A fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela, built to speed up Cuba’s access to the Internet but long delayed amid reports of corruption during construction, appears to have finally entered commercial use — but perhaps only for island-bound traffic.
The speed of Cuba’s commercial Internet connections increased last week, indicating the island is now using the cable and not just the three much slower satellite links it had before, said Doug Madory of Renesys, a U.S. company that monitors the Internet.
But the new speeds still pale in comparison with the speeds available in other countries, with Chile having speeds three times faster than the best recorded in Cuba, said José Remón, a former Cuban telecommunications official now living in Miami.
The ALBA-1 fiber-optic cable laid under the Caribbean from Venezuela to Cuba was designed to expand on the satellite connections, which gave Cuba the slowest and most expensive access to the Internet in all of Latin America.
But the $70 million project, financed by Venezuela, was repeatedly delayed and snared in a corruption scandal that landed several managers in prison. It was declared ready in 2011, but until Sunday there was no evidence the cable was ever activated for commercial use.
Madory said Monday that over the weekend he noticed the hike in Cuba’s connection speeds and a new company handling half to two-thirds of its traffic — Spain’s Telefonica, which has agreements with the Venezuelan government’s telecommunications monopoly.
But the speeds remain too slow for cable-only connections, he added, indicating that the cable is being used only for inbound traffic and the three slower satellite links are still being used for outbound traffic.
The fastest speeds reported by Madory for traffic from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Cuba and back were just under 400 milliseconds. That’s faster than any satellite, with a top speed of 480 milliseconds, but with full cable use the speed could drop to about 50 milliseconds, he added.
“The traffic is now (faster) and so clearly it is not exclusively satellite any more. But if it was exclusively cable, it would be a lot faster,” Madory told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Renesys headquarters in New Hampshire. “Why that is is a mystery still.”
Madory posted his findings Sunday on the Renesys company employees’ blog and said Monday that he had seen no change in the patterns since then.
Remón, a former senior official at the Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise, ETECSA, a government monopoly, said he does not doubt Madory’s numbers at all but considers it “absurd” that the island’s connection speeds remain so low.
“That kind of speed in Cuba cannot be sold commercially to anyone anywhere in the world,” he noted. “This is against all logic, but it seems that Cuba still wants to control the speed of access.”
A corruption scandal at ETECSA in 2011 sparked reports the cable could not work because bribes paid during the construction had led to the purchase of bad equipment. A French company laid the cable but Cuban and Venezuelan firms were in charge of the project.
Remón reported in late 2011 that the cable was in fact working, but only between Cuban and Venezuelan government facilities on an “undeclared route” not accessible to commercial traffic.
Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s science and technology minister, told reporters in mid-2012 the cable was “absolutely operational” but that Havana authorities were in charge of deciding how it would be used.
Remón said the slow speeds for Cuba’s Internet connections even after the ALBA-1 fiber-optic cable has been activated for commercial use underline the communist government’s fears of allowing island residents broader access to the Internet.