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Google Has a Good Reason to Put Cuba Online

By Jorge Coromina (Caribbean News Digital)
Exclusive interview with Brett Perlmutter, Head of Cuba Strategy & Operations fo

Q & A with Brett Perlmutter, Head of Cuba Strategy & Operations for Google

A few days ago the world learned about just another step in the new thaw between the United States and Cuba that began two years ago when presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro made history by announcing their intentions to restore diplomatic relations and set a new course.

This time around it was about Google, one of the many U.S. companies that had shown interest in doing business with Cuba long before the abovementioned historic announcement on December 17, 2014.

Google and ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company tasked with providing phone and Internet services on the island, signed an agreement that will guarantee faster access to Google services and contents for the Cuban people.

“The agreement is part of a program we have with different Internet service providers from around the world,” Brett Perlmutter, Head of Cuba Strategy and Operations for Google, told Caribbean News Digital in an exclusive interview in Havana. “But for us, this agreement is a major milestone because it marks Google’s first commercial agreement with Cuba. To the best of my knowledge, this is indeed the first commercial agreement on the Internet between a U.S. IT company and Cuba.”

Brett Perlmutter studied at the University of Pennsylvania and chose two majors: one in Economics and another one on Latin American Literature. So, no wonder why he enjoys so much speaking in Spanish with skills that go well beyond those of a native English speaker who tries to communicate in a language other than his own.

“The agreement,” Mr. Perlmutter goes on to explain, “deals with a program called Google Global Cache (GGC) and consists of putting our own servers, Google’s servers, here in Cuba, at a data center run by ETECSA.”

The servers installed in Cuba will store part of the contents stocked on the Google Cloud, from all of the company’s platforms, services and products. The need to do this is clear and simple.

“Until now, any user in Cuba willing to watch a video on YouTube, for instance, had to wait until his request from Google reached ETECSA and traveled through the ALBA-1 cable from Cuba to Venezuela. Then, that request had to travel from Venezuela, through third parties’ cables, to a Google data center somewhere around the world,” Mr. Perlmutter explains.  “The requested video then downloaded using the same path all the way to the end user in Cuba. What GGC does is to move all of Google’s most important contents from the cloud down to Cuba. So, soon that request will just take a shortcut from the ETECSA data center, where the Google servers will be installed, all the way to the end user on the island nation.”

The implementation of the GGC program in Cuba will make access to Google’s contents up to ten times faster, clinching more broadband for an increasing number of Wi-Fi users in Cuba and doing away with nagging video buffering delays and page crashes.

According to the Google top executive, probably half of the contents Cubans access when surfing the Internet comes from Google products and services. Therefore, the possibility of having all that much information stored on local servers will definitely bring about faster access to those contents.

YouTube, Google+, Gmail, Google Drive and the Google search engine, among other services and products, will eventually load in a much faster and hassle-free way in Cuba thanks to the implementation of the GGC program.

This first agreement between Google and Cuba’s ETECSA opens up the pathway to other deals the two parties could cut in the future, especially in terms of helping Cuba provide home Internet access.

“We’d love to do that. We’ve put everything on the table and I’m really optimistic about this because everything is still on the table. We’re holding talks and discussing about all these matters,” Mr. Perlmutter says.

“The good thing is that Cuba does want to get connected to the Internet. This country has the intention to get connected, and that’s something the Cuban authorities have told us and have said publicly as well. ETECSA has a plan and our goal is to work hand in hand with them and assist them with the vast experience we have piled up around the globe doing this same thing,” the young Google executive adds.

“We want to further strengthen our relation and our ties with Cuba. There’s a willingness on the part of both ETECSA and the Cuban government to work with Google and I’m particularly impressed with the depth of that willingness,” Mr. Perlmutter tells Caribbean News Digital.

“In the United States, there’s a tremendous hunger for the good Cuban contents, and there’s plenty of them. You could give me a hundred reasons why Cuba needs the Internet, but to me the most important reason is the Cuban people, the country’s most competitive advantage. The Cuban people create contents, conduct research and investigations, innovate, but to be able to capitalize that as a society, you need access to technology,” Google’s head of Cuba Strategy & Operations says with a smile.

