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Questions About Cuba's 3G Mobile Expansion

Larry Press

ETECSA, Cuba's telecom provider and sole operator of fixed telephony, mobile, and data in the country, is rolling out 3G mobile service in Havana and elsewhere in the country. Telegeography reports there are now 229 3G base stations in Cuba.


Where and how extensive is the coverage?

ETECSA says 3G coverage is available in all of Havana, provincial capitals and tourist resorts. AT&T says there is GSM/GPRS coverage for 85% of national territory.

Here is a crowdsourced 3G coverage map of Cuba as of February 17, 2017:

Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB

Again, this is a crowd-sourced map, so it represents a lower bound on coverage, but it paints an unsurprising picture of 3G deployment — near a backbone and strongest in cities.

Who has access to the 3G network and what can they access?

Google Fi service was available earlier this year.Tourists and foreign business travelers have had expensive Internet access while roaming in Cuba for some time. For example, AT&T and T-Mobile charge $2 per megabyte. Recently Digicel recently announced much lower cost roaming on a "dedicated tourist-only 3G mobile network," which sounds like the network described by ETECSA above. They charge between 17 and 25 cents per megabyte, depending on the size of the prepaid order.

The best deal of all was fleetingly offered by Google on their Fi mobile service. Earlier this year, users reported that Google was treating roaming data the same as domestic data — $10 per gigabyte. Unfortunately, that capability has been turned off, but it may be a hint of things to come.

But which Cubans — other than Raúl Castro — have 3G access? I have been told that some people have 3G access because of their work, but have no confirmation of that. I've also been told that some hackers have been able to get 3G access, but, again, have no confirmation.

Assuming that some Cubans have access to the 3G network, are they able to see the global Internet or are they restricted to services offered on the national network? (I bet Raúl has international access).

How about speed?

Source: Carpe DiemArmando Camacho ran a number of 3G speed tests in Havana (near the corner of Patrocinio and 10 de Octubre) and observed ping time to a server in Miami as ranging from 91 to 127 milliseconds, upload speed from .48 to 1.58 Mbps and download speed from .85 to 10.42 Mbps. He observed considerable speed variance, suggesting that others were sharing the same radio or backhaul resources.

What is the interim plan for 3G access?

Today the 3G network serves tourists, foreign business people, and perhaps some Cubans at work or in government. ETECSA may be planning to extend the service to subscribers as a much-needed supplement to their current public-access centers. I don't know what their plans are, but more 3G will require more fiber and microwave connectivity for backhaul. Only ETECSA knows what they are installing today.

They may also be planning to extend 3G mobile to rural areas. In April, the Ministry of Agriculture announced plans to bring Internet connectivity and other computer services to rural areas beginning in Granma, Ciego de Ávila and Isla de la Juventud. Will 3G be part of this promised rural coverage? Again, backhaul would have to be provided.

What is the long-run mobile plan?

Regardless of the short-run, 3G technology is only an interim step. Since Cuba has so little legacy infrastructure, they are in a position to leapfrog today's 4G technology and plan for 5G mobile connectivity. If that is the case, they should be investing in fiber for backhaul in places that microwave can serve today — long, microwave "daisy chains" will not have the speed or capacity for a modern Internet in five or ten years. They should also be planning on fiber to the curb, building, and home in order to support the myriad devices expected to comprise the Internet of things as well as fixed connectivity.

Fifth generation standards are not yet set, but the migration of base-station function to the "cloud" will occur as the number of base stations and backhaul speed increase. That implies the need for datacenter planning and investment for the future. (See this Stragey& analysis for more on the 5G architecture).

As usual, I have more questions than answers, but I hope ETECSA is planning for the future and views this 3G rollout as an interim stopgap.

* * *

Side Note: Tu Android, the Cuba Android community blog, has a post on determining whether your smartphone is compatible with Cuban 3G. The post begins with an overview of the requirements and lists compatible phones sold by ETECSA and the Blu phones that are compatible. Evidently, that was not enough, because there are currently 316 comments in which users are helping each other out.

The comments are reminiscent of the early PC hobby days in the US — questions and answers are coming from uncertain users and expert hackers. As the Tu Android tagline reads — "this is a family, not a blog." (I am naively hopeful that Cuban culture may produce a unique Internet from which we can all learn).

If you are a Cuban and not sure whether your phone can or can be altered to use the 3G network or are not sure why you cannot connect (evidently ETECSA is rolling out activations over time) check out the post and the comments — ask the family.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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