Internet in Cuba and the New Fiber Optic Cable

Map of underwater sea cables around Cuba. Photo:

Internet in Cuba and the New Fiber Optic Cable

13 / febrero / 2023

An agreement signed between Cuba and French company Orange LLC. to install a submarine communications cable between Cuba and Martinique became public news on December 7, 2022.

Seven days before, the United States Department of Justice had made a recommendation to the Federal Communications Commission to reject the authorization request made by the companies ARCOS-1 USA Inc. and SurNet Inc., since 2018, to connect a fiber optic cable between the US and Cuba.

The international Arimao submarine cable, which began to be installed at the Tricontinental Port in Cienfuegos, touched land in Martinique in the French overseas Department on January 10, 2023, according to ETECSA. A branch of the Orange Group, called Orange Marine, is responsible for the technical work.

The Cuban telecommunications company also announced that the possibility of “expanding and diversifying international capacity in the face of growing demand for Internet and broadband services,” are some of the benefits of installing the second fiber optic cable to the island, which joins the cable that already exists between Cuba and Venezuela (which takes its name from the abbreviation of Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, ALBA-1).

Commercial relations between ETECSA and Orange LLC. come at a time when Cubans are complaining about constant Internet cuts and a slower connection than normal. However, statements from officials and brief posts on social media don’t explain what improvements will come with the new fiber optic cable. Nor have they offered details about work plans agreed with Orange LLC. The start date of the services of this cable contradict one another.

What do we know about fiber optic cables in Cuba? 

Almost 99% of total Internet traffic comes from undersea cables, the real “backbone” of global telecommunications. While Cuba is located in one of the areas with the highest density of submarine fiber optic cables, it has problems accessing the Internet, as most of its connections come via satellites. This leads to Internet access being a lot more expensive and slow. Thus, news of the agreement with Orange is extremely important.

Looking at the map of undersea cables, you can see that four fiber optic cables are currently touching Cuban soil: Arimao (which connects the island to Martinique), ALBA-1, and anoter two that belong to the US Government and connect the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base with Florida (GTMO-1) and Puerto Rico (GTMO PR). 

However, ALBA-1, the first fiber optic cable that connected Cuba to Venezuela and Jamaica, is the only one that offers Internet services to Cubans.

In 2007, Cuba and Venezuela announced they would install a submarine cable which would be able to multiply the data transmission, including pictures and voice messages, that come and leave from Cuba, according to its technical description.

Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe led the project, a mixed Cuban-Venezuelan company, that belongs to both countries’ state-led telecommunications companies. Preparatory work began in 2009 and the installation of 1630 km of cable began in January 2011. It touched soil in Santiago de Cuba a month later, according to state-controlled media.

Gran Caribe had announced that the submarine cable would begin operations at the beginning of the second semester of 2011; but it wasn’t until January 2013 that ETECSA released a statement that the system had been operating since August 2012.

The news stifled any hope Cubans had about improved or greater Internet access across the country. “A submarine cable working doesn’t automatically mean that there are greater possibilities to access the Internet,” the Cuban company pointed out.

In a Twitter thread about the start of installation works of the Arimao cable, users were skeptical of the project being a solution to Internet connection problems in Cuba.

How long has the Arimao project been in the works?

A file from Martinique authorities points out Orange LLC., represented by Carine ROMANETTI, head of the “Strategy, Network and Submarine Systems” department of the European entity, filed a request for the submarine telecommunications cable that would connect Cuba to Martinique, on November 15, 2021. Installation and Operation permits weren’t approved until April 2022.

The report also points out that the project, spanning 2470 kms, “lands in the Schoelcher municipality, on Madiana beach (…), and connects to the land network installed in 2018, to accommodate the Kanawa telecommunications cable (owned by Orange), coming from French Guiana. The total cost of the works would be 1,200,343 EUR, including tax, the report stated.

During the start of works to deploy the system in Cuba, Jean Luc Vuillemin, president of Orange’s International Networks, said that a station had been built in parallel to house technical services, in line with global trends. This is one of the very few technical details we have about the cable up until now.

Statements from ETECSA’s executive director about the project only refer to the possible diversification of international connections and growing services, as it has a greater capacity than the international ALBA-1 connection. However, she explains that this will only happen when the island’s economic situation allows for it.

