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Cuba's Mobile-Internet Strategy?

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This post is speculative, but I think Cuba may use satellite for 3G backhaul and, when the technologies are ready, leapfrog over 4G to 5G mobile connectivity and next-generation satellite. ETECSA began rolling out 3G connectivity for Cubans about a year ago and a few things have led me to believe they will continue:

  • Miguel Díaz-Canel, who many expect to replace Raúl Castro, has stated that "The State will work to make [the Internet] available, accessible, affordable for all." He also cites problems and responsibilities but seems on balance to favor connectivity.
  • WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms and home DSL cannot scale to bring "accessible, affordable" connectivity to all, but mobile phones can.
  • During 2017, ETECSA, Cuba's government telecommunication monopoly, installed 279 3G base stations, bringing the total number of base stations to 409 and reaching 47% of the population
  • Mobile connectivity is becoming available in low-population areas.
  • Last December, ETECSA began routing international traffic over the O3b medium-Earth orbit satellite network and now about 5% of their international routes are carried by O3b. (O3b is a subsidiary of SES an established geostationary satellite company).
  • O3b added four satellites to their constellation this month and plan to add four more next year, but they will have a much more significant upgrade when they deploy mPOWER, a new generation of satellite technology, in 2021.

The following crowd-sourced maps show Cuba's mobile rollout. (Strong signal: received signal strength indicator (RSSI) > -85dB, Weak: RSSI < -99dB).

Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, February 2017

Crowdsourced mobile coverage map, November 2017

Given the choice, people would prefer the flexibility, convenience, and comfort of mobile or home access over access at a fixed location like a WiFi park or navigation room. Cuba cannot afford the infrastructure upgrade to make home DSL "available, accessible, and affordable for all" and if they could it would require an enormous investment in obsolete technology.

But, could they provide widespread 3G mobile? Doing so would require more base stations and more backhaul from those base stations to the Intenet. I have been told that O3b currently has a satellite-Internet gateway in Jarusco, near Havana, but my guess is that they will install others to provide 3G backhaul. This would not be unprecedented — for example, O3b provides mobile backhaul for Digicell, which has over 40,000 LTE accounts in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Could Cuba employ a PNG-like strategy for a portion of their mobile backhaul?

Cuba is not identical to PNG. PNG's population is only about 72% of Cuba's, but Cuba has several advantages over PNG. The area of PNG is more than four times that of Cuba and Cuba has superior, universal education, a GDP per capita about 3.5 times that of PNG and more terrestrial Internet infrastructure.

But, shouldn't Cuba install modern 4G technology instead of 3G?

I have long advocated a strategy of relying on stopgap measures like home DSL, WiFi hotspots, navigation rooms, street nets, El Paquete Semanal and 3G mobile service while planning to leapfrog over current technology. Third generation mobile is significantly slower than 4G/LTE, which means much less backhaul and international bandwidth is required. Furthermore, Google, industrious Cubans and other are developing applications that are tailored to work on slow connections and offline on low-cost handsets. (There were 1,432 active, self-employed programmers in Cuba as of last April).

If 3G is a stopgap while waiting for 5G wireless technology to become available, what might the future look like?

As mentioned above O3b plans to deploy their next-generation mPOWER satellite constellation in 2021. MPOWER will be a major advance. Their current satellites can link to 10 edge terminals, but mPOWER satellites will be capable of over 4,000 links each, and O3b will offer several terminal models, ranging from very cheap and small (perhaps suitable for an individual cellular base station) to very large. While we may see a limited 5G rollout in advanced nations in 2019, it will not go mainstream for a year or more and will still be maturing and too expensive for either Cuba, PNG or other developing nations for some time after that, so mPOWER will be ready by the time Cuba is ready to "leap" to 5G.

It is noteworthy that 5G terrestrial wireless is expected to be used for fixed as well as mobile access, further reducing the need for investment in terrestrial infrastructure. When we speak of 5G connectivity to fixed locations, we are moving beyond the mobile phone as a user terminal. Handheld computers work well for conversation and consuming media but not for content creation. I could have written this blog post on a laptop with a 5G connection, but not on a mobile phone.

At an mPower press conference (video), Steve Collar, SES Networks CEO asked himself a rhetorical question — "If we wanted to deliver all of the capability that PNG would require for the next 15 years, could we do it on mPOWER without having to use any sort of meaningful terrestrial infrastructure?" and his answer to that was "yes." He went on to say that "If we can deliver the international and domestic traffic for a country on this system ... then we've got something that is genuinely unique." (Collar's comment is roughly 6 minutes before the end of the video).

Several years ago, I suggested that Cuba could use geostationary-orbit satellite Internet service as a stopgap measure until they could afford to leapfrog over today's technology to next-generation infrastructure. They did not go for that idea. Last month, I suggested that they consider low-Earth orbit satellite Internet service. This post splits the difference by suggesting medium-Earth orbit service from O3b. Since ETECSA is already an O3b customer and SES is a European company, this one may be closer to reality — I'll save those political considerations for a future post.

Written by Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

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