Two years after a fiber-optic cable reached Cuba from Venezuela, and at least five months after it was activated, Havana has confirmed the ALBA-1 cable is working but cautioned that doesnt mean residents will have more access to the Internet.
A brief note from ETECSA, the governments telecommunications monopoly, published in Thursdays edition of the Granma newspaper was the first detailed official comment on the underwater cables operations since it reached the island.
The 1,000-mile cable has been operative since August of 2012, initially carrying voice traffic corresponding to international telephone calls, according to the note by the enterprise, officially known as the Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise S.A.
And on Jan. 10, it added, technicians began to carry out quality tests on Internet traffic on the mentioned system, it said. These are being carried out using real traffic from and to Cuba, with the goal of normalizing this communication.
But even after the cable is fully operational that will not signify that there will be an automatic multiplication of the possibilities for access to the Internet, it cautioned, because the system will require overall improvements that must be paid with scarce hard currency.
Cuba has one of the lowest Internet connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, believed to be worse than Haitis. Exact figures are difficult to find because the government reports those who have no access other than an island-only system known as intranet.
The government has repeatedly blamed U.S. economic sanctions for the previous absence of a fiber-optic cable and the slow speeds and high prices of Internet access. A legal account costs more than $100 per month, while black market sign-ons can be bought for about $20-$40 per month.
Several knowledgeable U.S. and former Cuban officials have said Fidel Castro rejected an offer by U.S. telecommunications companies to lay a fiber-optic cable from Havana to Florida after Hurricane Andrew damaged an older underwater cable between the two countries in 1992.
Until this month, ETECSA was routing all Internet traffic through three satellites, which have slow Internet connections. Traffic from the U.S. to Cuba, for instance, had to travel about 43,000 miles up to the satellites and then back down.
The 1,000-mile, $70 million Alba-1 cable, financed by the Venezuelan government and built by a French company, was completed in February 2011 and was designed to expand Cubas Internet access by a factor of 3,000.
But government officials never explained why the cable was not activated, at times making vague references to technical issues while saying nothing about reports circulating on the island that several ETECSA officials had been jailed for corruption in the project.
A former senior ETECSA official now living in Miami, Jose Remón, has long maintained that the cable was in fact working as of late 2011 but only for undeclared traffic between the Cuban and Venezuelan governments.
The first sign that the cable had been put into broader use came this week when Doug Madory, a senior analyst at Renesys, a U.S. company that monitors global Internet traffic, noticed an increase in the speed of connections to Cuba.
The increase signaled that perhaps one leg of the traffic was moving faster than the satellites could allow, Madory wrote in the company blog Sunday. But that increase was not fast enough to signal that the cable was in full, two-way operation.
Another Madory blog post on Tuesday noted that at exactly 9:01 am (Miami time) that day the speed of the Cuba connections increased again to a level clearly indicating the cable was active for two-way traffic.
The ETECSA note, published in both Granma and Cubadebate, a government-run Web site, was dated Thursday.
We were glad to see the confirmation from Cuban government, Madory wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald on Thursday. It is important to remember that these are just first steps. It will be up to ETECSA to determine how quickly they distribute this bandwidth to their customers.