Internet Fixed Infrastructure

Facts about Fixed Infrastructure

  • Fixed telephone service: 1,2 million fixed line users currently in Cuba, representing 24.1 % of home telephone line penetration.
  • Fixed Internet penetration: 0% broadband penetration (fixed or mobile) and 3.4% dial up Internet penetration.
  • Most expensive Internet in the world: 2 CUC (US$2) per hour, which translated into $1,344 per month if users want a 24 Internet connection.
  • Home Fixed Internet costs approximately 50 CUC for 15 hours of connectivity and 100 CUC for 30 hours of connectivity.
  • WiFi hot spots allow for a speed of 1 megabyte per second per user. However, the speed adapts according to demand and the number of users connected at a point in time, which translates into much slower average speeds.
  • WiFi hot spots are located in public parks and each park has an average of 3 to 6 Access Points (AC).
  • Each WiFi hot spot allows 254 users maximum at the same time.

Fixed Internet Services

Fixed Internet encompasses all services offered for in-home Internet, including dialup and broadband. Fixed services also include WiFi hot spots. The fixed Internet infrastructure in Cuba is outdated and provides very limited access at an extremely high cost. According to Cuba’s 2011 official government statistics, a mere 25% of the population is connected to the Internet. However, Freedom House suggests that only 5% of the population is really connected.
Theoretically, access to the Internet should be available for all Cubans. According to a 2015 article by ICT Works, the 1996 Decree-Law 209 states that to obtain a permit to get in-home Internet access, citizens must provide a ‘valid reason’ to request the connection. In practice these permits are granted only to government officials, communist party members, and foreigners.
Given that obtaining a permit to access home Internet/Intranet is almost impossible for Cubans who do not work in the government, the average Cuban usually relies on government Internet cafes and WiFi hot spots to connect. Internet cafes are less popular now because mobile phone penetration is increasing exponentially, meaning that people prefer connecting to the Internet from their personal phones in the park rather than going to an Internet Cafe. Service is still unaffordable to most Cubans, even though it has gone down considerably over the past 2 years. The price is US$2 (2 CUC) for an hour of navigation in WiFi or Internet Cafes, which is a significant amount to pay given that a local monthly salary averages between $20 and $30 per month in Cuba.

Internet Cafés

By 2015, there were 118 ETECSA Internet Cafes (Salas de navegación) and 600 Youth Computer Clubs (Joven Club de Computación) throughout the island. To connect at these Internet Cafes, users need a Nauta pre-paid card or Nauta account (which can only be obtained by Cuban citizens) and a valid ID.

WiFi Hot Spots

In an effort to increase Internet access in an relatively easy way, ETECSA decided to deploy WiFi hot spots all around Cuba. The advantage of deploying WiFi hot spots, compared to home Internet or Mobile Internet, is that it requires fewer changes to the present infrastructure, translating to lower costs and faster adaptability to the ever-changing world of digital communications.
On July 1, 2015, ETECSA opened up 35 public WiFi hotspots across the country, which are accessible to users in public, usually located in outdoor spaces such as parks and plazas. The number of hot spots had already surpassed 90 at the time this article was written, and is projected to increase further this year. Most of these WiFi hot spots are powered by Huawei routers such as the one pictured below:
A Huawei WIFI router in a public park in Alamar District, La Habana. Photo by Gary Verburg
A Huawei WIFI router in a public park in Alamar District, La Habana. Photo by Gary Verburg

Find below the map of WiFi spots so far in Cuba:
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The image below shows the high prices for broadband services, only offered for commercial use (government offices and/or foreign companies). For a monthly internet connection, the monthly fee ranges from 110 CUC to 3027 CUC, which is equivalent to $3075.

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For the other services offered for home Internet (Dialup or Broadband), find detailed information on the ETECSA webpage here.
Despite the many advances in price and access, Cuba continues to have some of the most restrictive Internet access in the world. Find the total report of Freedom House here.

Internet Connectivity with the Outside World

Countries usually connect to the Internet through submarine fiber optic cables. This image shows how submarine cables that connect every country to the Internet look:
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Given the American embargo and the restrictions that the Cuban government has in place in regard to the Internet, this image shows Cuba’s current connectivity through fiber optic cables:

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Just three cables connect Cuba to the outside world, one of which connects Guantanamo, an American military base. For the ALBA-1 project, the red cable on the east (right side of the image) is the the main Internet cable to Venezuela, and the other cable to Jamaica cable is the redundancy, which serves as a backup in case of lost connection in the main one.