Nor is it clear when the cable will begin to operate. In this regard, Granma newspaper published that it would be up and running in the second semester of this year, while Cubadebate and National TV are talking about April.

Expectations have grown with the arrival of this new chance to increase connectivity; but it seems that it will still be a while before Cubans are able to enjoy quality cellphone and Internet services without coverage problems. This doesn’t all depend on just one submarine cable though.

What are Cuba’s Internet connection problems?

Some Internet access problems in Cuba go beyond those linked satellite and submarine cable connections. Complaints about the quality and stability of this service is repeated on social media, while official organizations propose half-cooked solutions.

Statistics tell us that over 6.7 million Cubans connect to the Internet using mobile data; the number of users grew by over a million in 2022 alone. This increased volume of traffic is reflected in a user’s average monthly consumption over the past year, which went up by over 1.5 gigabytes per subscriber. The consequences? Network congestion, triggered by insufficient wireless providers and the absence of new technologies and devices.

With ALBA-1’s capacity to the max and wireless connections that haven’t been installed in homes, national demand isn’t being satisfied today, Tania Velazquez Rodrigue, ETECSA’s president, said. She also recognized that there are bottlenecks in international calls.

Before ETECSA’s executive director gave a statement to state-controlled media, Ricardo Serrano, the company’s provincial director in Santiago de Cuba, told local TV channel Tele Turquino that there are other reasons for poor quality Internet connections.

On the program Santiago Hoy, issued on August 24, 2022, Serrano explained that radio bases are affected by blackouts, as they have backup power with batteries that can keep them working for approximately three hours.

It wasn’t until late January that Velazquez Rodriguez admitted that only 25% of the over 5000 radio bases installed in the country have backup power. He also explained that the country didn’t purchase all of the devices because units were so expensive (30,000 USD).

Ricardo Serrano pointed out that another reason for Internet connection problems has to do with the use of 4G (fourth generation of broadband) in Cuba, creating problems with voice transmission. “4G is a network to access the Internet, and people are using it to talk; you have 2G and 3G to talk,” Serrano clarified.

The executive pretends he doesn’t know about VoLTE technology that allows you to make calls using 4G and instead blames users for using it wrong. His explanation shows how a smartphone that works with 4G changes the network to 3G or 2G when it makes or receives a call.

This situation has two outcomes: poor audio quality, and problems navigating the Internet during a phone call. Lots of the time, the device stays connected to the slowest network. People recommend activating and deactivating “airplane mode” to connect the cellphone again. However, this strategy isn’t always an effective solution.

Velazquez also gave a statement about reusing the frequency spectrum, which is key with cellphones. It has to do with the “channels” the signal travels through to reach smartphones and allows you to make calls or connect to the Internet.

2G and 3G in Cuba use a bandwidth of 900 MHz. While 4G networks using a bandwidth of 1800 MHz will also be used by 900 MHz.

The technical definitions indicate that while the frequency is lower (700 or 800 MHz), they can travel longer distances without losing intensity and can penetrate closed spaces better. On the other hand, higher frequencies (2100 or 2600 MHz) have a greater bandwidth, but they reach shorter distances and are weaker. This is why the world opts for lower frequencies for more modern technologies.

So, how effective will one of ETECSA’s options be to revert the saturated network if it starts using new frequencies, such as 2100 MHz (which is much higher than the frequencies used today)? 

In Cuba, 4G could operate at a bandwidth of 700 MHz, which is extremely attractive, because it allows for greater coverage with less infrastructure. But the issue here is that this is the bandwidth used for analog TVs and the process of partially transitioning to digital TV is going very slowly. Enabling the 700 MHz frequency for mobile networks is only being worked on in two provinces: Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.

Cuba doesn’t have technological support to meet national demand for Internet access. The Speedtest Global Index, a global ranking that publishes a classification of mobile and fixed bandwidth speeds across the world, has ranked Cuba as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to connection speed. In December 2022, Cuba was ranked no. 140 out of 141 for mobile network and last for fixed networks.

Expensive mobile Internet prices and deliberate cuts by ETECSA, as a state monopoly, are also obstacles for Internet access in Cuba.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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