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Havana Can Have 5G Before Miami

Havana needs 5G more than Miami does.

Compared to Miami, Havana is an Internet desert, but Havana may have 5G wireless connectivity before Miami. 5G architecture, US politics and policy, and the 5G timetable favor Havana. Let’s start with 5G architecture.


Small cells (source)5G will require many “small cells” because it uses high-frequency radio signals that don’t travel as far as 4G signals and are more easily blocked by obstructions like trees and buildings. For example, there are about 154,000 cell towers in the US today, and the CTIA, an industry association, estimates that there will be 800,000 small cells by 2026.

In Miami, small cell radios will be installed by professional employees of and contractors to the large mobile phone companies. Havana has only one telecommunication company, ETECSA, but it is home to SNET, the world’s largest community network that is not connected to the Internet. Today, SNET is illegal but tolerated, and if ETECSA were willing to legitimize and collaborate with SNET, SNET members could play a role in siting and installing small cells. SNET’s legal status is currently being reconsidered and by the time Havana is ready to deploy 5G, SNET could play a major cost and time-saving role. (Note that Cuba’s new constitution de-centralizes executive governance by reducing provincial government and strengthening municipal government, possibly increasing the likelihood of local control of Internet infrastructure).

Havana’s population is about 4.5 times that of Miami, but the population density is about one-tenth of Miami’s. Low population density lends itself to citizen installation—antennas will be relatively easy to site and install. Furthermore, obtaining permission to install them in Havana will be easier than Miami. Wire-line Internet service providers have already installed broadband infrastructure throughout Miami and, since 5G will offer a fixed-broadband alternative, the incumbents will resist it politically. On the other hand, 5G will fill a near-vacuum in Havana—Havana needs 5G more than Miami does.


Average 4G download speed, Mbps (source)Wireless standards are complex and evolve over time. The Third Generation Partnership Project was established in 1998 to define 3G mobile standards and is now defining 5G standards. Thousands of people from equipment manufacturers, telecommunication companies, national and international standards organizations, and professional societies are involved in the process, and the technology and standards evolve over time. (For example, between February of 2016 and January 2019, average 4G download speed doubled in the US).

While we will see an ad proclaiming that Miami “has 5G” this year or next, the capability and applications will be marginally improved over 4G and only available in limited parts of the city. Perhaps five years from now, 5G standards and equipment that can support novel applications will become available.

In the interim, neither city will see much 5G impact, but it will give Havana time to continue with their current program of stopgap measures like 3G mobile access. If the price of 3G is significantly reduced, Cuba will develop trained, demanding Internet users and app developers who are ready to embrace 5G once it is available.

Stopgap measures like 3G, public WiFi, and home DSL will not close the fiber gap between Miami and Havana, but in five years improved terrestrial wireless and low and medium-earth orbit (LEO and MEO) satellite connectivity will be available for 5G backhaul. Cuba is already a customer of MEO Internet-service provider O3b and in five years O3b will have significantly improved capacity and performance. Additionally, LEO providers SpaceX, OneWeb and China’s Hongyun Project all plan to be offering service over Cuba in five years. SpaceX is based in the US and OneWeb in Great Britain, so Hongyun may have the inside track here, although they will have less capacity than their competitors.

Politics and policy

Great wall of China tariffs (source)Trump’s trade war with China favors Havana over Miami. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel points out: “levying new tariffs on everything from semiconductors to modems to routers is not going to make it any easier to deploy 5G wireless service. In fact, it will make it much more expensive.”

His ban against Huawei further advantages Havana since Huawei is the world’s leading producer of telecommunication equipment for service providers with a comfortable lead over their 5G competitors Nokia and Ericsson. They are also the number 2, in unit sales, and number 3, in revenue, smartphone manufacturer. If the ban persists, Miami will not have access to Huawei equipment.

By contrast, Huawei has supplied nearly all of Cuba’s Internet infrastructure from its backbone to WiFi hotspots and home DSL, and they are almost certain to be Cuba’s 5G vendor. China will likely contribute financially if it sees Cuba as a strategic ally in its effort to extend the Digital Silk Road to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The US government was instrumental in funding the development of the Internet and could adopt positive 5G policies like investing in R&D or providing incentives to participate in the global 5G standards process, but Trump eschews global cooperation and Chinese companies are playing a leading role in the definition of 5G standards, which will solidify Huawei’s leadership. Chinese telephone companies with 1.58 billion mobile phone subscriptions, will also influence standards as large 5G equipment customers.

Rather than seeing 5G as a cooperative global effort, Trump sees it as a competitive race and his 5G policy focuses on spectrum allocation (which is going poorly) and a call for State and local governments to improve “access to land, infrastructure, and property that will support new wireless networks, including rural America.” [sic] That call sounds like it was drafted by a lobbyist for the incumbent mobile telcos or perhaps an ex-Associate General Counsel at Verizon like FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and it will meet resistance. (China has no such conflict).

I used the word “can” instead of “will” in the title of this post because the outcome depends upon the will of the Cuban government and ETECSA.

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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