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Cuba's New WiFi Regulations – Good, Bad or Meh?

Larry Press

Cuba has legalized WiFi access to public Internet hotspots from nearby homes and small businesses, but SNET and other community networks remain illegal under the new regulations. Does this signify a significant policy change?

Soon after ETECSA began rolling out WiFi hotspots for Internet access, people began linking to them from homes and community street nets. These connections and importing the WiFi equipment they used were illegal, but generally tolerated as long as they remained apolitical and avoided pornography. Regulations passed last month legalized some of this activity in a bid to boost connectivity by allowing Internet access from homes and small private businesses like restaurants and vacation rentals that are located close enough to a hotspot to establish a WiFi connection.

The added convenience may generate more revenue for ETECSA, and it will give the Ministry of Communication (MINCOM) some small fees and, more important, registration data on the local-area network operators. (If you license a connection, you have the power to rescind the license). It will also generate some additional network traffic, which may strain network capacity. There are two WiFi frequency bands — 2.4 and 5 GHz — and a friend told me that currently only the 2.4 GHz band is being used. The new regulations allow use of the 5 GHz band as well, which will add capacity from homes and businesses to the hotspots, but backhaul capacity from the hotspots to the Internet may become more of a bottleneck and exacerbate quality of service problems.

So much for small networks, but what, if anything, will be the impact of these regulations and their enforcement be on larger, community networks, the largest of which is Havana's SNET? The new regulations bar cables that cross streets and radio transmitter power over 100 mW. SNET uses cables and higher-powered transmitters, so, if these regulations were enforced, they would put SNET and smaller community networks out of business.

However, community networks have been illegal and tolerated since their inception, so it may be that they will continue to be ignored. If that is the case, the new regulations don't really change the status quo, but what if these new regulations foreshadow a policy change? What if ETECSA were willing to collaborate with community networks following the example of Guifi.net in Spain?

If that were the case, ETECSA could take steps like providing high-speed wireless or fiber Internet connections at the locations of the central SNET backbone "pillars" and allowing cables and faster wireless links to and within second-level networks that serve up to 200 users. They could also cooperate with SNET administrators in purchasing supplies and equipment and network management and they could do the same for smaller community networks outside of Havana.

So, which is it — a step backward with cracking down on SNET and other community networks, a slightly positive step adding locations from which one can access a WiFi hotspot, or a positive indication of a policy change and a step toward incorporating community networks into the recognized and supported Cuban Internet infrastructure?

We will know the answer when the new rules go into effect on July 29, but my guess is that it will be the middle choice, a slightly positive step. Cracking down on SNET would be disruptive — eliminating jobs and depriving thousands of users of services they value, and I don't think the government would want those problems. At the other extreme, full cooperation with community networks would mean ETECSA giving up control and the dilution of their bureaucratic and financial monopoly, which seems unlikely. That leaves "meh" — much ado about not much.

But, to end on a more upbeat note — a friend tells me that he has heard that SNET community representatives are talking with the government. Could ETECSA and the Communication Ministry have different views and, if so, who is in charge?

Update Jun 15, 2019:

Two things. First, the friend I mentioned above commented on my speculation that MINCOM and ETECSA might have different views, saying "ETECSA and MINCOM are so tight together that is hard to say where one starts and the other one begins."

He also pointed out that the administrators of four of the SNET sub-nets posted a statement telling users to remain respectful and calm while they negotiate with MINCOM to protect the interest of SNET and other community networks. They have had one meeting in which they talked about spectrum and the statement refers to the "regulatory framework," suggesting that MINCOM is open to high-speed wireless links. They say the first meeting was productive and they will have future meetings.

This increases my confidence that SNET will survive under these new regulations and, if MINCOM allows high-speed links between the sub-nets, SNET performance will improve. It would be even better if the talks go beyond SNET's survival and move on to ways they can collaborate with ETECSA.

You can follow the negotiation progress on the SNET Facebook page.

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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