Heriberto Rosabal | [url=http://www.cubadebate.cu]http://www.cubadebate.cu[/url]
This weekend, telephone digitization reached Cuba’s easternmost province, Guantánamo, 910 km. from the capital. Shortly before that, it benefited from the national fiber-optic grid. A full-fledged event in Cuba, where just like in any other country prompt and efficient communication is a basic need and has a high value in all senses.
“Indeed,” – said Ignacio González Planas, Minister of Information Technology and Communication (MIC), in an exclusive interview with Juventud Rebelde – “digitization reaches Guantánamo, one of the country’s most backward provinces in information and communication (ICT) technologies, which very shortly will allow for an increase in telephone density from 2.4 to 3.1 telephone sets per every 100 inhabitants in that territory, also improving the quality of the telephone service.”
The arrival of the National Fiber-Optic Grid to Guantánamo, González Planas stated, besides enhancing the telephone traffic also allows the province’s reception of the signal beamed by the EDT channels with optimum quality, as well as the future of other broadcasts.
“Now digitization is only missing in Las Tunas and Granma – both with very low connectivity yet – which is scheduled to take place this year or early next year at the latest.”
In the dialogue with the Minister of Information Technology and Communication, we elaborated on this and other issues examined barely a week ago at the Ministry’s annual review assembly.
Q: What’s Cuba’s exact situation with these latest steps in terms of the development of its telecommunications infrastructure? How do Cubans benefit from what has been done so far?
“We have to continue making progress in our telecommunications infrastructure. All across the country, we have 6.37 telephone sets per every 100 inhabitants, with an uneven distribution. For example, in the City of Havana the rate is 14 per every 100 inhabitants; but there are provinces with a rate of less than three – and areas and regions with fewer than two. Right in the City of Havana, we have municipalities with a rate of around two (in the southern part of the province) and, however, Playa, Plaza de la Revolucion and Centro Habana have more than 14.”
“This situation is further compounded by the fact that even the most developed telephone networks are very outdated, even those in the capital. These are copper lines whose old technical status cannot be modified as quickly as a telephone exchange center is installed, which is just what happened in Guantánamo.”
“With the telephone network, we have to reach every single house and money has to be invested for that, as well as time, so that the organizations responsible for such investments – utility poles, cables – can have the perfect dissemination.”
Q: However, the growth will continue. According to what was said at the Ministry’s annual review assembly, 80 000 new telephone lines will become operational this year.
“Our intention is to continue growing until we reach, within four or five years, the rate of 20 telephone sets per every 100 inhabitants in the City of Havana and between 12-14 in the rest of the country.”
“To that end, we have the revenues derived from the telecommunications sector, a portion of which is being systematically set aside for investments that enhance this infrastructure at a rate that has enabled us – between 1994, when ETECSA [Cuba’s telecommunications company] was established, and now – to grow by around two telephone sets per every 100 inhabitants (to 6.37) and move from 4% of digitization in 1995 to 80% at present.”
“Connectivity is very important for the Cubans. First of all, there is still too much anxiety about telephone communication. Most of the population is right now looking forward to having the telephone set – and there’s a relatively small portion of people gaining access to the telephone traffic.”
“There are still some isolated places lacking minimum communication – and towns of 500 or more inhabitants that have no communication at all. We think that we can reach those places more quickly now, when we integrate the investments in fixed telephone services with those of wireless communication to be able to connect those far-flung spots where it would take us much longer and it would be very costly if we depended on cable.”
“Also envisaged this year is an increase in those 80 000 lines, a portion of them with wireless telephony and another with fixed telephony. This is a remarkable increase (20 000 more than in 2003), enabling us to maintain a growth rate through which, in a period of five years, we have doubled the number of available lines in the country.”
“It’s still insufficient, but such infrastructure will be increasingly more robust. Transmission has been improved through the national fiber-optic grid, which has created enough traffic capacity.”
“Higher-quality and quantity telephone services will emerge from digitization in all provincial capitals, as well as further possibilities for the numbers to increase. And we have to start working to now reach the farthest places.”
Q: That is, to move from the provincial capitals to the rest of the territories?
“That’s the most urgent task. We now have cases in which there’s telephone capacity in one plant and there’s no way to bring it out. I repeat that changing a telephone exchange center is a relatively short investment, but what takes more time and much more money is to cause the networks to reach every neighborhood, every block, every house with the cable pair.”
Q: In that context, the access to data transmission, to the Internet and e-mail services is a whole chapter, as it relates to the increasing use of PCs. What is happening there? What is the policy about it?
