Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What became of the ARCOS undersea cable connection to Cuba?

Will Trump kill the proposal before the election?


Proposed 56km link between the
ARCOS undersea Cable and Cuba
Cuba's primary connection to the global Internet is through the ALBA-1 undersea cable linking landing points on the south-east shore of the island to Venezuela and Jamaica; however, the bulk of Cuban traffic originates in Havana which is on the north-west coast. Traffic from Havana and other cities in the west travels over a backbone to reach the cable landing points. A landing point near Havana would reduce the load on the backbone, speeding connections, providing redundancy, and saving capital investment.

At one time, there seemed to be bipartisan support in the US for improving Cuban Internet access. During his second term, President Obama pursued detente with Cuba and much of that effort was focused on the role of the Internet and undersea cable connectivity was part of the plan. Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, who led two US government delegations to Cuba during the Obama administration, said there were at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. There had even been discussion of one day allowing Cuban access to the US cable at Guantanamo, GTMO-1.

At first, Trump seemed to agree -- consider the following timeline:

  • October 20, 2017, The State Department issued National Security Presidential Memorandum, NSPM-5, stating that it was our policy to "Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services" and directing government departments and agencies "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba."
  • January 22, 2018, The State Department established a Cuba Internet Task Force "to examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba." (Disclosure -- The Task Force formed two sub-committees and I was a member of both).
  • July 23, 2018, The consortium that owns the ARCOS cable applied to construct a branch from the cable to an ETECSA supplied cable landing spot in Cojimar, Cuba.
  • August 10, 2018, The FCC found the application "to be acceptable for filing and subject to the streamlined processing procedures" obligating them to take action "within forty-five (45) days" unless upon "further examination" the application is "deemed ineligible for streamlined processing."
Well, it seems the application must have been deemed ineligible since as far as I know nothing happened until earlier this month when The Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector (CAFPUSTSS), which Trump established in an executive order on April 4, 2020, notified the FCC that it is planning to conduct 120-day security reviews of the ARCOS application.
I reached out to the FCC and the attorney who filed the request for the cable branch to ask why the application had not been acted upon but got no reply. I can think of two possible explanations:
  • Trump changed his policy with respect to Cuban Internet connectivity without, as far as I know, telling anyone.
  • Trump held this application up in order to grab a Florida headline between now and the election when the CAFPUSTSS rejects the application showing how tough he is on Cuba in an effort to win Cuban and Venezuelan votes.
I'm unfamiliar with FCC procedures and workflow -- is there another explanation?
Finally, note that on March 15, 2018, Deep Blue Cable Inc. applied for a Caribbean cable with 19 landing points. While none of those were in Cuba, they planned a second phase with two Cuban landing points, but the Deep Blue application was withdrawn on November 11, 2019.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bill Gates has not forgotten Teledesic

Might we see another broadband LEO constellation?


Proposed Teledesic constellation:
12 planes of 24 LEO satellites
(source)
Teledesic was the first company to plan to offer broadband connectivity using a constellation of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites. Craig McCaw, who had sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T, founded Teledesic in 1990 and it got a big visibility and credibility boost when Bill Gates made a small ($5 million) investment in the company. 

McCaw and Gates were able to attract capital -- $200 million from a Saudi Prince, $750 million from Motorola, and $100 million from Boeing, which signed on as the prime contractor. When Boeing and Teledesic finished the final design, the constellation had been reduced from the originally planned 840 to 288 satellites. (Later, Motorola replaced Boeing as prime contractor). The FCC approved Teledesic's Ka-band spectrum application in March 1997 and 37 counties submitted supporting proposals for the December 1997 World Radiocommunication Conference. Teledesic hoped to provide "fiber-like" connectivity to an "Internet in the sky," but was unable to deliver and gave up in 2002

I don't know what motivated Gates' investment in Teledesic, but today the Gates Foundation is devoted to fighting poverty and providing health care and education in developing nations. Nearly 20 years after the demise of Teledesic, satellite, launch, and communication technology are vastly improved, the entire world is aware of the Internet, we have applications that can utilize "fiber-like" speed and latency and Gates is clearly aware of the value (and downside) of connecting the unconnected.

Bill Gates might be thinking that it is time for another try.

Last September, Microsoft announced that customers of Viasat, Intelsat, and SES would be able to access Azure cloud services. Their focus is on government, enterprise, maritime, and airline applications and the announcement states that "each of the partners brings different strengths, for example, choices between Geostationary (GEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and, in the future, Low Earth Orbit(LEO) satellites" so it seems they are talking with possible LEO partners. (Maybe not with Amazon given its recent challenge to Microsoft's JEDI defense contract).

Earlier this month, the FCC authorized Microsoft to establish a proof-of-concept connection between two ground stations in Washington and DEIMOS-2, a Spanish imaging satellite. If successful, the test will demonstrate satellite connectivity to Microsoft's Azure cloud services as well as the rest of the Internet. They plan to run the demonstrations before, during, and after the Ignite conference, which starts on Sept. 22, and if the demonstration results in significant market interest, they will apply for regular ground-station authority which would put them in direct competition with Amazon's ground-station service. (Microsoft may have a fear of missing out on space).

Terminals with electronically steerable antennas are a critical LEO broadband component. High-end fixed and mobile users will be able to justify relatively expensive terminals, but success in the consumer market will require user-installed, reliable, low-cost terminals. It turns out that Bill Gates was the lead investor in electronically-steerable antenna manufacturer Kymeta at the time of its launch in 2012 and he is now leading a new $85 million investment round in support of a new high-end mobile service using Kymeta's new LEO-ready U8 terminal. The expensive U8 is sold for high-end fixed and mobile applications today, but they will surely be able to produce a low-cost fixed-service terminal in the future.

If the LEO broadband business case turns out to be viable, these are early days and there is room for competitors. The Gates Foundation endowment is nearly $50 billion, Bill Gate's net worth is $115 billion and Microsoft is on a roll. Might we see another broadband LEO constellation?