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Cuba Switches on Subsea Cable for Traffic

Henry Lancaster

Cuba has had a troubled history with internet connectivity via submarine cables. The Key West-Havana cable was retired in late 1989, having deteriorated to the point where it was too costly and troublesome to operate. AT&T replaced it with a new cable but the embargo imposed by the US government, compounded by the difficulty in reaching business agreements, meant that the cable remained idle before it too was retired , in 2001. Subsequently, all international traffic has been channelled through a network of satellites.

A number of other subsea schemes have been proposed, among the more significant being the ALBA-1 cable running from Cuba to Venezuela. Started in 2007, as a joint venture between Alcatel-Lucent, Shanghai Bell and Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe (a JV between the Venezuelan and Cuban governments), it was completed on the Venezuelan end some months ago and though it was landed in Cuba later in 2012 it was not opened for traffic until recent days. Neither the government nor the state monopoly telco ETECSA has pronounced on the cable being live: the fact of it has depended on analyses of latency which shows that some international traffic is being sent via cable rather than satellite.

Given the estimated US$70 million cost of the cable, it would have been cheaper to have tapped into one or other of the existing cables which approach Cuba, but the US and Cuban governments would have prevented this. These difficulties have also delayed the proposals by TeleCuba Communications to lay the first cable directly connecting the USA and Cuba: although US regulators may grant permission for companies to pay the higher call connection charges demanded by the Cubans, an additional hurdle is that the company is currently barred from installing equipment to terminate the cable or to extend it from the landing point to other locations because such equipment would be considered as contributing to Cuba's economy.

If these issues can be resolved, the deployment of the TeleCuba cable, in addition to the ALBA-1 cable, has the potential to dramatically improve internet access in Cuba and significantly reduce the cost of telecom services to the country.

Nevertheless, the country remains among the poorest in the world for connectivity, with haphazard dial-up the only realistic option for most citizens. Even then, most internet users are really intranet users, restricted by the government to state-run computer clubs, schools and offices and with limited freedom of access.

Though Cubans have recently been granted access to international travel, the government remains wary of granting unfettered access to the internet. The ALBA-1 cable provides no indication of a thawing of the government's long-standing fear of the internet's potential to subvert the revolution, so Cubans should expect to be frustrated with their internet connections for some time yet.

By Henry Lancaster, Senior Analysts at Paul Budde Communication. Henry is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband

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