Cuba clamps down on Wi-Fi networks
Posted on Monday, 06.16.14
Cuba clamps down on Wi-Fi networks
The little-known nets allow members to exchange information and
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
When the illegal Wi-Fi network in the Havana neighborhood of Mantilla
was up and running, 120 members could play computer games and exchange
news, movies and TV shows with each other far from the watchful eye of
the communist government.
But then, a May 25 raid by State Security agents, police and employees
of the state-owned ETECSA telecommunications monopoly seized several
computers and powerful Wi-Fi signal boosters, and shut down the network.
The raid also cast a spotlight on the island’s Wi-Fi networks, one of
several semi-secret and mostly illegal ways that a growing number of
tech-savvy Cubans use to exchange uncensored information and entertainment.
There are applications that allow smartphone owners to chat and search
the Web — without actual Internet access. There are programs that allow
them to send encrypted messages to each other, and that automatically
send them the day’s top news — and even horoscopes — as emails.
In the country with the worst Internet penetration in the Western
Hemisphere, illegal telephone and Internet “companies” use satellite
phones to bypass ETECSA and State Security. And there are social media
platforms for Cubans with names like La Cubanada and Despierta Cuba
(Wake Up Cuba).
Cuban authorities regularly attack such innovations, calling them part
of a U.S. “cyber-war” to topple the regime. Indeed, the U.S. Agency for
International Development financed the development of ZunZuneo, a
controversial Twitter-like platform for Cubans.
But many of the new technologies used on the island are off-the-shelf,
developed abroad and imported by Cubans for their personal use — and are
evidence that the government is losing the battle to control access to
the Internet and uncensored information.
Cuban officials “are setting up a wall that is leaking and putting
fingers on the leak. Pretty soon there will be more leaks than fingers,”
said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York who studies
The latest leak to become public: Wi-Fi networks, essentially groups of
friends and neighbors who started out linking their personal routers
about a decade ago to play multiplayer computer games and exchange
Wi-Fi networks “are widely in use in Cuba these days to exchange
information not offered by the official media,” said Alvaro Yero, a
computer technician and journalist who was a member of the Mantilla
network, known as the Vibora Park Team.
Government censors initially turned a blind eye to them, even as they
increasingly used powerful signal boosters to extend the areas of
coverage and transmission speeds, according to the blog La Singularidad,
which helps Cubans find uncensored information.
“But what’s been happening recently is that they have been attacking
[the networks] with more virulence” since the ZunZuneo program made
headlines in early April, the blog added.
Two other networks in Havana and one in Cienfuegos, 140 miles to the
east, were reported to have been shut down by authorities this year. But
Yero said Havana alone has at least a dozen still operating, and
Cienfuegos residents said they know of two others that are still working.
The Vibora Park Team had 120 members who used passwords to access the
network, free of charge, and the games, movies and TV programs stored on
a makeshift server, said Yero, whose report on the closing appeared on
the Miami-based website Cubanet. He said he did not know the name of the
computer program used to coordinate the multiple connections.
The network had its own home page but no access to the Internet, he
added. Others said, however, that while most of the Havana networks did
not have Internet access, some obtained occasional access by bribing
government officials who have accounts because of their work.
Yero said the same man who ran the Mantilla network ran an even bigger
one, with 400 members, that police broke up in early May. That network
was linked to a string of others that stretched the coverage as far as
10 miles away, he told el Nuevo Herald.
It charged members up to $10 a month for the access plus a weekly
paquete — a compilation of movies, telenovelas, sports and news reports
usually put together abroad and more often passed around among Cubans
using DVDs or USB flash drives.
Police seized equipment valued at nearly $1,100 during that first raid,
and fined the network’s operator $1,000. He was fined an additional $180
after the latest raid, but was not charged with a criminal violation.
ETECSA officials also shuttered a Wi-Fi network last month that had
operated for barely a week out of an apartment building in the Pastorita
neighborhood of Cienfuegos, with a reach of up to 300 feet, according to
another report on Cubanet.
“No matter how much I explained to them that I only used it to play
games, the officials did not understand. They alleged that what I was
doing was illegal and proceeded to seize the equipment,” said the
network’s owner, Carlos Daniel.
Cuban laws are apparently unclear on Wi-Fi equipment, and several
Nano-brand signal boosters are listed for sale for up to $250 on the
website Revolico, a Cuban version of eBay. But the government blocks
Cubans’ access to Revolico.
USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence
in Havana for using satellite phones to create three Wi-Fi hotspots and
Internet access for Cuban Jews outside state controls. He was convicted
of endangering Cuban sovereignty, a national-security crime.
Source: Cuba clamps down on Wi-Fi networks – Cuba – MiamiHerald.com –