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Cuba and the Geopolitics of Submarine Cables

Cuba and the Geopolitics of Submarine Cables

2023-01-13 15:24:49

The views expressed within the following article are that of the writer and don’t essentially mirror the views or positions of any entities they characterize.

This week marks a decade because the ALBA-1 submarine cable started carrying visitors between Cuba and the worldwide web. On 20 January 2013, I published the first evidence of this historic subsea cable activation which enabled Cuba to lastly break its dependence on geostationary satellite tv for pc service for the nation’s worldwide connectivity.

ALBA-1 was considered one of my first classes on how geopolitics can form the bodily web.

Final month’s suggestion by the US Division of Justice to disclaim the request by the ARCOS cable system to attach Cuba exhibits that, nearly a decade later, geopolitics continues to form the bodily web — particularly on the subject of Cuba.

Submarine cable map

I first realized of the thriller of the ALBA-1 submarine cable from The Internet in Cuba weblog of Larry Press, laptop science professor at California State College, Dominguez Hills. At the moment, the cable had reportedly been constructed however was inexplicably laying dormant for over a yr, prompting intense suspicion and hypothesis about its standing.

Because the world turned extra related, Cuba had been excluded from each earlier submarine cable system within the Caribbean as a result of U.S. embargo towards the communist nation. Because of this, the Cuban web was utterly depending on geostationary satellites to achieve the skin world. In distinction to undersea fiber optics, geostationary satellite tv for pc service provides decrease capability with considerably increased latencies, all at a better value per Mb — not nice for a creating nation’s sole supply of web service.

In the end, it was the Venezuelan authorities (ally to Cuba and adversary to the U.S.) that put up the cash to construct a submarine cable to enhance Cuba’s connection to the web. In 2007, a joint Cuba-Venezuela venture introduced its intention to assemble an undersea fiber optic cable to Cuba by 2009.

The ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de nuestra América) cable skilled quite a few delays however was ultimately designated RFS (ready-for-service) in February 2011. Nonetheless, because the months progressed, there remained no evidence that the brand new cable had made any distinction for the Cuban web. It was a thriller carefully adopted by Cuba watchers in all places.

I configured my web monitoring instruments to search for any new connection into Cuba, and a yr later, it discovered one — a brand new BGP adjacency between Cuban state telecom ETECSA (AS11960) and Spanish telecom large Telefonica (AS12956). Once I checked our energetic measurements into Cuba that traversed this new hyperlink, we noticed latencies that have been impossibly low for a round-trip time over geostationary satellite tv for pc.

This graphic from my presentation at NANOG 57 in February 2013 captures the migration of latency measurements to Cuba noticed from considered one of Renesys’s measurement servers.

Renesys chart showing migration of latency measurements to Cuba

Once we printed our initial report on the ALBA-1 activation, we speculated on why the latencies weren’t even decrease than what we have been observing:

We consider it’s probably that Telefonica’s service to ETECSA is, both by design or misconfiguration, utilizing its new cable asymmetrically (i.e., for visitors in just one route).

This misconfiguration appeared to have been resolved when the latencies dropped additional a couple of days later. Throughout my participation in LACNIC 19 in Medellin, Colombia, a couple of months later, I used to be launched to the Director of ETECSA, who confessed that his engineers mounted the uneven routing snafu after seeing my weblog put up. You by no means know who’s studying your stuff!

Within the intervening decade, web adoption in Cuba grew at an anemic tempo: from counting on internet cafes and wifi hotspots to the eventual activation of 3G mobile service in December 2018. However adoption grew sufficient to allow Cubans to start out having fun with a freedom of communication that many in different international locations around the globe count on and generally take with no consideration.

In truth, the web turned essential sufficient that the Cuban authorities began cutting service following the most important anti-government protests in a long time in the summertime of 2021. Whereas Cuba has been a repressive state for a few years, it wasn’t till the previous two years that the nation felt the need to shut down services to counteract protests. Possibly that’s progress.

The newest chapter within the saga of the Cuban web got here final month, when the US Division of Justice’s Staff Telecom published their recommendation that the FCC deny a request by the ARCOS submarine cable system so as to add a phase that might join Cuba to the cable. In accordance with their suggestion, constructing such an extension would create “immitigable dangers to the nationwide safety and legislation enforcement pursuits of the USA.”

Submarine cable map

Sadly, the technical rationales offered within the printed choice reveal a basic misunderstanding of how the logical web and its underlying bodily infrastructure work collectively. It’s secure to say that because of this suggestion, the ARCOS cable is not going to construct a phase to Cuba, leaving the nation nearly utterly reliant on a single submarine cable.

The advice describes the federal government of Cuba as “a international adversary that poses a nationwide safety risk to the USA.” Make no mistake; the Cuban authorities is an authoritarian regime that represses political dissent, and the 2 international locations’ governments have been adversaries for many years. As the advice states, the Cuban authorities censors its web and has shut down service in response to anti-government protests. All true statements.