Fibre Optic Cable

Cuba's first internet access, established in 1996, was entirely based on satellite connections, starting with a 64kbps link to Sprint in the U.S. While this was monumental at the time, satellite connections offer limited opportunities for the expansion of Internet services. Satellite connections are slow, expensive, difficult to set up, and susceptible to distortions created by climate and solar radiation. However, these obstacles can be overcome by installing fiber-optic cable connections, which, for islands like Cuba, run under the sea and provide a direct connection between Internet users and servers that are primarily based in the US. Due to the embargo and Cuban political restrictions, there was no fiber optic cable link-up connecting Cuba to the rest of the world until very recently. However, since Cuba got its first fibre-optic internet connection to Venezuela in 2011, internet service in Cuba has expanded, and there is considerable hope that a direct connection between Cuba and the US might result in improved internet service.
Fiber optic cable #1: ALBA-1 (Cuba - Venezuela - Redundancy: Cuba - Jamaica - Venezuela)The ALBA-1 cable is an 1,860 km (1,156 mi) undersea fiber optic telecommunications cable that spans between La Guaira, Venezuela and Simony, Cuba, with another stretch between Santiago de Cuba and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. The two maps below show the cable’s course between these points. Until the activation of this cable, all of Cuba’s internet was limited to satellite links, which offer limited bandwidth and high latency times.

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The ALBA-1 project is jointly-owned by the Venezuelan state entity TELECOM and the Cuban state entity TRANSBIT, and was built by Alcatel Submarine Networks at a cost of $70 million. This project was announced by Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, in 2007, as part of a plan to improve Cuba’s access to information in universities, hospitals, and other public institutions if deemed to be in service of the common good. The cable was completed in February 2011, but it mysteriously lay dormant to Internet traffic for nearly two years. Unverified sources cite financial concerns and corruption within Cuba’s telecommunications company as a principal reason. According to Cuban sources, the fiber optic cable has been operational for telephone traffic since August 2012. However, Internet traffic started in January 2013 according to Dyn Research, which has been tracking the latency of traffic through the cable since it was officially turned on in 2011. While this did not automatically lead to a multiplication of Internet access, investment in internal telecommunications infrastructure, such as the WiFi hot spots that have been coming online since July 2015, presumably led by the increase usage of this cable.
Since the activation of ALBA-1, the large majority of Cuba's internet traffic has been routed through the undersea fiber optic cable, which has supplanted the inefficient and expensive satellite system that has existed since 1996. The timeline below, taken from Dyn, an internet performance management company, shows the moment of transition in November 2014, when the share of Internet provision through ETECSA largely transferred to two service providers that used the cable.

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Fiber optic cable #2: Guantanamo Bay (Cuba - USA)The U.S. Department of Defence has contracted the Texas-based telecommunications company Xtera Communications Inc. to build a 1500 km undersea fibre-optic cable for the Southern Command between a US Navy research facility at Dania Beach, Florida, and the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. This contract was awarded to the firm in June 2014, and was slated for completion in February 2016, although no announcement of completion has been made at the time this article was written. This contract is valued at just over $31 million, and was followed by a $3.7 million contract to build the ground stations to connect the cable to the base facilities.
This submarine cable project is meant to eliminate the base’s reliance on satellite-based communications, and greatly improve communications between the base and the headquarters of the Department of Defense in Virginia. Internet connectivity on the base became an issue after part of the base was converted to a detention camp in 2002, which came with an increase in staff as well as the necessity of transmitting the proceedings of war courts to American receivers.

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Officially, no discussion has been announced by U.S. Navy spokesmen to extend the benefits of this cable to the Cuban people. However, in September 2013, then-Chief Information Officer of the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, testified that the capabilities of the proposed project exceed the needs of Guantanamo’s 6,000 resident staff, and that it could be extended across the minefield separating the naval base from mainland Cuba. Since contention abounds around the detention camp, as well as the future of this U.S. Navy base in general, some people suggest that, if this cable were to be declassified, it could provide internet services to civilian marine researchers, or even to extend services to the Cuban population.

Future Plans For Fiber Optic Cables

Although no plan has been proposed to this date, there is considerable interest in building an undersea fiber optic cable directly between Havana and Miami. Not necessarily due to political reasons, but as a consequence of the way that the internet is set up, virtually all of Cuba's Internet services are routed through U.S. servers. Currently, the ALBA-1 cable serves to connect Cuban internet users to these servers by directing Cuban traffic from the ALBA-1 cable to other undersea cables connecting Venezuela to the United States. Considering Cuba's close proximity to Florida, a direct connection between Miami and Havana would be relatively inexpensive, and would provide much faster internet services for Cuban users, as well as lower latency times and additional capacity for emergency communication.
Ambassador Daniel Sepúlveda, deputy-assistant secretary of the State and US Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, has stated that the Cuban government has expressed interested in running a cable directly between Havana and Miami. Although the Internet and telecommunications is not currently a prioritized sector by the Cuban government, Sepúlveda is optimistic that such a connection would help to mend relations between the two countries, providing not only a physical connection, but a psychological one as well.
Unfortunately, there is not much information available about how internet connections are being designed within the country to improve fiber optics, and thus broadband service. A report by Near Americas states that ETECSA is planning to build a high-speed fiber optic cable network to improve access and speed across the country, in every province and region, the first stage of which is shown in the map below. ETECSA's priorities are currently related to extending the network to more than 20 towns scattered across the island, in order to reach the last mile and provide access to the most remote parts of the country. However, this information is not official and has not been confirmed.

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The future is uncertain in regard to Cuba’s fixed Internet infrastructure, however there have been some advances in this regard over the past years that shed light on the possibility of connectivity for Cubans in the near future. (Reference the Future Plans page for more information on this.)

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