Balloons, satellite links or a gigantic hotspot at the Guantanamo Bay military base. With authorities in Cuba regularly shutting down the fledgling internet on the island to quell protests, US politicians are tumbling over each other with creative plans to provide the Cuban people with uncensored internet access. Indeed, President Biden said in a statement last week that his administration is “cooperating with” civil society and the private sector to give Cubans access to the Internet without censorship.”
Read also Young people are pushing the boundaries on the Cuban internet
Internet did not become common on the island until late, and was initially only available through expensive and slow connections in Internet cafes. In 2015, the first public hotspots appeared, at the end of 2018 state telecom company ETECSA introduced the first 3G connections. Until then, many Cubans made do with The Weekly Package, a weekly updated hard drive full of smuggled films and series, music, news and advertisements that acted as a kind of snapshot of the worldwide web. This way, many Cubans were still able to talk about the latest hits on Netflix.
That package is no longer available. According to the World Bank, in 2019 – the last year for which reliable figures are available – about 62 percent of Cubans had access to the internet.
After the first demonstrations started on July 11 due to the collapse of the economy, food shortages, a health system collapsing under corona and the lack of freedom, images of police brutality shared on social media caused more people to take to the streets. It is therefore not surprising that the authorities soon seem to have decided to severely restrict internet access.
hot air balloons
According to Netblocks, an organization that monitors internet blockades worldwide, social media such as Facebook and Instagram and messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram were no longer or barely accessible shortly after the first protests, although not all analysts agree on the exact cause. Although the biggest blockade seems to be over, Cubans still regularly report interruptions in their often already shaky data connection.
For American politicians, particularly from the state of Florida, which is home to a large Cuban community, restoring uncensored Internet access to the Cuban population is a priority. Senator Marco Rubio suggested using hot air balloons to provide Cubans with wireless internet.
That proposal is less strange than it sounds. Tech company Alphabet, the parent company of Google, helped Puerto Rico with internet after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Two years later, the balloon technology was deployed over an earthquake zone in Peru.
Yet it is unlikely that this technology will help Cuba back online anytime soon. The balloons in the stratosphere do not have their own internet connection; they only increase the range of existing cell towers on the ground. An internet balloon will not have to rely on Cuban cell towers, but in principle it should be possible to extend the mobile data network from Florida to Cuba with the help of balloons. The southernmost tip of the United States, Key West Island, is about 100 miles away. However, the SIM cards in Cuban phones cannot handle the American signal, Kentik director Doug Madory recently explained in The Washington Post.
Also read: Biggest social protests in decades: Cubans are fed up
Another option would be to use satellites, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, among others, suggested. SpaceX, the company of Tesla founder and aerospace entrepreneur Elon Musk, is now testing its Starlink network in part of the US. Using a special receiver dish, customers can access broadband internet via a swarm of thousands of small satellites orbiting in low Earth orbit. This requires special reception equipment – a satellite telephone or a reception dish – which is not legally available to ordinary Cubans.
One of the proposals: to equip the army base at Guantanamo Bay with Wi-Fi hotspots
Then there is the suggestion of Republican Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, daughter of Cuban refugees. Her plan to provide the US embassy in Havana and the military base at Guantanamo Bay with strong Wi-Fi hotspots also encounters practical objections: such hotspots have a limited range. It would be very easy for Cuban security services to cordon off the area and arrest users of the American internet.
Encrypted internet traffic
Methods that can circumvent the censorship and blockades of existing Cuban internet connections therefore seem more promising. Many Cubans already use VPN software. This allows internet traffic to be encrypted and the origin and destination of data packets hidden. This makes it possible to use services that are normally blocked, such as messaging apps, social media and censored news sites. Shortly after the first internet restrictions, Canadian software company Psiphon reported that in one day nearly 1.4 million Cubans used its tool, which uses various technologies, including VPN, to bypass internet censorship. Psiphon receives funding from the Open Tech Fund, a US government-affiliated nonprofit that champions internet freedom.
An activist blog pointed to apps such as Bridgefy and Briar, which allow users to message each other via a Bluetooth connection between their phones. An important disadvantage is that the distance between sender and receiver may not be more than about one hundred meters. The advantage is that messages can ‘jump’ from phone to phone during demonstrations. This also makes it easier to share images of protests and get them out of the country, for example via people with a VPN connection or via physical data carriers – just like in the past with The package.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 29 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 29, 2021