SP-4217 Beyond the Ionosphere


Chapter 19

The Recent History of Satellite Communications in Cuba
by Roberto Diaz-Martin


[251] This chapter discusses the development of satellite communications in Cuba--beginning with the first ground station, named Caribe 1, which was installed because of Cuba's early participation in the Intercosmos Program1--up to the present day. Satellite communications in Cuba can be said to have begun in 1965.2 In that year, the Soviet Union invited several countries to attend a meeting held in Moscow between 15 and 20 November 1965 to address "space research and the peaceful uses of outer space." At this conference, participating countries were invited to join a new "Collaborative Program for Research and Peaceful Uses of the Outer Space." The program proposed to extend to collaborating countries the satellite communications know-how and facilities already available in the Soviet Union. At this meeting, the Soviet minister of communications offered to provide reliable direct communications between Cuba and the European continent, using the existing operational Molniya communications satellite system. Subsequently, Cuba joined another new program known later as Intercosmos, as well as its successor organization, called Intersputnik.

Within a relatively short time period, the Caribe 1 ground station was erected in 1974, in the town of Jaruco near Havana, so that Cuba could participate in these satellite communications programs initiated by the Soviet Union. The site selected for the ground station was perfect from a geographical point of view: a small valley surrounded by hills protected the station from undesirable city noise and from electromagnetic interference. The Caribe station was Cuba's crucial link to the Intersputnik satellite system.

An intergovernmental agreement established Intersputnik on 15 November 1971, and the signatory nations confirmed the agreement on 12 July 1972. Cuba has been an Intersputnik member nation since the organization's beginning. The Caribe ground station, completed in 1974, became only the second such station outside the territory of the Soviet Union. The Intersputnik system utilized three Molniya 1-class satellites in elliptical orbits. The station's initial capacity was one television channel and twenty-four analog telephone circuits (expanded later to sixty). In 1978, the Intersputnik system switched to geostationary satellites of the Horizont, and later Statsionar, series. This change eliminated interruptions caused by the need to switch from one satellite to another so as to maintain a continuous communications link.



Figure 32. The Caribe satellite communications ground station near Havana, Cuba, equipped for working with both Intersputnik and Intelsat satellites.

Figure 32. The Caribe satellite communications ground station near Havana, Cuba, equipped for working with both Intersputnik and Intelsat satellites. (Courtesy of José Altshuler)


The first television program received by the station, and rebroadcast nationwide later because of the time difference between Europe and Cuba, was the Moscow commemorative parade of 7 November 1974. Some weeks later, the Havana commemorative parade of 1 January 1975 was transmitted to Europe from Havana. The Cuban public also enjoyed the television transmission of the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976. To exchange television programs among Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other socialist countries, it was necessary to overcome the handicap of different television broadcast standards. The television standard used in Cuba was NTSC, while the Soviet Union and the majority of Eastern European countries used SECAM. This difficulty was resolved in 1975 through the use of camera tubes that carried out the conversion optically. Later, an electronic standard converter replaced this analog system.


Selection of a Color Television Standard


One of the key factors affecting the operation of satellite communications in Cuba was the selection of a standard for color television broadcasts. The availability of regular color television programming through the Caribe station encouraged the introduction of color television broadcasting, which was not generally available at the time because of the lack of a single television standard. A large number of NTSC black-and-white television receivers were in use throughout Cuba. However, the color television receivers available from Eastern Europe were all SECAM receivers. Financial support to replace all the NTSC black-and-white receivers with NTSC color sets was not available. Moreover, complicating the switch from NTSC to SECAM was the difference in electrical power standards. The Cuban electrical power system universally supplied 110 volts at sixty hertz, while SECAM receivers required 220 volts at fifty hertz, the European standard. Voltage differences aside, adopting the SECAM standard would cause screen images to flicker, because of SECAM's fifty-hertz time base.

[253] Color television arrived in Cuba in 1958. Havana's Channel 12 aired in color using some RCA telemovie equipment capable of processing color television images. After 1959, however, Channel 12 no longer broadcast color programming. Many years later, once the Caribe station began operation, the technical staff of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television began to reactivate the old Channel 12 color television equipment and to redesign and adapt new SECAM studio equipment obtained from the Soviet Union. These efforts demonstrated the possibility of transmitting in color using the NTSC standard through the existing broadcasting network. Other tests were carried out with the SECAM color standard with acceptable results.

Selection of a color standard for Cuba was conditioned not only by technical factors, but also by economical, social, and political ones. The final government decision reached at the end of 1974 was to stick to the national color television standard (the NTSC standard). This was the standard used by most countries in the Caribbean geographical area. Using a different standard would isolate Cuba from its neighbors. Once the government made this decision, the country rapidly acquired color remote control equipment from NEC in Japan, while existing Soviet equipment was duly modified for color transmission. The first standard color transmission in Cuba via the Caribe ground station took place in 1975.


