Cuba has started test operations of a new submarine fiber optic cable connecting the island with Martinique. As the state-owned telecommunications provider ETECSA announced, initial tests have already increased data volumes by 17 percent. In the coming weeks and months, extensive optimization work will follow on the networks, with the help of which the capacity of the cable is to be utilized in the best possible way. The new cable will expand the capacity of the existing Alba-1 line with Venezuela.
Cuba temporarily had the second-fastest Internet in Latin America when its 4G network went live in fall 2019. However, the joy lasted only briefly: the massive increase in the number of users as a result of several price cuts soon pushed the Alba-1 fiber optic line to its limits. Today, speeds leave much to be desired in many places: “Users had many problems surfing. Slow speeds, even with 4G, continue to affect the quality of service,” said ETECSA Vice President of Network Operations Esther Hidalgo Rodríguez. These problems are expected to be resolved in the course of this year.
The “Arimao” cable, laid in collaboration with French mobile operator Orange, does connect Cuba for the first time directly to the French overseas department of Martinique, and thus with the European Union. The 2470km line, whose terminus lies in the western Cuban city of Cienfuegos, will “expand and diversify” the country’s network capacity, ETECSA announced when construction began in December 2022. Since 2013, Cuba has been connected to the WWW exclusively via Venezuela’s Alba-1 cable, after the U.S. most recently continued to refuse to allow the island to connect to one of its numerous submarine cables.
However, for the cable’s bandwidth to be fully utilized, further optimization of the network is required. For example, the signal transport layers of the mobile network have recently been replaced with new equipment, as the existing ones could no longer be expanded. “In addition, the access layer has expanded greatly through optimizations in coverage and cell switching, as well as through the use of new frequencies,” Hidalgo explained. A core element of the optimizations is the increased use of the 2100 Mhz frequency range, which has so far occurred in the regions of Havana, Matanzas (provincial capital and Varadero) and Cienfuegos. With the gradual switchover from analog to digital television transmission, the 700 Mhz frequency band is also being released for 4G use on a region-by-region basis. Pinar del Río, Artemisa and the Island of Youth made the start here. Since the signal range in the 700 Mhz frequency band is higher, rural areas with previously weak network coverage will benefit most. A total of 47 new 2G cells, 227 3G cells and 1521 4G cells were installed in the course of this year, increasing the capacity of the 4G network, which is now mainly used, by a quarter.
Overall, with the network upgrades to date, 2.2 of Cuba’s 6.7 million mobile data users can now surf simultaneously at full capacity. The expansion is expected to continue. Work is currently underway to also use the 900 Mhz frequency band in “areas with particularly high data traffic,” Hidalgo said. The test operation for this has recently been running in Havana’s La Lisa district, where three frequencies (1800 Mhz, 2100 Mhz and 900 Mhz) are being used simultaneously with 4G for the first time. This should improve reception inside buildings, a frequent point of criticism among Cuban Internet users.
Meanwhile, the expansion of home connections continues to make slow progress; currently, only seven percent of Cuban households have a high-speed connection. The main problem is the high costs for upgrading the infrastructure: Since the currency reform in 2021, Internet is paid for at moderate prices (1GB á 100 pesos, approx. 80 cents) in the national currency, but the expansion of fiber optic cables requires major investments in foreign currency, which the provider does not currently have. An interim solution could be 4G routers, which can be operated via mobile data and whose introduction has already been announced in recent years. Nevertheless, the latest optimizations in connection with the new cable do indicate that Cuba is getting ready for a renewed “Internet wave” in its mobile network.
This article was first published on Cuba Heute, a German-language news portal.