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Cuban Satellite Connectivity - Today and (Maybe?) Tomorrow

Larry Press

Source: Dyn ResearchLast January, Doug Madory of Dyn Research reported on Cuban traffic, noting that C&W's share had increased. And this week Madory reported that ETECSA had activated a new internet transit provider, medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellite-connectivity provider O3b Networks (Other 3 billion), replacing geostationary satellite provider Intelsat. (They have also added Telecom Italia, which, until 2011, owned 11% of ETECSA, but I will save that for another post).

O3b's MEO satellites orbit at an altitude of around 8,012 km above the equator while Intelsat's geosynchronous satellites are at around 35,786 km. Therefore the time for a data packet to travel from earth to an O3b satellite and back to Earth is significantly less than to an Intelsat satellite. This move to O3b may be related to ETECSA's recent decision to offer SMS messaging service to the US (at an exorbitant price), and it will surely improve the speed of interactive applications.

That is today's situation as I understand it, but now I want to speculate on the future of Cuban satellite connectivity — say in the early 2020s.

First a little background on O3b Networks. O3b Networks is a wholly owned subsidiary of SES and is now known as SES Networks. O3b Networks was founded in 2007 by Greg Wyler, who has since moved on to a new venture called OneWeb. While O3b provides service to companies like ETECSA, OneWeb plans to also provide fast global connectivity to individuals in fixed locations like homes and schools as well as the "Internet of things."

OneWeb plans to connect the "other 3 billion" people using a constellation of around 1,600 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 1,200 km and another 1,300 in MEO at 8,500 km. They are working with many vendors and partners and plan to launch their first satellites in March 2018. They will begin offering service in Alaska in 2019 and hope to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020. By 2025 they expect to have 1 billion subscribers, and their mission is to eliminate the global digital divide by 2027.

Now, back to Cuba. ETECSA is doing business with Wyler's previous company O3b. Might they also be talking with his current company, OneWeb? It takes time to launch hundreds of satellites, so service is being phased in — might Cuba come online sometime after Alaska? By connecting Cuba, OneWeb would gain publicity, the goodwill of many nations and access to a relatively well-educated, Internet-starved market and it would enable Cuba to quickly deploy broadband technology.

As I said, this is pure speculation. OneWeb faces significant technical, business and political challenges and may fail. Politics would be particularly challenging in the case of Cuba. Both the US and Cuba would have to make major policy changes, but maybe the time is right for that — the Cuban government will change in 2018, and the US government is likely to change in 2020 when Alaska comes online.

OneWeb has established a relationship with ETECSA through O3b, but other companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, are working on similar LEO projects. Might ETECSA be talking to the others? You can see a survey of LEO satellite plans and issues here.

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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