Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    A conversation with a Cuban telecommunication engineer

    Saturday, June 4, 2011

    A conversation with a Cuban telecommunication engineer

    I asked for input and test runs from people in Cuba in a recent post,
    and I've had an interesting email conversation with a telecommunication
    engineer who says he has never worked in that field. He asked me not to
    share his name or email address.

    We talked about access. He says only foreign people with
    permanent resident visas, foreign students, and business with foreign
    capital can get Internet accounts, and that those dial up accounts have
    all ports open.

    Enterprises throughout the country can get DSL connections, but they are
    limited to Web (HTTP) applications. He has also heard rumors that
    pro-government bloggers get DSL connections.

    He told me that Cubans are not allowed to connect to the Internet from
    their homes so they pay an fee of 1.50 to 2.00 CUC per hour to
    buy time from foreign students and others who have dial-up accounts.
    (One CUC = US$1.08 and the average wage is 20 CUC per month).

    It is legal to buy a WiFi card (if you can find one in stock) and
    connect at one of a few hotels in or Varadero with WiFi
    connectivity. They charge 8 CUC per hour for access to a 128 kb/s link
    that is shared by all of the users at the time. The second legal
    option is to go to a Cyber-Café or hotel which charges 2 CUC for 15
    minutes of access to PC with "veeery slow" connectivity.

    centers like universities and medical schools are connected by
    fiber. Within the organizations they have 100 mb/s LANs behind NATs. He
    recalls a time when the he attended (I won't say which one)
    had only 512 kb/s connectivity for approximately 1,000 PCs. That was
    eventually stepped up to 2 mb/s.

    He is on point-to-point Ethernet connection to enet.cu, and is able to
    trace the route from his dial-up connection to Google via a Newcom
    International satellite link. Average ping time to Google was 683 ms.
    Ping times to other machines at enet.cu averaged 110 ms.

    He did not want to run many tests, because he feared surveillance by
    CuCERT. Like their counterparts in other nations, CuCERT is charged with
    responding to network security incidents, but he characterizes them as
    being like "cyber-cops, who can enter your house, pick up your HDs and
    walk away without previous notification."

    (I tried to reach cucert.cu, but could not from the US — not sure if it
    is blocked or down or both).

    He gave me the IP address of a university server that was running
    network monitoring software. I could see graphs of traffic on the links
    to the university, the internal Ethernet LAN, temperature, and disk
    utilization on several servers. I could also reach the help desk, but
    resisted the urge to submit a help desk ticket request :-). You see a
    sample traffic graph above (click on it to enlarge it). The green line
    is incoming traffic and the blue outgoing. As you see, the 2 mb/s link
    is pretty well saturated — surfing must be slow.

    It feels cool to see the graphs, and I bet they would be upset to know
    that they were visible, but they are not of much practical value except
    to the network administrators at that university. If one could get
    similar statistics from all Cuban universities, one could begin to
    stitch together a picture of the backbone networks.

    He also confirmed that bootleg satellite TV from the US is common and
    found in almost all parts of the country. People buy a satellite
    receiver from a local supplier who gets an account from the US. Some of
    those people sell service to their neighbors using coaxial cable,
    although he thinks that activity is decreasing after several antenna
    seizures. The service costs around 10 CUC per month, and the viewers
    cannot change channels themselves.

    There are "muyyyy" few people with HughesNet Internet links, and they
    are heavily prosecuted and can go to jail if caught. He said WiFi is
    everywhere, and is mainly used to share music and videos and play games.
    He said the government is concerned about that, but I don't understand
    why since WiFi is local, and I doubt that they are concerned with
    copyright violation on the music and video :-).

    We talked a bit about the Alan case. He thinks the trial and
    sentence were for political reasons, and the government hopes to do a
    exchange. Gross got a long sentence, but a Cuban could get 3-5
    years for having a satellite link to the Internet. He said there are
    some people with satellite connection who provide service to others
    using WiFi access points and repeaters and homemade antennae, but, as
    mentioned above, that is risky business.

    If you are in Cuba, how does your experience compare to what I've just
    described?

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