Mr. Perlmutter, who’s been working for Google over the past four and half years, took the first executive look at Cuba back in 2012 as he started to wonder why a country only 90 miles away from the U.S. was simply off limits for the American people.

“There’s an old computer science textbook from the 1980s that says: ‘never underestimate the bandwidth of a Volkswagen full of cassette tapes driving down the highway’. In Cuba, there was high bandwidth, but it wasn’t wired up. But I knew there was tremendous potential here. Now that we know the Cuban people, we want them to become Google users just like the rest of the world,” Perlmutter points out.

Google quickly understood that the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was not only counterproductive and obsolete, but also very unhelpful for the company’s intention to open up to Cuba.

Before the 2014 announcement of new diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S., Google had already launched –under Brett Perlmutter’s watch- three of its top-tier products on the island nation: Google Chrome, Google Play and Google Analytics.

Following the restoration of diplomatic ties for the first time in over fifty years, Google found itself in a privileged position. The giant IT company based in Mountain View, California, had already done work in Cuba and had already left its footprint. It was building on more solid working relationships with the Cuban government and the Obama administration was now providing amended regulations that allowed Google to offer Cuba cloud-based products and services for the first time.

However, the U.S. embargo continues to undermine the efforts of corporate America to have normal commercial relations with the neighboring country from the south, and Google is no exception to the rule.

Despite the strides the company has made in Cuba, many of Google’s services and platforms –like Webmaster Tools- are banned in Cuba.

“Basically because of the underlying embargo that takes an act of Congress to lift, we still have to go through an immense compliance process for all the things that we do. We’ve done that process. We’ll provide access in Cuba to all the products, services and platforms we’re allowed to do under the U.S. law,” Mr. Perlmutter admits.

According to Brett Perlmutter, every single regulatory change in Cuba policy that the United States has made is perused by Google lawyers, who eventually tell the executives what can and cannot be done without breaching the federal law.

“We want our end users to be happy and I know from firsthand experience while being here in Cuba, how frustrating and painful it is to get a 404 or 403. Psychologically, it’s a terrible experience. Even here in Cuba, because of the embargo, I can’t access my work email address from Cuba,” Mr. Perlmutter says.

And then the banking factor comes out. Amid ongoing efforts to normalize banking relations between the two countries, Google services that take payments can’t be launched in Cuba because there’s no banking infrastructure. Unfortunately, there’s nothing Google or similar U.S. companies can do about this issue until banking relations between the two nations are normalized.

A good case in point is the Google Play Developers Console, where people can place their applications on Google Play to sell them. That process implies a payment of $25 that right now can’t be made from Cuban soil because “we can’t accept payments from people in Cuba.”

By the end of the interview at the fancy Saratoga Hotel in Havana’s downtown area, one question remains: if things continue to go well between the U.S. and Cuba, if Donald Trump –who’ll be sworn in as the 45th American president on January 20- doesn’t eventually roll back Obama’s new Cuba policy of rapprochement, what future projects does Google have in store for Cuba?

“The good thing about Cuba is that no country is better situated to come online with as much speed and quality. So, here in Cuba the issue of coming online is no big deal technically,” Brett Perlmutter explains. “Submarine cables, fiber optics, even wireless systems can be used.

In the case of submarine cable, we could use the ARCOS-1, to which Cuba would be spliced to a Point of Presence (POP) we have somewhere between Boca Raton and Miami in South Florida. European cables are also hooked up to that POP, so Cuba would be completely connected to the rest of the world or to a good part of it in a matter of months. We’ve come up with a number of proposals to step up Internet access in Cuba and Cuban authorities have them all on the table. They’re still assessing those options, but one thing is real: there’s a willingness on the part of the Cuban government to connect the Cuban people to the Internet,” he went on to say.

“We’re very proud of collaborating with ETECSA, which is a hard-working team. They do a lot and all the work they’ve done is indeed for the good of the Cuban society. We’d love to share here our experiences around the world in order to embark on much larger projects,” Mr. Perlmutter concludes as he insists once again that “the good contents Cuba creates are the main reason why the island nation needs to be connected to the Internet.”

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