The summer of WiFi in Cuba
Google and Cuba’s ETECSA telecommunications company have signed a memorandum of understanding to “start negotiations toward a service agreement for the exchange of internet traffic,” known as “peering.” Many people on the island have been asking what the agreement means for Cubans who connect to the internet near parks, and more recently on their cell phones.
In the short run, the announcement last week did not change much. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is not a legal contract but a letter of intent in which the parties involved express their interest in negotiating certain accords. And the official announcement on the MOU as well as ETECSA comments on Twitter suggest it will take time to get there.
“This intention to work contained in the Memorandum of Understanding will be implemented when the technical conditions allow it,” the government-owned ETECSA posted on Twitter.
At the same time, the signing of the MOU is significant because it shows for the first time the Cuban government’s readiness to discuss, under a commercial framework, a connection to a submarine cable, a source familiar with the matter told the Miami Herald.
Google’s Web pages describe “peering” as the “direct interconnection between Google’s’ network and another network to support the exchange of traffic.” A direct connection between Google and ETECSA would allow Cuban users faster navigation of Google content at lower prices. To do that, ETECSA must be connected to an internet exchange point, private or public, where Google is also present.
During the signing of the MOU, Brett Perlmutter, director of Google Cuba, said that a team made up of engineers from both companies would investigate “ways to implement the direct connection.”
Larry Press, emeritus professor at California State University and author of a blog on Cuba’s internet facilities, said ETECSA would not necessarily have to make the connection through a Google submarine cable, “but I believe it would have to be over a cable that reached an exchange point where Google had a presence.” The interconnection points closest to Cuba are in South Florida, Mexico and Colombia.
The island is surrounded by submarine cables but its only connection is ALBA1 to Venezuela. It also has two satellite connections, making for slow and expensive access. Having a second cable would improve connection speeds and provide backups, and “would be would be a bigger deal,” Press added.
Google has long been trying to reach an agreement with the Cuban government to improve the island’s access and connectivity to the internet. El Nuevo Herald reported in 2015 that Cuban officials had rejected an initial Google proposal to expand access. In December 2016, the company reached a more limited agreement to store Google content in their own servers in Cuba.
After the selection of Miguel Díaz-Canel as president of Cuba in April 2018, the company stepped up its efforts to negotiate an agreement. Two months later, he met in Havana with Eric Schmidt, former executive director of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Az, who attended the meeting, told el Nuevo Herald that the company was closer to an agreement on connecting the island through a second submarine cable. Schmidt and Perlmutter also arranged a meeting between Miguel Díaz-Canel and several technology company executives when he was in New York in September for his first United Nations General Assembly.
Some observers have noted that the MOU was agreed despite the tensions between the U.S. and Cuban governments, but Google has tried to sidestep political issues and its message has focused on the benefits of expanding Internet access on the island – one of the commercial activities not barred by the U.S. embargo.
Although Google seems closer to its objectives with the MOU, during its signing ETECSA’s vice president for investments, Luis Adolfo Iglesias Reyes, avoided referring to the agreement as allowing an expansion of the Internet. Instead, in brief statements to the news media, he said the accord “would allow more efficient use of our international internet capacities.”
In a joint statement, ETECSA also avoided showing excessive interest in dealing with the American tech company, saying that the MOU was evidence “that U.S. companies remain interested in developing businesses with ETECSA. More than 10 U.S. Companies currently have agreements in place, to the benefit of both sides.”
So far, the Cuban government has preferred telecommunications agreements with political allies such as Russia and China. In the same week that the MOU with Google was announced, the Cuban Communications Ministry signed another MOU with its Russian counterpart.
“The memo indeed covers a wide range of issues related to ICT cooperation which includes [the] sphere of cybersecurity but of course is not limited to it,” Russia’s Deputy Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media Mikhail Mamonov wrote in a statement sent to the Miami Herald. Mamonov added that the two governments, aside from discussing cybersecurity training, software and infrastructure, are also considering future cooperation on “smart infrastructure, social engagement applications or digital TV.”
In the meantime, however, the expectations raised by the MOU with Google and the absence of concrete steps to improve connectivity in the short run have increased frustrations for Cubans who regularly criticize state-owned ETCSA for its high prices and bad service.
YucaByte, an independent organization focused on information and communication technologies in Cuba, recently used Twitter for an opinion poll on the MOU with Google.
“We have the results of the poll about the agreement between Google and ETECSA,” it reported later. Sixty-four percent of the respondents answered “Nothing really important.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres