A Look at Cuban Networks

Larry Press
Joel Snyder


We attended INFORMATICA '92, a computer science conference in Havana, Cuba, in February, 1992. There were sessions and subconferences dealing with artificial intelligence, CAD, informatics, automatic control, education, computer viruses, computers in tourism, and many other topics. During the same week, there was a trade show, the Third International Fair of Informatics, featuring commercial and government exhibits. The conference and trade show were within walking distance, so we were able to visit both easily. We also visited some factories, research institutes, and the beach.

One of our primary purposes was to learn about Cuban networking. The primary Cuban networking institute is CENIAI, the National Center of Automated Data Exchange. CENIAI has 62 staff members, and it is part of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. In addition to networking, they teach classes, consult, develop applications software, market a database format conversion package, do database searches, maintain and market an international biotechnology research database, etc. A nation the size of Cuba cannot support highly specialized computing institutes.

In reading CENIAI's brochures and interviewing staff members, we discovered three primary classes of communication service, the international gateway service, IASnet, and uucp/Usenet.

International Gateway Service

This is an X.25 service offering electronic mail and database access. Electronic mail gateways include DataMail in Switzerland, MCI-mail in the USA, and ALTERNEX in Brazil. The monthly fee for this service is $20 with an additional $20 for a dedicated computer port. The charge for connect time is $.53 per minute, and traffic costs $.53 per kilobyte.

Global bibliographic databases are also available. These are located in Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and other nations. The databases fall into three general areas: biotechnology, science and technology, and business. The searches are quite expensive ranging from $42 to $60 for a search of up to 15 references, with a charge ranging from $3.30 to $4.45 for each additional reference.

To use this service you need a microcomputer, modem, and telephone line. The maximum data rate is 1200 bps using a modem or 5 cps Telex,

IASnet

CENIAI is also Cuba's connection to IASnet. IASnet is a joint network for socialist countries operated by VNIIPAS (The All Union Scientific Research Institute for Applied Computerized Systems) in Moscow. IASnet is an X.25 packet switched network centered around an X.25 switch at VNIIPAS. The switch at VNIIPAS is the RPOA (Recognized Private Operating Authority) for the Soviet Union. As such, it has multiple external X.75/X.25 links to Western data networks. The two most often mentioned are the Austrian (RADAUS) and Finnish (Datapak) public data networks; however, a link to Sprint (previously known as Telenet) has existed since at least 1988, and is now probably the dominant method of data transfer into and out of the VNIIPAS switch.

IASnet connects (or connected, the current status of each connection being unknown) the national data centers of the Socialist countries in Czechoslovakia (Prague), Poland (Warsaw), Hungary (Budapest), Bulgaria (Sofia), Cuba (Havana), Vietnam (city unknown), East Germany (city unknown, but known to connect via Prague), and Mongolia (city unknown). Its primary uses are electronic mail and database access.

The Cuban connection to IASnet is through an X.25 PAD board located in one of the two CENIAI Unix microcomputers. These systems handle approximately 485 users, and are connected to each over via an Ethernet. The connection from Cuba to Moscow is via a satellite at 4800 bps. This line was installed in 1983. Until 1990, they paid no charges for use of the line. Now, they pay dollars or other hard (convertible) currency to VNIIPAS for packet traffic over the IASnet circuit. In 1984, it was reported that Cuba was the most prolific user of the IASnet services, with a total of 360 hours of connect time.

One of the authors (Snyder) was able to make a direct connection from the CENIAI Unix system to a VAX/VMS system in his apartment using a single X.121 address at the Havana end. To get to the Login prompt, his connection ran from the PAD program on the CENIAI Unix microcomputer over the X.25 satellite link to Moscow. VNIIPAS received the call and routed it to the international Sprint network. It was routed to Reston, Virginia where it entered the domestic US network. Sprint conveyed the call to Columbus, Ohio, and passed it to the CompuServe X.25 gateway. CompuServe carried it to University of Arizona's Telecommunications Group where it was translated from X.25 to DECnet format, and routed through Ethernet, fiber optics, a 56K line, and an asynch 9.6K DECnet line to Snyder's apartment. The gateway VAX in his apartment passed the call to his workstation VAX, which displayed ``Username:''!

uucp/Usenet

In 1992, CENIAI began uucp data transmission. About twice a week, they receive a dial-up call from Toronto for two-way transfer of mail and news. Their Canadian partner is Web, a part of the Association for Progressive Communications, a non-profit, global organization linking peace, social change, and environmental activists. This was the path the authors used to establish contact with CENIAI, INFORMATICA organizers and others prior to (and since) our trip.

In addition to servicing their own accounts, CENIAI acts as a hub, receiving uucp traffic from the University of Havana, Redingen, a network connecting institutions involved in the biotechnology industry, and a unix-based PC belonging to the Cuban Youth Computing Clubs (YCCs).

The YCCs are interesting and typically Cuban in their stress on grass roots participation. They are part of the Union of Young Communists (the equivalent of Komsomol in the former Soviet Union), and they have centers in over 130 cities. The centers are reminiscent of Bob Albrecht's People's Computer Company (PCC) and similar experiments dating back to the 1960s in the United States. Like the PCC, they have computers running games, drawing programs, and other software, which the children may use in a relatively unstructured manner. Additionally, the YCCs offer classes on using professional application packages and programming. Advanced classes cover sophisticated topics such as C++.

To date, over thirty of the YCCs have modems on their computers, so they can send mail to the central YCC machine in Havana, which in turn transfers it to CENIAI and through Web to the rest of the world. It is ironic that some Cuban children have email connectivity, while children in many inner-city schools in the U. S. do without computers altogether.

The YCCs were begun in July, 1987, and clearly enjoy strong support by Cuban standards. We were told that Fidel Castro was personally responsible for their funding, and that they have an annual budget of $500,000 (very high by Cuban standards). Their headquarters was well equipped and located in a well maintained building that had been the Sears store in Havana.

Conclusion

CENIAI is the most active organization in Cuban networking. Although the Cuban economy is centralized, the staff are certainly not stuffy bureaucrats. They are highly motivated professionals, with a distinct "entrepreneurial" bent. The slogan on their brochure reads "Our Offer: Competitiveness!!" They also enjoy freedom from regulation or control by the Cuban Ministry of Communications (PTT).

As in other lesser developed nations, Cuba's PC-based, appropriate technology network can have a significant marginal impact. Sending a fax or making a phone call to Cuba from the US is nearly impossible, but email is as easy as to anywhere in the world. To succeed, networks in Cuba and other nations require telephone or radio communication infrastructure, hardware, software and trained people (users and service providers). CENIAI and the YCCs have begun to pull these elements together.