability of financial resources has had to do with this delay; also, the supply limitations of certain technologies and, more recently, the immediate need to carry out a group of actions to improve the quality of service and access to 4G. For example, the decision that ETECSA made to use the 2100 MHz band, which was being reserved for this type of service.
This is a project that has been delayed and the president of ETECSA has recognized this, but, of course, its development is not dismissed. For this, there are capacities that have to continue being created, issues that are linked to the equipment, with the physical equipment to install at home, and the possibility of having an offer that could be attractive to the population and so that we can also go on recovering the financial situation of the company.
Is it possible to think of a close improvement for connectivity in Cuba?
I would say yes. In this case, it is necessary to be clear about what the country’s priorities are. With the development of the Internet on the island, we have always prioritized the concept of social inclusion, to ensure that the majority of people can access these services. I believe that even with the current economic situation and with the limited availability of financial resources, there is a real will to continue expanding Internet access in the country, to expand access for the population with a higher quality of service, to achieve population coverage in those places where 4G has not yet arrived, and we must continue getting there.
This is a reality that has been taking place and the numbers confirm it. Four years ago, for example, an average Cuban individual consumed around 1 gigabytes of data and today it is in the order of 7 gigabytes.
Currently there is a greater consumption in the country’s telecommunications network, although it must be said that it is not something exclusive to the island, but rather an international phenomenon. Consumption has increased throughout the world, especially due to the use of videos, due to everything that has to do with entertainment, with the graphic part, which is also used much more today by Cubans.
ETECSA has an important challenge, because at the same time that it must develop telecommunications, Internet access for the population, the institutional capacities of the organizations to also connect — where we still have to get involved —, it also has the capacity to attract foreign currency for the country. And that is a responsibility that the company has that we cannot ignore.
When ETECSA makes offers such as quintupling the balance, even having a telecommunications infrastructure with the limitations that I have already mentioned, it also does so by seeking a balance between the two issues: providing service facilities to its users and complying with the responsibility to attract foreign currency and achieve financial support for the country. Therefore, this is a situation in which priorities must be established and really look for where the greatest economic and social impact is.
At the end of last year, the installation of a new underwater fiber optic cable from Martinique was reported. How was this project reached?
The new cable, Arimao, is a project that intends to expand and diversify international connectivity, following the telecommunications strategy in the country. With its installation, it seeks to satisfy the demand for connectivity, the need of the population to obtain information and be able to connect with other people, to communicate, to access knowledge as well as entertainment in this way. That is a demand that is growing in our country, as I have already said.
In addition, with this new cable it is also possible to minimize the risk of possible exceptional situations of a natural nature, such as earthquakes, for example. It must be remembered that the ALBA 1 cable, which is the one currently in operation, reaches Santiago de Cuba, and has two branches: one through Jamaica and the other to Venezuela, but that area through which it enters the country is seismic, which can cause damage. The new cable project, due to the fact that it enters through Cienfuegos, minimizes this risk.
This is a 2,500-kilometer cable, while the one from Venezuela is around 1,600 kilometers. If you calculate these distances, you will see that they are greater than the length of Cuba and that 2,500 can almost go around the island twice. However, there are other cable systems, very close to the island, such as Arcos 1, with which, with 40 or so kilometers, 60 times less than the cable from Martinique, we could connect and take advantage of that infrastructure for the issue of international connectivity.
However, it has not been possible, we have not been authorized. There is, quite recently, the suggestion in quotes that a team from the United States Department of Justice made to the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, not to accept the request of a U.S. company so that Cuba could connect by that means. Therefore, in the face of refusals like that and the need to expand international connectivity, the need for a project like Arimao arises.
The fiber optic cable is owned by Orange, which is a French company of recognized international prestige and many years of experience. And what ETECSA does is lease capacities to that cable. These capacities will be covered, of course, to the extent that the economic conditions of the company itself make it possible, and to the same extent that the demand is covered with those capacities.
Therefore, we see the materialization of this project as a very positive and important option for the development of the country, both economic and social, and for the population’s access.
And at what point is the installation of the new cable and when could it be already operational?
The two ends of the cable are already physically on land, both in Cienfuegos and Martinique. But now comes a process of working with the terminals, that is, with all the telecommunications equipment at both ends. That is happening now. Work is also being done, in the case of our country, to create conditions to expand the bandwidth throughout the national infrastructure. Because having this international connectivity link is not enough: it is also necessary to work on other layers of the telecommunications network, as I already explained.
So, all the transmission part must be expanded with new equipment, with bandwidth capacities, with cards, with software licenses, which also costs the company to be able to do it, because what you cannot do is generate a funnel: to have very good international connectivity and, however, the national section then have problems and this improvement in international connectivity cannot be efficiently taken advantage of. Today work is also going on achieving an expansion at certain points of that national section, throughout the country, to ensure that the signal flows in a much more comfortable way.
But it is not only a question of infrastructure, of equipment. People also have to be trained. In other words, all the work, operation, and maintenance of this infrastructure also requires certain training, which is something that must also be done before making this cable operational.
Therefore, its entry into operation has to do with its own infrastructure, with the equipment, and also with training. The president of ETECSA has said that the cable could be ready in April, and I believe that at the rate at which things are taking place, that may indeed be the moment. That is the forecast that we have, that in April it can be operational and begin to send traffic through this new route.
The installation of the cable has generated many expectations. However, from what you explained, its entry into operation does not in itself imply an immediate improvement in connectivity in the country…
It is not like that. It cannot be said, as has been said in some headlines, that the new Arimao cable will multiply Internet capacities on the island by 10,000. That is not the case. The new underwater fiber optic cable will expand and diversify international connectivity. But conditions will also have to be created in other layers, in the Nauta Hogar, in the radio bases, in the 4G network, in the transmission infrastructure, to achieve a better quality of service for the population.
Having the new cable is very important to achieve this complementarity of the ALBA 1 system. Because it must be said that the ALBA 1 system continues to work, its capacities continue to expand, but this complementarity with the Arimao project was necessary. That is why we are talking about diversifying and expanding connectivity with this new cable, because of the demand that the entire computerization process has and also because of the natural risks that I explained. And this expansion is based on the economic and social development of Cuba, therefore, it will benefit all of society: the population, the new economic actors, the state institutions and entities. It is a common infrastructure that will be used for the good of the entire country.
- mforinocohttps://orinocotribune.com/author/mforinoco/February 28, 2024