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5G for Fixed Connectivity in Cuba

ETECSA reports that over 110,100 Cuban households have DSL connectivity using their Nauta Hogar service. There are also shared facilites—986 WiFi hotspots (127 in Havana) and 347 Navigation Rooms (44 in Havana) with 1,309 computers (304 in Havana).

These services are dead-ends on the road to hoped-for “computerization.” The Cuban population is around 11 million so, after three years, roughly one person in 100 lives in a Nauta home and the services are limited geographically since DSL is only available in the vicinity of telephone central offices. WiFi hotspots and Navigation Rooms are at fixed locations. Furthermore, the connection speeds are low, and the prices high.

When the U.S. began making fixed Internet connections to homes, schools, businesses, etc., we had an installed inventory of relatively new last-mile phone lines, television cables, and longer fiber links, and we have been expanding that infrastructure for forty years. Cuba does not have those assets and, even if they were willing to invite foreign investment, the gap would continue to grow. (Furthermore, I wouldn’t wish a foreign monopoly or duopoly on anyone).

Could 5G wireless help with Cuban fixed connectivity?

Medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellite Internet service provider SES has been providing Cuban international transit for two years, so they have an established relationship with ETECSA. SES also provides 2, 3 and 4G mobile backhaul and managed mobile service in places like Chad, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. (They also offer WiFi hotspots as a service).

SES is planning to offer the same services plus focused small-cell connectivity for 5G networks when their next-generation mPower satellites come online. SES has 20 MEO satellites in orbit today, and in 2021 they will be adding seven next-generation mPower MEO satellites with over 4,000 shapeable and steerable beams that can be switched under program control, giving the constellation over 30,000 dynamically reconfigurable beams and over 10 Tbps capacity. The mPower satellites will work in conjunction with their current MEO satellites and their geostationary satellites.

Expected Starlink coverage, mid-2020How about using low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for 5G backhaul? Several companies are developing LEO Internet-service constellations, but SpaceX’s Starlink constellation has a clear lead. Simulation of their announced plans shows that they will have coverage over Cuba by around the middle of next year and after that capacity will grow steadily as they launch new satellites. SpaceX plans to focus on the U.S. market at first, but Elon Musk is an iconoclast who refused to serve Trump, and I would encourage ETECSA to at least reach out to SpaceX.

So much for backhaul and system integration, how about connectivity to the thousands of local small cells that would be required for fixed broadband? That would require a lot of local fiber, which could be planned and installed by local people. Decentralization of the design and installation of the edge of a fixed 5G network would require more than capital and new technology—it would require a political shift to a telecommunication policy focused on economic and social goals. Unfortunately, that seems less likely today than it seemed before the confiscation of SNET and other community networks.

Cuba is emphasizing and investing in mobile connectivity today, and phones and tablets are fine for applications like content consumption, online shopping, social interaction, and Twitter-style politics, but businesses, schools, content creators, software developers, etc. need larger computers with fast, fixed connectivity. If Karl Marx were alive today, he might say mobile phones were the opiate of the 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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