Be that as it might, the argument that including a Cuban phase to the ARCOS cable system poses “immitigable dangers” to the USA’ nationwide safety falls flat. Let’s have a look at some key items of that argument.

The Cuban authorities may quickly glean communications, journey data, well being data, credit score data and some other data transiting Phase 26, and share that data with [China]…

The advice states that if the phase have been constructed, Cuban state telecom ETECSA would management the cable touchdown station and subsequently be able to intercept any US web visitors traversing the phase. The reality is that ETECSA owns and operates the entire telecommunications infrastructure in Cuba. Due to this fact, all web visitors getting into or leaving the nation may very well be susceptible to interception by the Cuban authorities. That is true immediately, whether or not or not Cuba will get a submarine cable instantly linking it to the USA.

ETECSA may additionally reap the benefits of these vulnerabilities to trigger BGP route leaks, main visitors not destined for Cuba to be misrouted over Phase 26 and into the Cuban authorities’s palms.

The advice argues {that a} submarine cable instantly linking the USA to Cuba would by some means allow BGP hijacks – a subject I’ve researched extensively for greater than a decade. In truth, to bolster its case, the advice cites the FCC’s choice to revoke China Telecom’s license to function within the US on account of reported incidents of visitors misdirection on account of BGP vulnerabilities. That FCC choice cited my work over time documenting these incidents, so I’ve some bona fides on this matter.

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Regardless, a submarine cable alone can’t allow a BGP hijack. The one factor that stops ETECSA (or any telecom) from performing BGP hijacks immediately are route filtering by its transit suppliers and routing safety mechanisms comparable to RPKI ROV. A submarine cable instantly linking Cuba to the USA doesn’t enhance the potential of a BGP hijack from Cuba.

ETECSA may manipulate routing data upstream in order that extra information transits Cuba as a substitute of different routes, together with by providing low-or-no-cost transit to small web suppliers to entice visitors to transit Phase 26 into Cuba.

Lastly, the advice describes eventualities through which web visitors within the Caribbean may very well be re-routed by way of ETECSA. The primary state of affairs hypothesizes that if ETECSA began promoting transit to different Caribbean telecoms (supposedly at a drastically diminished value — ostensibly sponsored by China), then they might appeal to non-Cuban visitors by way of their infrastructure, placing it susceptible to interception. Secondly, ETECSA may use its connection to ARCOS to instantly alternate visitors with different telecoms within the Caribbean, and people connections may double as backup hyperlinks for different telecoms within the area. Activating a hyperlink to ETECSA as a backup would danger the interception of non-Cuban visitors.

Both of those hypothetical eventualities may have already taken place however haven’t. Recall that ALBA-1 is a cable “system,” which means that it’s made up of two submarine cables: one to Venezuela and one to Jamaica. In truth, for a number of weeks in 2013, ETECSA was using the Jamaica segment to realize transit from Cable & Wi-fi Jamaica. Nothing is stopping ETECSA from peering with Jamaican suppliers immediately to supply low cost transit or a backup route in case of a cable failure.

For my part, the technical foundation for Staff Telecom’s suggestion to disclaim ARCOS’s request to construct a phase to Cuba is flimsy however maybe unsurprising — why assist an adversary enhance their web service?

Nonetheless, in my view, limiting Cuba’s worldwide connectivity is just not within the curiosity of the Cuban individuals nor the USA, whose Cuba Web Job Drive’s top recommendation in 2018 was the “building of a brand new submarine cable.” Blocking such a cable runs counter to the US’s purported assist for higher web connectivity in Cuba in addition to the nationwide pursuits of each international locations.

Cuba’s dependence on a single submarine cable is a danger to the web of Cuba and, finally, the Cuban individuals. A second submarine cable to Cuba would supply the advantages of decrease latencies to the USA and neighboring Caribbean international locations, elevated bandwidth capability to the worldwide web usually, and higher resiliency within the occasion of a submarine cable failure.

Assist seems to be on the best way for the web of Cuba. Instantly following the publication of DoJ’s suggestion to reject ARCOS’s phase to Cuba, ETECSA announced a deal with French incumbent Orange to construct a submarine cable to Martinique. The proposed Arimao submarine cable will span over 2400 km and be the primary new submarine cable to hook up with Cuba (that doesn’t land at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base) in over a dozen years.

Crafting efficient coverage in direction of adversarial nations isn’t any simple process. Nonetheless, there’s a rising consensus throughout the digital rights area that any measures to limit web and telecommunications are counterproductive. Working example is the recent decision by the U.S. Division of the Treasury to switch sanctions towards Iran to explicitly permit cloud suppliers comparable to Google to supply free companies in Iran. If we sincerely need to assist the individuals of nations like Cuba and Iran, I feel that might ought to encourage, not block, initiatives that might enhance the reliability of their web entry.

See Yucabyte’s terrific Twitter thread (en Español) on the historical past of connectivity between the US and Cuba.

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