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Marco Werman: Cuba is also famously analog--a tiny percentage of the island’s 11 million residents have access to the internet. So, there’s a lot of hope that renewed relations between the US and Cuba will greatly increase that access. Doug Madory is director of internet analysis for Dyn Research. He’s in New Hampshire and he’s been following Cuba’s internet saga for some time now. I was there in 2004 and I could not believe I was actually hearing dial up bleeps in Cuba. I thought that might have improved some but apparently not. You and your company actually broke the news two years ago about the activation of the first submarine cable connecting Cuba to the global internet. Who built and financed that and what difference has it made?
Doug Madory: Yes, the ALBA-1 submarine cable was financed by the Venezuelan government and built by Alcatel submarine cables out of France. We could test from here that it’s improved their connectivity to the outside world. However, the improvement of greater access to the people of Cuba, that’s still slow going.
Werman: Yeah, it’s not like you could go on Youtube and watch a TV show or anything right now in Cuba.
Madory: I doubt it.
Werman: Is the lackluster expansion of internet access in Cuba since that submarine cable was activated, is it a technical issue or a political issue?
Madory: Well, they have made a couple of modest steps towards greater access. They opened up a number of government-runed internet cafes for the public that was opening, but the cost was fairly high for the average Cuban, it was $4 an hour or something around there, which is cost-prohibitive for the average Cuban, plus from the reports that people were getting on it, it’s also heavily censored. But that was a very small step towards greater access. They’ve also made announcements about running internet service, like DSL lines, to residential customers as well as having a mobile service, but it’s been pretty slow.
Werman: So, if the cost came down, is the cable that’s there, is the pipe wide enough that a lot of people could get online?
Madory: Yeah, I think that cable would serve them well. They may eventually grow out of it but compared to what they’re using now, they could stand to benefit a lot from full usage of the submarine cable.
Werman: I know you’ve studied other analog countries trying to improve access to internet. Is there a model out there that you think Cuba could follow?
Madory: Yeah, I do. I bet a lot of people in the Telecom space, when there’s all this discussion about Cuba possibly opening up, their minds probably just went to Myanmar, where that country also just--
Madory: Yeah, formerly Burma, where that country opened up three years ago and they got a lot of good advice from outside experts, including the World Bank, of how to hold auctions, how to let outside companies come in and do what they do, do rapid deployment and allow them to do investment in infrastructure in the country. We’re just seeing the beginning of the product of that and it’s been good news so far. The service in Myanmar is still not up to the standards we would be happy with in the West but what’s most important is that the trajectory they’re on is a very positive one. In the example of Myanmar, Telenor out of Norway was one of the winners of the two mobile licenses. They paid $500 million for a 15-year license to the government of Myanmar, and on top of that, they’re pledging to spend another $1 billion putting in their own infrastructure to provide service to 90% of the population in some pretty inhospitable conditions for technical space--these are the jungles in Southeast Asia they’re going to put infrastructure in. I think the island of Cuba would be a lot easier to work in, so the government in Cuba could expect something akin to those numbers as far as revenue and the outside companies would come in and they could to the infrastructure. They just need to oversee the process.
Werman: To date, has Cuba tried to basically do it themselves?
Madory: Yes, the state telecom is doing this and I think they’re doing an admirable effort for what they’re trying to do, but I think just like in Myanmar, NPT is the state telecom there, and they were wise enough to know to not just think that the state telecom is going to be the one that’s equipped to do a rapid deployment of a mobile service. I think in Cuba, no knock on their state telecom, but I think they should just let the outside experts come in and do what they do. Everybody involved--the people of Cuba, the government of Cuba, and the outside companies--would all benefit from being able to operate there. I think what’s most important in the agreement on wednesday was this pledge by the government to provide greater access to the internet. I don’t know precisely what the details of that are going to be but maybe this is going to give them some cover or provide them some opportunity to hold mobile license auctions and let these companies come in and do what they’re designed to do.
Werman: Doug Madory directs internet analysis and also blogs for Dyn Research in New Hampshire. Thank you Doug.
Madory: Thank you.