Advertisement at the ETECSA office. Photo by Mariela Machado

What is Nauta?
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Cuba mirror the complexities of Cuban politics and the Cuban reality as a whole. Understanding the Cuban context represents a big challenge, even for telecommunication engineers specialized in the design and maintenance of ICT infrastructure. Essential to this system is a service called Nauta.
Cuba’s ICT infrastructure can be divided into telephone services (fixed and mobile) and Internet services (fixed and mobile, which includes WiFi services). Unlike the telecommunication infrastructure in other countries, in Cuba there exists an intermediate layer between the user and the World Wide Web. Nauta is the name of a service, a management software and a user interface software involved in almost everything related to mobile WiFi and Internet, including pre-paid cards for WiFi access, the Cuban email service, and the Internet browser login page. Nauta is a proprietary software developed by Cubans for Cuba’s only telecoms provider, ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.). Some ETECSA sources suggest that this software was designed and developed for surveillance and control of the Internet in Cuba.
In most parts of the world, given the high costs of installation, maintenance, and upgrade of telecommunication systems, providers are private companies. Cuba’s only telecommunication service provider (ETECSA) is State-owned. Unlike the rest of the world, where software is bought for large sums of money from International telecom providers like Huawei, Ericsson, and Alcatel, much of ETECSA’s software is made in Cuba. While companies in other contexts might buy different software from different vendors, depending on price or quality, in Cuba all of this software is developed by one company, an ETECSA contractor made up of a small group of Cuban computer science engineers. Together, these software tools make up what is called Nauta.
To make things more confusing, Nauta is also the name of mobile WiFi and Internet services. For example, the Cuban email is also called Nauta.

Nauta email

A few years ago, this was the only email service allowed in Cuba, but since the loosening of certain restrictive policies with Google and other email service providers, Nauta has lost popularity. However, this email service is the only one that can be accessed from Cuba’s Mobile Internet 2G network, which is the equivalent of what the rest of the world had back in 2006. Nauta email can only be configured for phones by ETECSA employees at ETECSA offices. Once configured, users can access Nauta email even without connecting to WiFi hotspots. The layout and user interface of Nauta email is very similar to a simple text message or multimedia message from a decade ago. (To learn more about the available services for cell phones in Cuba, refer to the Mobile Infrastructure page)

Nauta WiFi

The opening page when connecting to a WiFi hot spot on a mobile phone in Cuba. Photo by Mariela Machado

The login page to access WiFi at ETECSA hotspots also falls under Nauta services. When Cubans connect their smartphones or laptops to hot spots in parks or hotels, the first page that comes up on their screens is the Nauta login page. This is not the email service, but just the interface to enter user identification for billing and Internet access. Access to some web pages is blocked, suggesting a surveillance mechanism. Lastly, fixed Internet in some private homes is also called Nauta. This acts exactly as the WiFi login page, but connects to fixed Internet.

Why Nauta?

Perhaps the government’s fear of American surveillance or foreign intervention drove the telecom sector to design and program their own software. Or perhaps the American embargo and the inability of even European-based telecom providers to negotiate with Cuba led to the creation of Nauta. But the most likely explanation for the development of this proprietary software is Cuba’s past and present economic crisis and low budget for its telecoms sector, which prohibits the country from purchasing services and software on the international market.
Whatever the reason for its initial creation, Nauta currently manages all of the Internet services available on the island. This may also explain why Cuba’s Internet and Nauta services are so inefficient. Their inefficiency does not mean that the software engineers behind Nauta are doing a poor job, but rather that compared to the rest of the world, which relies on thousands of engineers worldwide who collaborate to create and improve this software, Cuban resources are severely limited. When the WiFi hot spots were opened last year, Nauta collapsed for 48 hours because the software was not designed to support so many users at the same time. This is just one example of the inefficiencies of the system and the lack of expertise in managing high speed data services.
Outside of Cuba, the influence of the private sector in ICT has played a vital role in keeping ICT development flexible and improving very rapidly. Thus, if the Cuban people are to connect to the Internet and upgrade to 2016 systems, the Cuban government must consider the option of at least partial privatization. Huge investments must be made in order to achieve a more efficient system, and the government will have few options other than privatizing if they are committed to connecting the people to the world.

Written by: Mariela Machado Fantacchioti Edited by: Laura Lehman and Emily Sylvia