SP-4217 Beyond the Ionosphere


Chapter 18
From Shortwave and Scatter to Satellite: Cuba's International Communications
by José Altshuler


[243] Early in the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadors perceived that the island of Cuba was a most important strategic outpost in the New World--one that required rapid and reliable communications with Spain. These communications had to be essentially by ship; hence, it was very slow for centuries, until the first telegraph service by submarine cable between Havana and Florida was established in 1867.1 Long before, the Spanish colonial authorities had rejected the implementation of a similar project for fear that it would serve the cause of the island's annexation to the United States. In different historical contexts since the 1850s to this day, Cuba's insularity and its proximity to the United States have strongly influenced the development of its international communications.

By the end of Spanish rule in Cuba, in 1898, the island was linked telegraphically to the rest of the world by submarine cables owned by U.S., British, and French companies. Early in the twentieth century, some spark radio telegraph stations went into operation in Cuba, which already was a virtual protectorate of the United States. These spark radiotelegraph stations served mainly, but not exclusively, to communicate with ships sailing in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The first two of them belonged to U.S. companies, but in 1909, some stations owned by the Cuban state were installed.2 They all operated on long waves or medium waves, following the international standard practice at the time.

Radio broadcasting came to Cuba in 1922 and expanded rapidly on a commercial basis, with twenty-nine medium-wave stations operating in 1923 and sixty-one in 1933. By the end of 1933, moreover, the first shortwave commercial broadcasting station was installed. A few other low-power shortwave transmitters went into operation afterwards for the purpose of serving the interior of the island, but they were not effective enough, and most of them ceased to operate after some time. Only a few shortwave low-power broadcasting stations remained in operation in Cuba in the 1950s, each of which was dedicated to transmitting on shortwaves the ordinary commercial programs broadcast by an associated medium-wave station serving a national audience. As for international point-to-point shortwave radio communications services, practically all of them were in the hands of private companies, the most important of which belonged to International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT).



Figure 31. Airborne relay system used in 1955 to transmit the World Series television programs to Cuba.

Figure 31. Airborne relay system used in 1955 to transmit the World Series television programs to Cuba. (Courtesy of José Altshuler)


[245] After the introduction of television to Cuba in 1950, the possibility of receiving "live" television programs from the United States came under serious consideration. Cuban engineers and technicians met the challenge by using an airplane flying for three to five hours over the sea near the island. Equipment aboard the airplane received video signals from television stations in Miami and retransmitted them to a station belonging to a Cuban television network with coverage over a large part of the country (audio signals were transmitted separately by cable and shortwave).3 In this way, the games of Major League Baseball's World Series were watched by Cuban fans during 1955 and 1956. By the same method, scenes from a cabaret show taking place in Havana in 1955 were transmitted to Florida and broadcast live on television in the United States.

A stable broadband communications link via tropospheric scatter, the first of its kind ever designed and used to transmit commercial television, was implemented in September 1957 between Guanabo, near Havana, and Florida City. It had a designed capacity of 120 telephone circuits, in addition to one monochrome television channel.4 The Cuban station belonged to ITT, and the station in the United States was the property of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). Both companies already had associated with one another to set up a telephone link between Havana and Key West in 1921. The link utilized the longest and most deeply submerged submarine cables ever applied in the world at the time. ITT and AT&T again collaborated in 1950 to link the same locations by the first deep-sea telephone cables with submerged repeaters.5


Shortwave Radio Development in Cuba After 1959


After the downfall of the dictatorship that had been in power in Cuba during the previous years, a popular government was established early in 1959. The avowed purpose of the new regime was to accomplish deep social, economic, and political changes in the interest of the country in general and of the needy in particular. As the events that followed led to more and more radical measures that affected important corporate interests, both national and transnational, the new Cuban government realized that the country must have, as soon as possible, its own means of international shortwave radio communications, including broadcasting. This measure was seen as an important way to avoid complete informational isolation by powerful unfriendly interests, especially in the case of a foreign military attack. Such a point of view was akin to the one prevailing at the close of World War I among high-ranking U.S. government officials, who believed that "foreign ownership of any part of American telecommunications would prove dangerous in any future war."6

