In February 2011, the first submarine cable connecting the island nation of Cuba to the global internet (by way of Venezuela) landed on Siboney beach, Santiago de Cuba. In the two years since, the fate of the cable has been a mystery for Cuba observers. In the past week, our global monitoring system has picked up indications that this cable has finally been activated, although in a rather curious way, as we explain below.
Connecting Cuba to the Internet
In 2007, state-owned telecommunications companies from Cuba and Venezuela joined forces to build a submarine cable between the two Caribbean nations, linking Cuba directly to the global Internet and allowing it to end its reliance on satellite-based Internet services. At least that was the hope. The cable was named the “Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de nuestra América” or ALBA-1 for short.
Originally planned to be completed in 2009, the project hit delay after delay, until construction was finally completed in early 2011. However, despite the announcement of its completion, Cuba’s Internet has still limped along on high-latency satellite service via three different Internet service providers. That is, until last Monday when we noticed that Spanish telecom giant Telefonica began service to Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA), the state telecom of Cuba.
To underscore the significance of this development, we look back at how ETECSA obtained Internet service over the past 6 years. During this period, we see the same three satellite providers, although the routes carried over each has varied considerably over the years (below left). However, zooming in on the last couple of months, we see the entrance of Telefonica in our routing data as of last week (below right).
In addition to our routing data, we observe traceroutes into Cuba following a new path via Telefonica and recording significantly lower latencies. Latency measurements from four cities are illustrated in the graphic on the right.We must emphasize lower latencies because, despite the drop, these aren’t exactly low latencies. Our measured latencies to Cuba are still quite high, albeit improved. The fact that the latencies to Cuba from many locations around the world have dropped below 480ms means that the new Telefonica service cannot be entirely via satellite. However, if it were solely via submarine cables, we would expect latencies from many nearby countries to be less than 50ms. (Note: Round trip latencies for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are approximately 60ms and 110ms, respectively.)
We believe it is likely that Telefonica’s service to ETECSA is, either by design or misconfiguration, using its new cable asymmetrically (i.e., for traffic in only one direction), similar to the situation we observed in Lebanon in 2011. In such a configuration, ETECSA enjoys greater bandwidth and lower latencies (along the submarine cable) when receiving Internet traffic but continues to use satellite services for sending traffic. While the activation of the ALBA-1 cable may be a good first step to providing ETECSA a better link to the Internet, the lack of widespread public access to Internet service throughout the island will likely continue.
On the same day last week that we saw the first evidence of the ALBA-1 cable, Cuba eliminated the requirement of an exit visa for its people to travel outside the country. Could these two developments be part of a greater trend towards a freer and more open Cuba?