Cuba’s Phone Company, The Monopoly of Inefficiency / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Problems on the phone company’s Nauta internet service are exacerbated during the weeks a recharge specials are in effect. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 9 December 2016 – The Nauta network has failed again. This time users have been unable, for several days, to recharge their accounts on the internet, or to check or make balance transfers. The Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) suffers constant interruptions, a situation that highlights the deficiencies in its infrastructure, despite the substantial profits it earns as a monopoly.

Since its creation in 1994, ETECSA has been gobbling up all the sectors of the telecommunications market that were once managed by other companies, such as C-COM or Cubacel. Five years ago, Cuban authorities acquired all elements of that company and put an end to any foreign investment in the sector.

The closing of that stage, which was characterized by foreign investment from countries such as Mexico and Italy, was a symbolic slamming of the door in the same year that the Italian company Telecom sold its shares – 27% of the company – for 207 million dollars. With complete control of the country’s phone service, ETECSA began to dictate its operations.

Currrently, the monopoly manages all fixed and cellular phone service on the island, email communications and internet, and the distribution of recharge cards, the latter of which has improved in recent years with the licensing of private individuals to work as telecommunications agents.

Although in the last five years ETECSA has expanded from 350 to a little more that 600 base stations in the country and brought its signal to all the municipalities in the country, in web services and email ongoing problems generate constant complaints among users.

“I can only send or receive messages late at night, when there’s no one on-line,” protests Yohandri Rojas who lives in Santa Clara. The 29-year-old complains about the poor quality of the Nauta email service, which is managed from mobile phones. “It’s a disaster,” he says.

Rojas works with a friend in a small place that repairs mobile phones, and has extensive knowledge of computing and communications that he taught himself. “This is because of problems with the bandwidth on the data network,” he explained to 14ymedio. “What has happened is that ETECSA has not expanded its servers consistent with the growth in the number of users,” he emphasizes.

ETECSA refused to answer questions from this newspaper to explain the causes of the frequent crashes in service and the poor quality of its operation. “We are working on solving the problem,” an employee at the number to report problems curtly told this newspaper.

Services from email to cellphones have worsened in the past year. “They have sold more accounts than they can effectively manage,” says a telecommunications agent in the Regla district of Havana, who preferred to remain anonymous. “The service is disappointing and if another company emerges offering a different service, ETECSA is going to lose a lot of customers.”

In the middle of this year, Ministry of Communications authorities let it be known that there are 11.2 million temporary or permanent email accounts on mobile phones. Many of them are opened by tourists passing through the country, but at least half are regularly used by domestic customers.

Each megabyte downloaded or uploaded via email on Nauta mobile phone services costs one Cuban convertible peso, the daily wage of a professional. But because of the instability in connections, the same amount can cost three times as much, because interruptions cancel message transmissions over and over again.

The problems are worse during weeks when “bonus recharges” are offered, allowing the user to purchase a recharge amount on the internet with a bonus as a “gift” from the company. “During those days there is no way I can get into my Nauta email inbox,” explains Deyanira, a nurse who lives in Havana’s Cerro neighborhood.

“When they announce ‘double’ or ‘bonus’ recharges, I know I won’t be able to communicate with my family by email that week,” she explains. The young woman’s mother lives in Germany with her younger sister, and email via mobile phones is the quickest way to stay in touch. However, most of the time, “my messages remain in the outbox for hours or days, waiting for ETECSA to wake up,” she jokes.

Bandwidth problems on the cellular network affect more than just email services. Ernesto, a Valencian visiting Cuba for two weeks, complains that “the roaming service is very unstable, and sometimes there’s a signal and sometimes not.” At more than 5 euros for every megabyte sent, the tourist tried to use “Facebook and also Instagram, but with little success.”

In recent months, Cuba has signed agreements for roaming with several telephone companies in the US, most notably Verizon, Sprint and AT&T.

“If they continue to strain the network with users demanding data, but do not expand or update the infrastructure, it will collapse,” predicts Yohandri Rojas. “ETECSA is going to be like the hard currency stores that sell beer: high demand and low supply,” he scoffs.