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Cuba’s (Hopefully Limited) ADSL Expansion

In 2015, ETECSA announced/leaked a plan to make ADSL service available in 50% of Cuban homes by 2020. I was skeptical. Doing so would mean investing a lot of money for obsolete technology between 2015 and 2020.

They have recently announced the availability of ADSL connectivity at homes in portions of seven cities and, by December, they say some home connectivity will be available in every province.

ETECSA first tested, then offered ADSL service in Old Havana. Only 600 customers opened accounts after the test period, leading me to speculate (and hope) that the ADSL project would end given the low acceptance rate. I was wrong, but I still don’t think ADSL will or should reach anywhere near 50% of Cuban homes.

Let me digress a bit to explain why I think ADSL is a bad idea. ADSL requires a telephone line from one’s home to a phone company central office where the DSL equipment is installed, and the central office needs a fast enough connection to the Internet to handle the traffic of all the customers it serves. Deteriorated wiring, a long distance from a home to the central office or a lack of backhaul capacity from the central office to the Internet reduce connection speed.

For example, in my neighborhood Frontier offers ADSL service at speeds ranging from 1.61 Mbps to 6 Mbps. (The FCC defines “broadband” as 25 Mbps or more). My home is about two miles from my central office, and it was built just after World War II, so the fastest speed they can offer me is 3 Mbps. That has not changed since I discontinued ADSL in the 1990s. ADSL technology has improved since that time, but Frontier has not invested in new equipment because their ADSL service is clearly inferior to that offered by cable TV companies.

Perhaps ETECSA has a commitment to their DSL equipment vendor, Huawei, or they are able to make a profit serving a few customers at the high prices they are charging today, but I can’t imagine them making a large investment in this technology (see prices below).

I don’t have the details, but my guess is that only a few central offices will be equipped for ADSL in each new city and a relatively small number of people in served neighborhoods will choose to pay the prices they are charging for home Internet service. (I wonder what percent of their current Havana and Bayamo customers are businesses or homes of people who rent rooms or work at home).

As such, I don’t see this slow, expensive, restricted service as very important. It should be considered an interim, stopgap measure, like WiFi parks or El Paquete Semanal, while ETECSA plans “leapfrogging” to next-generation technology and, more important, regulation and infrastructure ownership policy in the 2020s.

Cities served, prices and connection speeds

Update Oct 4, 2017:

ETECSA has released details on their recent ADSL expansion. There are answers to 85 frequently asked questions including this list the popular councils in which ADSL is available:

Popular Cuban councils in which ADSL is available

ADSL is now available in portions of 16 popular councils in addition to previous availability in Havana and Bayamo. Around 600 homes have subscribed in Havana.

In 2016 there were 764 central offices in Cuba (719 of them digital). I don’t know if some central offices serve homes in more than one popular council or if there are some popular councils served by more than one central office, but even with this expansion, ADSL is only available to and affordable by a small portion of Cuban homes.

My guess would be that the central offices that have been upgraded to allow for ADSL are in relatively affluent neighborhoods and many subscribers are businesses or people renting rooms in their homes, but that is just a guess, and it would be interesting to see a survey of ADSL subscribers.

Update Oct 16, 2017:

When ETECSA held a home connectivity trial in Havana last year, 868 people participated and over 600 contracted for the service. They are now extending the availability of home connectivity to portions of seven Havana municipalities: La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, Revolution Square, Havana del Este, San Miguel del Padrón, La Lisa and beach. (It had been available in only two up till now).

Note that all locations in those municipalities will not be covered—I suspect that is due to distance from an ETECSA central office, a lack of backhaul capacity and/or the poor wiring condition.

They also announced a home service price cut—15 CUC for 30 hours per month will now get you 1 Mbps instead of 256 kbps. (The release said 1 megabyte, but I suspect that was a typo).

Perhaps ETECSA is able to recover the cost of their DSL and infrastructure investment at the speeds and prices they are offering, but this is clearly not the path to widespread home connectivity.

Update Oct 17, 2017:

ETECSA has released the number of Nauta Hogar subscribers outside of Havana: 232 in Pinar del Río, 225 in Holguín, 134 in Guantanamo, 79 in Granma and 142 in Las Tunas. Most of those are 1 or 2 Mbps.

With a reported subscriber count of 600 in Havana, this brings the total number of homes with ADSL connectivity to a little over 1,400. As of 2015, there were 996,063 residential phone lines in Cuba. They clearly can not and should not count on using ADSL to reach the 50% availability level mentioned above.

Update Dec 27, 2017:

Last week, ETECSA announced the availability of DSL connectivity to 821 potential clients in Santiago de Cuba, a city with a population of 433,527 in 2015. The announcement singles out two neighborhoods, so I suspect that two central offices were upgraded to offer DSL service and evidently only 821 homes have good enough copper wiring to receive data from them at 4 Mbps. (There are 719 digital central offices in Cuba).

It is telling that they proudly announce such a modest achievement—reminiscent of the coverage of Kcho’s WiFi hotspots. (I’m tempted to mention Donald Trump at this point, but will resist the temptation).

Last May, ETECSA announced the goal of being able to offer 38,000 home DSL accounts. I doubt that they came close to that goal. The goal for 2020 is to offer connectivity to 50 percent of Cuban homes. As of 2016, there were 1,322,002 residences with fixed phone service in Cuba. Their goals are not achievable and, as I stated above, that is good news. At the price ETECSA is charging, very limited DSL coverage may pay for itself or make a little profit, but it is only a temporary stopgap for very few people.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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