Cuba Joins Intelsat and the Global News Network


In 1979, the Sixth Summit of Nonaligned Countries took place in Cuba. The summit required coverage of all the communications needs of the member countries, including worldwide telephone and television services. Most of the participating countries were located geographically around the Pacific, Indian, and South Atlantic Oceans--areas not completely covered by Intersputnik. Yet, Intersputnik was Cuba's communications satellite system. As a result, Cuba had to find an appropriate technical solution that would permit it to offer telecommunications services to countries outside the Intersputnik footprint. One proposal was to install additional equipment in Algeria, in the Sahara Desert, to retransmit to areas around the Indian, South Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. This proposal was discarded in favor of installing a new "Standard B" Intelsat ground station in Cuba. Thus, in 1979, in a record time of three months, Cuba became an Intelsat user. The new ground station had twenty-four telephone circuits and one television channel. It provided communications services satisfactorily during the Summit of Nonaligned Countries, thanks to the joint operation of both the Intersputnik and Intelsat stations.

Because of satellite communications, Cuba was able to participate early on in the international exchange of television news. In 1977, supported by the International Organization for Radio and Television, Cuba entered into television news exchanges with the Intervision Network, televised from the network's center in Prague. Every day at 3:00 p.m. European Central Time, the broadcast exchange took place during approximately one hour. A leased common audio channel provided simultaneous sound programming to audiences scattered around the globe, from Managua, Nicaragua, to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and Hanoi, Vietnam. The Intervision Network continued to broadcast until the disappearance of the International Organization for Radio and Television, when Eurovision and EUTELSAT picked up the service. All participants shared in the expenses of this service.

Cuba's satellite communications capability also benefited groups of interested users located in Europe and other regions of the world. For this purpose, Cubavision was produced and transmitted regularly through a leased transponder on a Statsionar satellite. The program included news from Cuba, as well as entertainment material.


[254] Space Communications Research and Special Services


Cuba participated in the International Space Communications Work Group of the Intercosmos Program. Within its framework, the Cubans conducted research to study radio propagation in the tropics in the ten- to thirty-gigahertz frequency range. Existing data from radio telescopes, which had conducted geophysical studies of the Sun's impact on the Earth's ionosphere, were compiled and analyzed. Cuban researchers conducted additional studies using equipment obtained through, and with the backing of, the Intercosmos Program.

Beginning in 1981, Cuba launched a project to develop the Central National Science and Technology Library. The objective of the library, inaugurated in June 1988 in the Capitol Building, was to promote the expansion of information services to the entire country. As part of the library project, Cuba instituted national and international networks to provide computer-assisted exchanges of information services. The Caribe ground station provided these networks with communications support.3

As an island nation, Cuba has a close relationship with the sea. Political and economic reasons have pushed Cuba to broaden its merchant and fishing fleet. Cuban vessels now cover large distances to maintain the country's needs. For this reason, maritime communications, especially maritime satellite communications, has taken on greater interest and importance. Therefore, on 27 July 1989, Cuba joined Inmarsat to modernize its maritime communications capabilities.




The Caribe ground station has been the subject of continuous technical improvement. The Intersputnik system featured time division multiple access and a single carrier per channel--features that made it compatible with the Intelsat system. The Intelsat B ground station increased its telephone capacity to eighty circuits, and the Intersputnik station expanded to 144 telephone circuits. However, to meet the needs of the constantly growing numbers of foreign visitors, businesspeople, and tourists, Cuba had to enlarge its telephone and data communications facilities even more.

Consequently, a new Standard A Intelsat station, named Caribe 2, became operational in 1991. This new ground station, equipped with the latest digital technology, provided the necessary capacity to cover present and future island needs. This station satisfactorily covered the eleventh Caribbean and Pan-American Games. In addition, small-capacity ground stations were installed in outlying areas to serve the needs of remote zones and the small islands of the Cuban archipelago.



1. José Altshuler, "El primer sputnik, un cuarto de siglo después," Orbita 1(1) (1983): 1-20; Secretary of UNISPACE '82, Cooperacion intergubernamental multilateral en las actividades espaciales: Documento de antecedentes, U.N. document A/CONF.101/BP/10 (New York: United Nations, 1981).

2. Roberto Diaz Martin, "Las comunicaciones espaciales en r·pido desarrollo," Orbita 2(1) (1984): 32-40; R. Diaz Martin, "Génesis de las comunicaciones espaciales en Cuba," Orbita 6(1) (1986): 7-15; Pedro Luis Torres, "Informe de la Conferencia de Moscu sobre la investigacion y utilizacion del espacio cÛsmico con fines pacificos," 1965, conference paper, personal communication.

3. R. Diaz Martin, "Actividades Espaciales en Cuba, Diseminacion de la informacion via satelites," paper read at Taller de Naciones Unidas sobre Sistemas Regionales de Informacion Espacial, Lima, Peru, 24-28 October 1988, copy in United Nations library.