“In our summary meeting of the results of 2003 and the discussion of the main tasks for 2004, we explained that the country now has an estimated 270 000 PCs, 65% of which are networked; that there are 1 100 .cu domains; more than 750 Internet sites and more than 480 000 e-mail accounts. All of our media, both national and local, can be found on the Internet. Several radio stations broadcast on the Internet in real time and Cubavision Internacional [a TV channel] is also available on the Net.”
“These figures – reached despite our constraints in communication infrastructure – reveal an important increase, but they are still, of course, insufficient. The 6.37 telephone sets per every 100 inhabitants, as well as the old and deteriorated networks, make it difficult to expand the totally efficient access to the Internet.”
“The progress made has been possible due to the enforcement of a policy in line with our economic situation and our development plans. We have privileged the use of the Net in the social field, in public health, education, science and technology, the national and local TV networks, culture, the banking system, the most important branches of the economy and, much more recently, in the services for the population.”
“This policy has facilitated an intense use of the technical connection possibilities, as well as expansive and growing access, which should continue to increase systematically. Hundreds of thousands of people in Cuba access the Internet, and there will be increasingly more to do so on a daily basis. Only through INFOMED, the Internet service of public health, nearly 30 000 professionals, doctors and paramedics gain access to the Net. In higher education, almost all professors and the vast majority of students use the Internet, with restrictions only relating to the available computer time and the speed allowed by our networks.
“Workers in R&D centers also have guaranteed Internet access, constant scientific-technical upgrades and prompt exchanges with their counterparts in other countries. A large portion of reporters use the Internet on a day-to-day basis on the job.”
“In the 300 Computer Youth Clubs, found in all of the country’s municipalities, thousands of young people gain access to the network through TINORED. Municipal culture centers allow the systematic access by writers, artists and other culture workers – and through the post-office net halls (a service that is just beginning), the population in general will gain access directly and progressively.”
“Besides all this, conditions are being put in place to multiply the use of IT in the country. First of all, through the endeavor of teaching computer skills since the pre-school age: all of the country’s schools have PCs that are also used in the teaching-learning process, including 2 368 schools with solar panels. Of those, 93 have only one student enrolled. In higher education, there is a PC per every 12 students, who use this technology on a large scale. The recently established Computer Science University (UCI) already has 4 000 students and will begin to graduate 2 000 professionals per annum as of 2006-2007. This adds to the IT schools found in all of the universities of the country. A total of 30 000 students are engaged in programming studies and other intermediate IT specialties.”
“A major effort is being made to enhance the Cuban software industry, emphasizing health, education, the banking system, telecommunications, tourism, culture, etc. In the near future, the use of Cuban software in telemedicine and TV-oriented education will be fairly common.”
“Solutions are being examined and implemented to alleviate and add more efficacy to citizen-oriented services, as well as to develop electronic mail.”
“This is just to give you an example by way of reply to your question, and taking into account, by the way, that there are some press releases around saying that we are restricting the use of the Internet.”
Q: Such releases make reference to a resolution of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication that allegedly restricts the access by Cubans to the Internet. Is it so?
“Nothing farther from our current reality. In a world where Internet access is just for the elite, where billions of people have never seen a telephone set and have no hopes of ever accessing the Net – because a large portion of them cannot read or write – the possible path to be followed by underdeveloped countries, and the most democratic and massive, is the one we are traveling down. There’s no question whatsoever in my mind.”
“The speculations of those press releases and international media reports these days manipulate a basic measure of protection for Internet networks and users.”
“The world is full of hackers, viruses, Trojans, illegalities in the use of networks, pornography on the Internet. Everywhere, every day, measures are taken to prevent this disarray; essential measures for the networks to work well. Criticisms always come up when we take some basic legality control measures, and there are people who become concerned about the “freedoms” of the Cubans, who can be regarded, much to their chagrin, as the freest people on Earth.”
“I can ascertain that there’s no change whatsoever in the policy set forth for Internet use, whose tenets are that those who abide by the existing regulations will continue to gain access to the Net; that the access by Cubans to the Internet will continue to rise as allowed by connectivity and that we are going to crack down on all unlawful acts to defend the Net. At the recent World Summit on Information Society, we presented a report entitled Cuba: ICTs for all, which clearly explains our current situation and our policy on this issue.”
“It was obvious at the Summit that our practice could prove very useful for Third World countries, whose socio-economic situation demands specific solutions that have nothing to do with those used and proposed by the rich countries.”
“We’ll continue to work along those lines, convinced that the use of the Internet and the new information and communication technologies, if made creatively and on the basis of the specific situation of our countries, can significantly help us develop and defend our ideas and rights, as expressed by our Commander-in-Chief.”