[246] Not too long afterward, a shortwave transmitting radio station was designed by the Cuban Ministry of Communications. It included a 100-kilowatt Swiss-made broadcast transmitter, as well as a twenty- to thirty-kilowatt German-made point-to-point communications transmitter, complemented by a British-equipped receiving station. The transmitting station was built near Havana in record time and was operative a few weeks before the middle of April 1961, when Cuban airports were subjected to enemy bombing in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which took place immediately afterwards. The shortwave station was used quite successfully to counteract hostile propaganda and to announce the defeat of the invaders, thus contradicting the totally different picture reported by international press agencies.

Direct shortwave radio communications circuits were established for the first time during the 1960s by the Ministry of Communications to support telegraph, telephone, facsimile, and telex international services with Prague, Moscow, Mexico City, Berlin, Paris, Algiers, Shanghai, and other distant places. Radio communications services with the United States continued to be handled by the older companies, as were communications with the United States via the Guanabo-Florida City scatter link. Prensa Latina, the Cuban international press agency, developed its own facilities utilizing Chinese and U.S. transmitting and receiving equipment, and the agency established shortwave press circuits with its offices in several countries.

The country's new interest in the development of shortwave radio communications required adequate training of technical personnel on the characteristics of the ionospheric propagation of radio signals. Pertinent training material was prepared in the early 1960s, first by the Ministry of Communications and afterwards by the University of Havana, for courses taken there by electrical engineering students. A program of ionospheric research also started at the Institute of Geophysics of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, backed by important scientific research institutes of the Soviet Union.

After a decade of operation and progressive expansion of shortwave radio services in Cuba, however, it became clear that additional measures would have to be taken to meet the demands of growing traffic. In addition, the prospect of getting rid of the vagaries of the ionosphere as a transmitting medium, which was incapable of accommodating broadband channels, made the idea of setting up a ground station for international communications via satellite seem exceedingly attractive.


The Beginning of Satellite Communications in Cuba


Less than three weeks after the launch of the Intelsat Early Bird geostationary satellite on 6 April 1965, which established broadband transoceanic communication between North America and Europe, the Soviet Union put into orbit its first communications satellite, Molniya 1. Its orbit was a very elongated ellipse, strongly inclined with respect to the equator and with its apogee above the Northern Hemisphere, so that it spent most of the time over the territory of the former Soviet Union. Suitable tracking of the satellite by ground stations made it possible to set up an experimental link between Moscow and Vladivostok lasting eight to ten hours.

In November 1965, representatives of the Cuban government attended a meeting in Moscow, whose purpose was to discuss a Soviet proposal to use its launch facilities and basic know-how to implement a comprehensive program of scientific cooperation among socialist countries "for the peaceful study and use of outer space." This was to be known later as the Intercosmos Program.7 Following subsequent discussions held just a few weeks [247] after the Soviet Union placed a second Molniya 1 satellite into orbit, it became quite clear that an international communications system based on a few essentially similar satellites could be used to establish a permanent communications link between Cuba and Eastern Europe. "In comparison with shortwave links," remarked Soviet Minister of Communications N.D. Psurtsev, "such a system would be acceptable and not too expensive, and under extraordinary conditions it might come to provide the only possible transmission channel."8 Needless to say, the October 1962 missile crisis had made it dramatically clear to all how important it was for Cuba to have reliable long-distance communications facilities under certain "extraordinary conditions," quite apart from the convenience that a satellite link offered to establish broadband channels capable of transmitting color television programs and other kinds of information.

