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SpaceX Starlink and Cuba - A Match Made in Low-Earth Orbit?

Larry Press

I've suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit (GSO) satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not pick up on that stopgap suggestion, but how about low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite Internet service as a next-generation solution?

SpaceX, OneWeb, Boeing and others are working on LEO satellite Internet projects. There is no guarantee that any of them will succeed — these projects require new technology and face logistical, financial and regulatory obstacles — but, if successful, they could provide Cuba with affordable, ubiquitous, next-generation Internet service.

Cuba should follow and consider each potential system, but let's focus on SpaceX since their plan is ambitious and they might have the best marketing/political fit with Cuba.

LEO satellite service will hopefully reach a milestone this week when SpaceX launches two test satellites. If the tests go well, SpaceX plans to begin launching operational satellites in 2019 and begin offering commercial service in the 2020-21 time frame. They will complete their first constellation of 4,425 satellites by 2024. (To put that in context, there are fewer than 2,000 operational satellites in orbit today).

SpaceX has named their future service "Starlink," and, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer Cuba service as early as 2020 and no later than 2024 depending upon which areas they plan to service first.

What has stopped the Cuban Internet and why might LEO satellites look good to Cuba?

Cuba blames their lack of connectivity on the US embargo, but President Obama cleared the way for the export of telecommunication equipment and services to Cuba and Trump has not reversed that decision.

I suspect that fear of losing political control — the inability to filter and surveil traffic — stopped Cuba from allowing GSO satellite service. Raúl Castro and others feared loss of control of information when Cuba first connected to the Internet in 1996, but Castro is about to step down and perhaps the next government will be more aware of the benefits of Internet connectivity and more confident in their ability to use it to their advantage.

A lack of funds has also constrained the Cuban Internet — they cannot afford a large terrestrial infrastructure buildout and are reluctant (for good and bad reasons) to accept foreign investment. SpaceX is building global infrastructure so the marginal cost of serving Cuba would be near zero.

They say that the capital equipment for providing high-speed, low-latency service to a Cuban home, school, clinic, etc. would be a low-cost, user-installed ground-station. I've not seen ground-station price estimates from SpaceX, but their rival OneWeb says their $250 ground-station will handle a 50 Mbps, 30 ms latency Internet link and serve as a hot-spot for WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connectivity.

Since the marginal cost of serving a nation would be small and they hope to provide affordable global connectivity, I expect their service price will vary among nations. Prices would be relatively high in wealthy and low in poor nations — there would be no point in having idle satellites flying over Cuba or any other place.

Expansion of the Cuban Internet is also constrained by bureaucracy and vested financial interest in ETECSA and established vendors. While I do not endorse Cuba's current monopoly service and infrastructure ownership policy, it could remain unchanged if ETECSA were to become a reseller of SpaceX Internet connectivity.

In summary, if Starlink succeeds, they could offer affordable, ubiquitous high-speed Internet, saving Cuba the cost of investing in expensive terrestrial infrastructure and allowing ETECSA to maintain its monopoly. The only intangible roadblock would be a loss of control of traffic. (But Cuban propagandists and trolls would be able to reach a wider audience :-).

That is the rosy picture from the Cuban point of view, what about SpaceX?

OneWeb plans to offer LEO satellite Internet service in Alaska in 2019 and hopes to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020.

How about SpaceX starting by serving Cuba?

I don't know the SpaceX constellation rollout plan, but satellites that serve Cuba would also be capable of serving the eastern US and FCC licenses are conditional upon providing US service in a timely manner.

Since Cuba is an island nation, portions of the footprint of satellites serving Cuba would fall on the uninhabited ocean. That would reduce population destiny in the satellite footprint area, freeing capacity for use by customers in relatively urban areas.

Selecting Cuba as their initial service market would be an audacious move, but Elon Musk is not a conventional, conservative businessman. SpaceX would get a lot of publicity from a Cuba opening and, like the roadster they just launched into orbit, first offering Starlink service in Cuba would have symbolic value — marking an opening to Cuba.

There is pent-up demand for Internet access in Cuba since they have very poor Internet access given their level of education and development.

Cuba is 166th among the 176 nations the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranks on access to telecommunications. Haiti, ranked 167th, is the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (LA&C) that ranks below Cuba, yet Cuba ranks 9th in the region on the ITU telecommunication-skills index. Cuba ranks tenth in LA&C on the United Nations Development Programme's human-development index and their mean years of schooling is the highest in the region.

Cuba's relatively high human-development and IT-skill indices reflect their emphasis on free public education at all levels. This is exemplified by the curriculum at Cuba's Information Science University, where students pay no tuition but are required to work on useful applications in education, health, sport, and online government.

But, perhaps the biggest contributor to pent-up demand is El Paquete Semanal, a weekly distribution of current, pirated Internet content that is distributed throughout the nation. I've heard the claim that 95% of Cubans see El Paquete content each week. That sounds high, but it is very popular and has been alleged to be Cuba's largest private employer.

The political situation is the elephant in the room. The US has formed a Cuba Internet Task Force and Trump is following President Obama's lead in seeking to strengthen the Cuban Internet, so it unlikely that the US government would object to SpaceX offering Starlink service to Cubans.

That being said, such a move would be unpopular among some members of Trump's Cuban "base." While there might be some domestic political cost to SpaceX, an opening to Cuba would be seen as extremely positive in Latin America and the rest of the world and SpaceX and Tesla are global companies.

Update Feb 2, 2017

Two years ago, Google invested $900 million in SpaceX, stating that they expected the acquisition would be used "to keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery and, over time, improve Internet access and disaster relief."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Google began providing mobile phone and Internet connectivity in Puerto Rico using their Project Loon balloons and today they are serving 200,000 Puerto Rican users. They have learned from this effort and demonstrated the ability to provide Project Loon connectivity. How about using Starlink when it is available?

Starlink envisions low-cost, user-installed terminals at homes and other end-user sites, but their satellites will also have to connect to ground-stations and it turns out that Google has a lot of terrestrial points of presence on the Internet. Some of them are shown on the following map:

Google Global Cache locations (source)

Note that one of those points of presence is in Havana and two others are in Puerto Rico.

SpaceX rocketry, Starlink satellites and service plus Google's terrestrial infrastructure sounds like a formidable combination — perhaps too formidable. A part of me would love to see such a combination succeed and eventually provide a truly global Internet, but I am also afraid of the market and political power that enterprise would have. Would this or any other global Internet service provider require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

If a global ISP monopoly (or even an oligopoly) doesn't worry you, what about adding strong AI — is the Earth beginning to grow a nervous system — with us as biological components (for the time being)?

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 and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page

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Buying or Selling IPv4 Addresses?

Watch this video to discover how ACCELR/8, a transformative trading platform developed by industry veterans Marc Lindsey and Janine Goodman, enables organizations to buy or sell IPv4 blocks as small as /20s.