Q: In the case of Cuba, how does the US blockade impact the access to ICTs, since it is said around the world that such use is democratic and was proclaimed at the Geneva Summit as equal to all?
“The blockade makes everything extraordinarily difficult. In the document that we prepared for the Geneva Summit there is a very clear explanation of what the blockade is. The US owns the highest technology and produces very efficient, modern equipment. It also owns the software industry to some extent – and its transnational corporations are even the proprietors in many other countries.”
“We, in turn, on account of the blockade, have to resort to complex mechanisms to sometimes acquire some technologies, and sometimes we cannot gain access to them. We have to content ourselves with solutions that are not the ideal ones. The equipment is more expensive and on many occasions it must be brought in from far-flung places.”
“Luckily, we have important cooperation schemes with countries whose technological development is significant, like China (supplier of the digital exchange centers in Guantánamo, Sancti Spíritus and Isla de la Juventud). That facilitates the increase in the country’s high-quality technology.”
Q: From the Summit on Information Society, Ignacio González Planas has a story connected with the other blockade, which around the globe derives from the so-called “digital divide” between the haves and the have-nots:
“At the Round Table in which I took part in representation of Cuba, the delegate of an African country talked in the middle of the debate about our countries’ access to ICTs: ‘What are we talking about here, if in my country we only have 0.16 telephone sets per every 100 inhabitants? I wonder if that’s the possibility of ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ access to the Internet and, overall, to these new technologies that many consider.”
ICTs and the blockade
The US blockade against Cuba seriously hampers our country’s access to new ICTs:
Since 1962, Cuba has had no access to telecommunications and computer equipment owned by any US company or subsidiary.
Because of the blockade, the Cuban telecommunications sector has suffered million-dollar losses in basic and wireless telephone activities, alarm systems, e-commerce and postal communications. In telephone activities alone, losses amounted to US$ 21.7 million in 2002.
If the blockade did not exist, with a stake of just 0.1% in the US e-commerce market, that goes beyond the US$ 500 billion mark per annum (2000), Cuba could earn more than US$ 500 million per annum.
Due to the impossibility of purchasing on the US market, Cuban company CITMATEL (supplier of computer equipment to the island’s scientific centers) has on many occasions to buy these items through third countries and pay up to 30% more as opposed to the price in the US.
On 10 April 2003, the US Department of Commerce refused to give an export license to USA/Cuba-INFOMED, a humanitarian NGO based in California, which intended, as on previous occasions, to donate 423 PCs to Cuban hospitals and polyclinics to support the diagnosis and medical information network. “This export would be deleterious to the foreign policy interests of the United States,” it stated.
When the US Army developed the e-mail, Cuba had no access to that service or to technical know-how or equipment. The access by the Cubans to US sites on the Internet was blocked until May 1994. Therefore, Cuba could not take part in the Internet process at an earlier stage.
The Torricelli Act, adopted in 1992, which further tightened the blockade, identified communications with Cuba as a way to weaken the revolutionary regime.
It is not up to Cuba to be connected to the Internet at the speed it would like to or with as many independent channels or providers it can choose. Each time Cuba tries to add a new channel to the Internet, the US counterpart must procure the appropriate license from the US Treasury Department. Likewise, if an American company wants to open a new channel for Cuba or decides to upgrade the connection speed, a license must be issued.
Cuba’s current connection to the so-called Infobahn does not offer the appropriate bandwidth to meet the country’s requirements. The blockade compels Cuba to use an expensive and slow satellite-related bandwidth and connection. The problem could be solved with the connection of a fiber-optic cable between Cuba and the Florida Straits, but the US has not allowed so.
Internet access is very far from being a benefit to the great majorities:
90% of the world’s population has no access to the Internet.
Over 70% of those connected to it live in developed countries.
In Africa, less than 1% of the population has access to the Internet. More than half of those with connection are from South Africa. The shortage of telephone lines is compounded by the lack of electricity. In Ghana, only 20% of homes has electric power; in Namibia, 5%; in Senegal, 2.3%; in Mozambique, 0.4%, according to figures of the ITU.
In Central America, Internet access is a luxury. In Guatemala, 0.6% of the population has access; in El Salvador, the rate is 0.7%; in Nicaragua, 0.04% and in Honduras, 0.03%.
Even in large and populated nations of the Third World, there are very few citizens with Internet access: in Mexico, 4.6% of the population; in India, 1.6%; in Indonesia, 1.8%.
In Russia, a former power, only 4.2% of citizens have access to the Internet.
International statistics reveal that the most frequently visited sites on the Internet are pornographic and on-line game portals. In 2003, according to INTERPOL, there were more than 17,000 websites dedicated to pedophilia.