At the time, however, space research was far from being regarded as a priority at all for the newly founded national research institutions, and only the Cuban Ministry of Communications took the initiative to fully support the country's participation in the Intercosmos Program. Accordingly, when the Cuban government created a national agency for the coordination of the peaceful study and use of outer space in 1966, to facilitate the country's participation in the Intercosmos Program, the agency was placed under the patronage of the Ministry of Communications. This activity spurred the country's early introduction to space research, which was to reach its highest point when some twenty experiments prepared by Cuban scientists, in the framework of the Intercosmos Program, were performed in space during the flight of a Cuban cosmonaut in September 1980.9

Still, the main interest of the Ministry of Communications was to establish a broadband communications link via satellite between Cuba and other countries, especially those with which it was closely associated at the time. That possibility came within reach by the end of 1971, when work in the area of space communications, again within the context of Intercosmos, led to the creation of Intersputnik, an intergovernmental organization intended to meet the need for long-distance telephone and telegraph circuits, as well as exchanges of radio and television programs, among different countries through the use of communications satellites.10

A bilateral agreement between the Cuban and Soviet Ministries of Communications soon materialized, and construction of an Intersputnik receiving and transmitting ground station began in Cuba. This station was essentially similar to standard ones used in the Soviet Orbita communications system that utilized the Molniya 1 satellites. Construction of the so-called Caribe ground station began in February 1972. It was able to receive live from Moscow the first color television programs on 7 November 1973. On 1 January 1974, live images of the celebration then taking place in Havana were transmitted to Moscow, and they were retransmitted from there to other European countries via the Intervidenie system.

The Caribe station, provided with a twelve-meter-diameter tracking parabolic antenna, was erected in a valley near the town of Jaruco, approximately forty kilometers east of Havana. It was designed to work with Intersputnik satellites, which were initially of the Molniya 2 type.11 The station operated around four and six gigahertz and was capable of [248] simultaneously handling one television channel and sixty telephone channels. This system was used to communicate with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and, through them, also with France, Italy, and Spain.

However, broadband communications with countries in Latin America, Western Europe, and other important regions of the world through Intersputnik was difficult. The system had limited coverage. This fact became an obvious hindrance when Havana was chosen by the nonaligned countries as the site of their sixth summit, which took place in September 1979. As a palliative for the occasion, a Standard B Intelsat ground station was installed close to the original Caribe station.

During the early 1980s, Intersputnik shifted from Molniya to Statsionar geostationary communications satellites, which the organization leased from the Soviet Union. These satellites operated in the same frequency bands as the old Molniyas (six gigahertz uplink, four gigahertz downlink), but their transmission capacity was much greater. One of them was placed at longitude 53° E (Indian Ocean), and the other was at longitude 14° W (Atlantic Ocean),12 which gave Cuba the possibility of delivering television programs to large regions abroad, especially in Africa, beginning in 1986.

In the meantime, telecommunications between Cuba and the United States continued to depend basically on the use of submarine cables and tropospheric scatter technologies. When the deterioration of the old Cuba-Florida cables made their operation too troublesome and costly, they were replaced in November 1989 by one with submerged repeaters between West Palm Beach and Coj"mar, a small town approximately ten kilometers east of Havana.13 However, the newly laid cable, which was capable of carrying 144 telephone circuits, remained idle for a long time. No mutually satisfactory business agreement could be reached under the pressure of the embargo conditions imposed by the U.S. government on Cuba. As a result, only the eighty-nine telephone circuits provided by the deteriorated tropospheric scatter system were available for direct communications between the two countries. Furthermore, even those circuits disappeared suddenly in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew seriously damaged the Florida City station, and its owner, AT&T, subsequently decided to abstain from repairing it.


The Current Situation


The current tense relations between the United States and Cuba have made bilateral negotiations on the replacement of the old telecommunications links stagnate for more than two years. Nonetheless, despite the political situation, an agreement was reached to operate future links on an equitable basis from an economic point of view.14 In November 1994, telephone and other telecommunications services were restored in part through the AT&T-owned Cojimar-West Palm Beach submarine cable, but mostly by Intelsat communications satellites, and this continues to be the case to this day.15

[249] Meanwhile, Cuba's information exchanges with the rest of the world also have continued to expand using both the Intersputnik and the Intelsat satellite systems. The current international context is quite different from that which existed when the Caribe ground station was inaugurated more than twenty years ago. From today's perspective, the Caribe station can be viewed as a working monument to the best that the space age can offer to a small island nation struggling to develop under arduous and daunting circumstances.



