Cuba’s New 3G Service, Six Years After ALBA-1

January 8, 2019 Doug Madory

Last month, ETECSA (Cuba’s state telecom) activated national 3G mobile service.  For the first time in the nation’s history, a very modest level of internet service is now available to anyone on the island with a 3G-capable device and the funds to pay for it (i.e., 45cuc per month or almost twice the monthly salary of a Cuban state worker).

The development was announced in a tweet from Cuba’s new president Miguel Díaz-Canel and came almost six years since the activation of the ALBA-1 submarine cable connecting Cuba to the global internet via Venezuela.

Hoy martes el  Ministro de Comunicaciones anunciará y explicará en la Mesa Redonda el servicio de Internet en los teléfonos. Seguimos avanzando en la informatización de la sociedad #SomosContinuidad #SomosCuba

— Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez (@DiazCanelB) December 4, 2018

The activation of Cuba’s mobile internet service appeared in our Internet Intelligence Map as a dramatic increase in the number of authoritative DNS queries handled by Dyn’s servers, as we tweeted below.

Last week Cuba rolled out its first nationwide mobile internet service. DNS query volume up for Cuba, visible on @Oracle @Internetintel map. https://t.co/tOpkt7hME7 pic.twitter.com/i0uKS2nk7u

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) December 10, 2018

When we zoom out to the first half of December, we can see two phases of increase in DNS queries (pictured below) as the new mobile service was rolled out in stages.  A small increase can be observed beginning on 3 December (the day before President Díaz-Canel’s tweet), and then a larger and more sustained increase beginning on 6 December.

Unlike our other metrics (available BGP routes and completing traceroutes), DNS query volume follows a diurnal pattern due to the fact that DNS lookups are primarily a by-product of human interaction with the internet.  In this context, it is safe to conclude that the material increase in DNS query volume is due to more Cubans accessing and using the internet than ever before.

Before permanently launching their 3G service last month, ETECSA ran tests of the service in August and September, which we reported on here and here, and also appeared as temporary surges in the DNS queries from Cuba.

Years of incremental steps for the Cuban internet

It was six years ago this month, we broke the news of the activation of the ALBA-1 submarine cable — the first fiber optic cable connecting Cuba to the global Internet. The discovery received widespread media attention and the Cuban government even confirmed our report in the local communist party newspaper.

In an interview with PRI’s The World in 2014 (audio clip below), I suggested that the fastest way to extend service to the local population would be to allow international telecoms to bid for mobile licenses, as we saw in Myanmar, and bring the internet to the Cuban people via wireless technology.

While Cuba decided against leveraging private enterprise to build their national telecommunications infrastructure, its move to make mobile internet service nationally available is the biggest change to date to improve the levels of internet access in the country.

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