Red, Hot, and Hyperlinked
By Vito Echevarria, Wired News, 8 September 1999
Ever so slowly and not so surely, the long-isolated island nation of Cuba is getting wired to the world.
And in its first attempt at netrepreneurism, Cuba may also soon find itself as the producer of WebTV units for all of Latin America.
See also: <a http://www.wired.com/news/news/culture/story/19402.html">Cubans Embrace Email, Warily
Negotiations began late last month to establish Cuba's first fiber-optic cable link, dedicated specifically for Internet use.
Earlier this year, an agreement was reached with an unidentified South Korean subcontractor to bring Cuba WebTV units equipped with a bilingual browser.
Not surprisingly, there are many roadblocks to overcome. If successful, however, these related developments may increase professional and social relationships between Cuba and the United States -- not to mention the rest of the world -- and potentially provide Internet access to thousands of previously deprived Cubans..
At the center of this is Havana-based Canadian entrepreneur Robert Sajo, who is making it his mission to connect Cuba to the rest of the world over the Internet.
With approval from the Cuban government, Sajo has been instrumental in designing the WebTV unit, which comes equipped with an English and Spanish language browser.
In addition, his firm, Teledatos GET, currently runs the Cuban government's main Web site, Cubaweb, which promotes Cuba's emerging tourist sector and business ventures with other countries.
Until recently, Internet use within Cuba had been limited to individuals in the government, education and science fields.
The significance of WebTV coming to Cuba is that it would make the Internet far more accessible than ever for many Cubans, who find the cost of owning a personal computer prohibitive.
But even the homes of a sizeable number of low-income Cubans have TVs, often bought with funds wired from relatives abroad - often through Sajo's "Quickcash" Web site, which makes the transaction through a Canadian link.
The Cuban government does not dissuade this practice because it generates hard currency.
Of equal significance, and one which pleases the Cuban government, is that it showcases a Cuban-made Internet-related product that can actually compete in the international high-tech goods market.
A total of 15,000 WebTV units, at a cost of US$269, are scheduled to be assembled for the Cuban market. The first 2,000 units were delivered in March 1999 for libraries and family doctor clinics.
Another 600 units are being given trial runs in private homes in Havana's Playa section, near the exclusive Miramar district where many foreign investors and multinational firms are located.
Sajo also wants to rent his bilingual WebTV units to Cuban hotels for $30 per month, which he hopes will be another high-tech instrument designed to promote Cuban tourism.
"Cuban WebTV will be the anchor of tourism communication in Cuba," Sajo boasts.
Through his newly formed Canadian company WebTV Solutions, Sajo plans to begin marketing Spanish-language WebTV to the rest of Latin American later this year. Argentina and Mexico, for example, are major Spanish-speaking markets for Internet-related goods and services.
Building the fiber-optic network is among the most sensitive and challenging of Sajo's endeavors. He is trying to broker a deal between the Cuban government and its state-run telephone company Etecsa, and QuestNet, a Florida-based telecom firm.
QuestNet wants to construct a 180km (120 mile) long undersea cable with landing points in Florida and Cuba. At 40Gbps, it would have the capacity of more than a half-million simultaneous connections.
Said QuestNet CEO Camilo Pereira, "The deal is worth $15 million in investments with a yearly return of maybe $10 million."
Because the link would cover only Internet traffic, it would not conflict with the current impasse between the US and Cuba over telephone tariffs. And, because there is already Internet traffic between the two countries - online commerce is one of the few exceptions to the US economic blockade - Pereira is optimistic the project will not be opposed in Washington.
Currently, Cuba's Internet backbone is just 64Kbps, with its main international Internet link being two T-1 connections through Canada.
Because Cubaweb points to several heavily trafficked Cuban Web sites such as the government newspaper Granma and Cubana airlines, new mirrors were set up in Toronto to accommodate international demand for online information from Cuba.
QuestNet's venture would significantly speed up Internet links between Cuba and the United States, which Pereira believes would be "more than Cuba could use in the next 25 years."
Wired News is a real-time news service offering news briefs and in-depth reporting on politics, business, culture, and technology. For the most up-to-date coverage on the digital world, go to ... http://www.wired.com/news/
You are receiving this email because a friend or acquaintance sent it to you. If you no longer wish to receive these messages, please contact the sender, and not Wired News.
Copyright 1999 Wired Digital, Inc.