1. Thanks to the transatlantic telegraph cable link established between America and Europe in 1866, the Havana-Florida submarine cable made it possible for Havana and Madrid to exchange messages almost instantly, in comparison with the sixteen to twenty-one days taken by the courier steamships then traveling between Havana and the Spanish ports of Cadiz and Vigo.

2. José Altshuler, "Cuba," in Asociacion Hispanoamericana de Centros de Investigacion y Empresas de Telecomunicaciones (AHCIET), Las Telecomunicaciones en Hispanoamérica: pasado, presente y futuro (Madrid: AHCIET, 1993), pp. 73-88.

3. Enrique Valdés Pagés, "La Serie Mundial por T.V. en Cuba," Ingenierea Eléctrica 1(1) (1957): 15-18.

4. Maurice Deloraine, Des ondes et des hommes: Jeunesse des Télécommunications et de l'ITT (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), pp. 70-71; "El Enlace Radioeléctrico por Difusion Troposférica entre Cuba y Norteamérica," Ingenierea Eléctrica 3(1) (1959): 15-19.

5. These were two cables (213 and 232 kilometers long) laid between Havana and Key West with three flexible repeaters each, working at a maximum depth of approximately 1,900 meters. They were actually put to work as a prototype for a similar transatlantic telephone link inaugurated a few years later in early 1957, which could carry thirty-six telephone channels. Archie Clow, "First Transatlantic Telephone Cable," Science News 44 (1957): 59-68. Each one of the Havana-Key West cables was used to transmit, simultaneously in one direction, twenty-three telephone channels and twelve voice-frequency telegraph channels.

6. According to Robert Sobel, ITT: The Management of Opportunity (New York: New York Times Book Co., 1982), pp. 34-35, this was the belief of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. While President Wilson feared that the British might develop "a veritable monopoly in the transmission of intelligence throughout the world," Admiral William Bullard urged a small group of businesspeople "to retain in American hands the complete control of radio communication, not only in the United States, but in Central and South America as well, [thus outlining] a policy of wireless doctrine not unlike that of [the] greater Monroe Doctrine," as reported by Gen. J.G. Harbord, "Radio in the World War and the Organization of an American-owned Transoceanic Radio Service," in Anton de Haas, ed., The Radio Industry: The Story of its Development (Chicago and New York: A.W. Shaw, 1928), pp. 67-96.

7. José Altshuler and Kiril Serafimov, La hora del espacio (Havana: Editorial Cientifico-Técnica, 1991), pp. 255-84.

8. Roberto Diaz Martin, "GÈnesis de las comunicaciones espaciales en Cuba," Orbita 6 (1984): 32-40.

9. José Altshuler, "Space Activities in Cuba," in the proceedings of the Study Week on the Impact of Space Exploration on Mankind, 1-5 October 1984, Vatican City, 1986, pp. 207-17. The patronage of the Cuban space commission was handed over to the Academy of Sciences in 1974.

10. Ralph Chipman, ed., The World in Space (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), pp. 584-86.

11. The Molniya 2 satellites were put into a very elongated elliptic orbit, inclined about sixty-five degrees with respect to the equator, with its apogee 40,000 kilometers above the Northern Hemisphere and its perigee 500 kilometers above the Southern Hemisphere, making a complete revolution around the Earth in about twelve hours. Three satellites simultaneously in orbit were used to obtain around-the-clock service. Actually, the Molniya 2 was an improved version of the Molniya 1 type suitable for international use. Its working frequencies were about 900 megahertz. It continued to be used for a long time for regional coverage.

12. Chipman, The World in Space, p. 585.

13. Apparently, this cable came from a suitable recovered length of a submarine telephone cable laid in the late 1960s across the Atlantic Ocean. All of the Cuba-Florida telephone cables belonged to the Cuban-American Telephone & Telegraph Company, jointly owned equally by ITT and AT&T. In the early 1990s, AT&T bought out ITT and became the company's sole owner.

14. The Torricelli bill, approved in 1992 by the U.S. Congress, authorized payment to Cuba of its share in the telecommunications business established with the United States.

15. A Standard A Intelsat unit had been added to the Caribe ground station in 1991, to be able to effect an efficient television transmission for Intelsat users of the eleventh Pan-American Games, which took place that year in Cuba.