How Enabling Mobile Email Access Led to Chaos in Cuba
Associated Press, May 18, 2014
On an island where most people have no Internet access, the arrival of
mobile phone email service was embraced with joy.
Tens of thousands of Cubans began emailing like crazy in March – for
days, until the service started to fail, taking much of Cuba’s already
shaky voice and text-messaging mobile service down with it
The island’s aging cellphone towers became swamped by the new flood of
email traffic, creating havoc for anyone trying to use the system. Users
had to make eight or nine attempts to successfully send an email. Even
voice calls by non-subscribers’ began to drop mid-conversation. Callers
sounded like they were phoning from the bottom of the sea. Ordinary text
messages arrived days late, or not at all.
Since then, the state telecom monopoly Etecsa has issued a rare apology
and the troubles have eased. But problems with the service, dubbed
Nauta, offer a rare window into the Internet in Cuba, where the digital
age has been achingly slow to spread since arriving in 1996, leaving the
country virtually isolated from the world of streaming video,
photo-sharing and 4G cellphones.
Cuba’s government blames the technological problems on a U.S. embargo
that prevents most American businesses from selling products to the
Caribbean country. Critics of the government say it deliberately
strangles the Internet to halt the spread of dissent. Other observers
offer a less political explanation: a government desperate for foreign
exchange is investing little in infrastructure improvements while
extracting as much revenue as possible from communications services
largely paid for by Cubans’ wealthier overseas relatives.
(Also see: Cuba to launch its own social networks to counter subversive
Experts say that last explanation appears to be the primary culprit in
the case of Nauta, in which the government tried to open connections
with the world but floundered due to apparent poor planning and
“Cuba is extremely broke,” said Larry Press, a professor of information
systems and expert on Cuban telecommunications at California State
University, Dominguez Hills. “If they had access to tons of capital they
would probably expand (Internet service) further.”
About 100,000 people – around 5 percent of Cuban cellphone users – had
subscribed to the service even though it cost 50 times that of many U.S.
Radio scriptwriter Lisandra Ayala, 36, stood in line for hours in March
outside an Etecsa office, dreaming of zipping emails back and forth with
her favorite cousin in Canada. Like many Cubans, she has long had a
smartphone – a status symbol frequently brought in by visiting relatives.
She paid $1.50 to sign up for a Nauta contract that was supposed to let
her send emails with the ability to attach photos, but not send video or
check the Web. Even the price of $1 per megabyte, many times higher than
in virtually any developed country, didn’t deter her.
“I was so excited at first, but then the experience turned into a total
disaster,” Ayala said. After a week of decent service, she found it
impossible to open the icon for Nauta without trying at least six times;
voice calls dropped or didn’t go through and text messages disappeared
“We have been preparing for more than a year,” Hilda Arias, director of
Etecsa, told official media late last month. “Customers’ expectations
really exceeded our vision … this provoked an overload.”
She promised that the situation would improve, albeit slowly.
With cellular rates as high as 35 cents a minute for domestic calls,
Etecsa earned roughly $500 million last year, revenue that’s been rising
slowly since 2008, according to Emilio Morales, a systems engineer who
heads the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, a private consultant that
analyzes Cuba’s scanty public information about government revenues and
operations to produce estimates widely considered reliable by Cuba-watchers.
“There are few businesses in Cuba that work as well as Etecsa,” he said.
The group’s studies show that 54 percent of payments to Etecsa come
directly from the Cuban diaspora. Morales believes Cubans pay much of
the rest out of the estimated $2.6 billion a year in remittances from
abroad. And, while most state workers only make $20 a month, a new class
of roughly 400,000 independent businessmen and their employees also make
heavy use of cellphones for advertising with text-message as well as
ordinary business calls.
Authorities here say they are trying to offer a range of new Internet
services by year’s end, including mobile Web access and unrestricted
home Internet access, currently limited to select government officials
and employees of foreign businesses and embassies.
But customers remain wary.
“Nauta failed and stopped the whole mobile communication system from
working properly,” said Indira Perez, a 24-year-old university employee
“If they don’t prepare themselves better when they want to broaden
Internet access, it’s going to be total chaos.”
Source: How Enabling Mobile Email Access Led to Chaos in Cuba | NDTV