01/22/13 - La Alborada (Washington, DC) - Editorial: The fiber optic cable will not change Cuba's Internet overnight
The media is abuzz with the news that the fiber optic cable that runs from Venezuela under the Caribbean Sea to Cuba is now in use. The typical report indicates that it is being used for downloading only, not uploading data. Implicitly or explicitly, the reports make it appear that whether a different use is made depends only the government's disposition to turn a switch on or off. That is nowhere near reality.
Most Internet users in the US depend on DSL connections. These come into a home or apartment through little boxes, modems, which connect to existing phone lines or to wire cables that can provide telephone and TV service as well as Internet. Those wires and cables are made of copper. Connecting them to computing equipment is not much of a challenge.
Fiber optic cable is quite different: it's a very thin strand of material that transmits light, not electrons. Despite its small diameter, fiber optic cable carries much more data, much faster. However, it requires special amplification along the way, and special connectors. There are over 80 styles of connectors and about a dozen ways to install them, and none of these methods are as simple as traditional connect-the-wires procedures.
Fiber optic cable has been installed in the cities of developed countries through a maze of underground conduits. The cabling runs to nodes in neighborhoods or areas from which the signals are converted to copper wiring, which is then brought into homes. As installations develop, it has become possible also to run the fiber optic cable directly to the end user's home, which requires the use of a special receiver and finally a connection to a computer. That is not yet the standard.
DSL can handle Megabits per second; fiber optic cable can provide bandwidth in Gigabits. Most Internet users in Cuba, however, are not even at the level of DSL. They use the old (by US standards) dial-up 59k (kilobits) modems.
"Turning on" the fiber optic cable along the length of the island, if it is already laid out this way, does absolutely nothing for Internet users in Cuba unless the cable can be first distributed at least to nodes established throughout each city, and then connected by copper to existing equipment in particular homes. An alternative is to rig wi-fi broadcasting equipment throughout the country, but then all computers would have to be wi-fi ready. The Isle of Youth represents a different challenge, as it would need yet another underwater cable to connect it to the main island.
How expensive would these options be? Is the state to subsidize the costs? How realistic is the prospect of importing the equipment needed when so much of the hardware and software involved is likely to be prohibited to Cuba by the blockade?
It is incorrect, even deceitful, to promote the idea that Cuba is now able to simply decide to allow computer users to use the fiber optic signal, as if it were a matter of providing an access code. Widespread access to the fiber optic signal will require widespread upgrading of the existing public conduits and end-user equipment.
At the same time, Cuba still faces the rebuilding of houses affected by hurricanes, and a shortage of living units overall. New economic measures are intended to raise production and eventually incomes, thus facilitating the purchase of the needed upgrades, but, in the meantime, Internet on fiber optic cable is not a real option for all users.
The transition to higher speeds and broader bandwidth will continue, of course, but it won't be instantaneous. The fiber optic signal may well be directed first to hospitals, schools, tourist facilities, and similar public institutions.
None of this is likely to be explained in mass media reports concerning the fiber optic cable now connected to Cuba.
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