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A Simple Suggestion for President Biden Regarding the Cuban Internet

The Cuban backbone (source)

President Biden has a lot on his plate, but having someone pursue a Cuban undersea cable would be simple and benefit both Cuba and the US.

Last September, I asked what had happened to the proposal for a branch connecting the ARCOS undersea cable, which has a landing point in North Miami Beach, to Cojimar, Cuba. The consortium that operates the cable had applied for permission to connect Cuba in July 2018, and the FCC granted a request for streamlined processing, which should have taken less than 45 days, but nothing happened until September 2020 when the application was referred to a Justice Department committee for the assessment of foreign participation in the telecommunication services sector, that Trump had established in an executive order on April 4, 2020. On October 26, 2020—shortly before the election—the application was withdrawn without explanation. I asked the FCC officials involved why the processing had taken so long and why the application was withdrawn but received no answer. I also filed Freedom of Information Act Requests with the FCC and Justice Department, but my questions were not answered. (Justice did not even reply).

But that is history—spilled milk. During the campaign, President Biden said he would “try to reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and he has taken steps to liberalize travel and remittances. He has a lot on his plate besides Cuba, but having someone pursue a Cuban undersea cable would be simple and benefit both Cuba and the US.

The first step would be to contact the operators of the ARCOS cable to see if they are still interested in the Cuban branch. If not, other options should be pursued. Daniel Sepulveda, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, in the Obama administration said there were at least a half-dozen proposals—from US and non-US companies—to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. There had also been discussion of one day allowing Cuban access to the US cable at Guantanamo, GTMO-1.

An undersea cable to the US would be a boost to the Cuban Internet. Nearly all Cuban international traffic is carried over the ALBA-1 cable, which lands at the south-east end of the island, so traffic from heavily populated areas like Havana must traverse the national backbone. An undersea cable from Cojimar, which is near Havana, would reduce latency, free backbone capacity, save capital investment and provide a backup path in case of an outage.

Note that even Trump would agree with this proposal. His policy was to “amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services,” and he directed government departments and agencies “to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba.” He also established a task force “to examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba” and did nothing to reverse any of President Obama’s Cuba telecommunication policies.

President Biden might be concerned that such a move might be politically damaging since Cuban-American voters in Florida favored Trump in the last election, but that is not a sure thing. The 2020 Florida International University Cuba Poll showed that among south Florida Cubans, young people are most liberal on issues like the embargo, and all except those over 75 consider Cuba policy less important than the economy, health care, race, immigration, and China policy. Demographics and Trump’s impeachments may have shifted Cuban voting patterns by 2022 or 2024.

Supporting an undersea cable between the US and Cuba would also enhance our reputaion in the region and encroach upon China’s near monopoly as a vendor of Cuban Internet infrastructure. It would also strengthen the US’s strategic position vis-a-vis China’s expansion in the region. President Obama sought rapproachmont with Cuba and several Internet-related proposals followed, but the result was disappointing. Trump and Raúl Castro are now ex-presidents so the ARCOS cable may stand a chance. (It would not be unprecedented—Cuba’s first connection to the Internet was through the US National Science Foundation International Connections Program for research and university networks in developing nations).

Update: Apr 5, 2021:

In March 2019, Google and ETECSA signed a memorandum of understanding committing to cost-free interchange of traffic between their networks once Cuba was able to connect to a new undersea cable that would be laid, presumably to Miami “sometime in the future.” That cable has not yet been laid and I got no answer when I asked Google what the project status was last week.

Google has persisted in an effort to improve Cuban Internet connectivity and access for years but the effort has yielded very little. They have installed Google Global Cache servers in Cuba, enabling ETECSA to serve some Google content from within its own network, and established one public WiFi hotspot.

There were hopes for progress when President Obama visited Cuba, but the Cuban government under Raúl Castro was unwilling and Díaz-Canel was met by Trump. President Biden has a lot on his mind these days, but I hope Google is hanging in.

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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