Cuban youth build secret computer network despite Wi-Fi ban
Cuban youth build secret computer network despite Wi-Fi ban
BY MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN ASSOCIATED PRESS
01/26/2015 11:16 AM 01/26/2015 11:16 AM
Cut off from the Internet, young Cubans have quietly linked thousands of
computers into a hidden network that stretches miles across Havana,
letting them chat with friends, play games and download hit movies in a
mini-replica of the online world that most can’t access.
Home Internet connections are banned for all but a handful of Cubans,
and the government charges nearly a quarter of a month’s salary for an
hour online in government-run hotels and Internet centers. As a result,
most people on the island live offline, complaining about their lack of
access to information and contact with friends and family abroad.
A small minority have covertly engineered a partial solution by pooling
funds to create a private network of more than 9,000 computers with
small, inexpensive but powerful hidden Wi-Fi antennas and Ethernet
cables strung over streets and rooftops spanning the entire city.
Disconnected from the real Internet, the network is limited, local and
built with equipment commercially available around the world, with no
help from any outside government, organizers say.
Hundreds are online at any moment pretending to be orcs or U.S. soldiers
in multiplayer online games such as “World of Warcraft” or “Call of
Duty.” They trade jokes and photos in chat rooms and organize real-world
events like house parties or trips to the beach.
“We really need Internet because there’s so much information online, but
at least this satisfies you a little bit because you feel like, ‘I’m
connected with a bunch of people, talking to them, sharing files,” said
Rafael Antonio Broche Moreno, a 22-year-old electrical engineer who
helped build the network known as SNet, short for streetnet.
Cuba’s status as one of the world’s least-wired countries is central to
the new relationship Washington is trying to forge with Havana. As part
of a new policy seeking broader engagement, the Obama administration
hopes that encouraging wider U.S. technology sales to the island will
widen Internet access and help increase Cubans’ independence from the
state and lay the groundwork for political reform.
Cuban officials say Internet access is limited largely because the U.S.
trade embargo has prevented advanced U.S. technology from reaching Cuba
and starved the government of the cash it needs to buy equipment from
other nations. But the government says that while it is open to buying
telecommunications equipment from the U.S., it sees no possibility of
changing its broader system in exchange for normal relations with the U.S.
Outside observers and many Cubans blame the lack of Internet on the
government’s desire to control the populace and to use
disproportionately high cellphone and Internet charges as a source of
cash for other government agencies.
Cuba prohibits the use of Wi-Fi equipment without a license from the
Ministry of Communications, making SNet technically illegal. Broche
Moreno said he believes the law gives authorities latitude to allow
networks like SNet to operate. He described a sort of tacit
understanding with officials that lets SNet run unmolested as long as it
respects Cuban law — its hundreds of nodes are informally monitored by
volunteer administrators who make sure users don’t share pornography,
discuss politics or link SNet to illicit connections to the real Internet.
“We aren’t anonymous because the country has to know that this type of
network exists. They have to protect the country and they know that
9,000 users can be put to any purpose,” he said. “We don’t mess with
anybody. All we want to do is play games, share healthy ideas. We don’t
try to influence the government or what’s happening in Cuba … We do
the right thing and they let us keep at it.”
Users who break rules can be blocked from the network by their peers for
as a little as a day for minor infractions such as slowing down SNet
with file-sharing outside prescribed hours, with lifetime bans for
violations like distributing pornography.
“Users show a lot of respect for preserving the network, because it’s
the only one they have,” Broche Moreno said. “But me and the other
administrators are watching things to make sure the network does what
it’s meant for.”
The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment on the
Before Obama moved to restore full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the U.S.
made several attempts to leverage technology against the Cuban
government. Contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison
after a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor sent him to
Cuba to set up satellite Internet connections. He was freed after five
years as part of the deal last month that paved the way for Obama’s new
A separate USAID contractor tried to build a text message-based social
network called Zunzuneo whose brief existence was revealed in an
Associated Press investigation last year.
Joining SNet requires resources out of reach of many people in a country
where the average salary hovers around $25 a month.
Humberto Vinas, 25, studied medical technology and accounting before
finding a relatively well-paying job in the kitchen of a bar. He and
nine friends shared an SNet node for several months, running hundreds of
feet of Ethernet cable over neighbors’ roofs until one demanded they
take it down, disconnecting most from the network.
“I miss SNet a lot,” he said sadly. “You can find out about soccer
scores. It allows you to do so much, right from your home.”
Cubans have one of the hemisphere’s highest average levels of education
and years of practice at improvising solutions to scarcity, allowing
many to access and share information despite enormous barriers. For as
little as a dollar a week or less, many Cubans receive what’s known as
“the package,” weekly deliveries of pirated TV shows, movies, magazines
and instructional texts and videos saved on USB memory drives.
There is no obvious indication the U.S. or any other foreign government
or group had anything to do with the creation of SNet, making it by far
the most impressive example of Cuba’s homemade telecommunications
The network is a series of connected nodes, powerful home computers with
extra-strong Wi-Fi antennas that communicate with each other across
relatively long distances and distribute signals to a smaller network of
perhaps a dozen other computers in the immediate vicinity.
SNet started as a handful of connected users around 2001 and stayed that
way for a decade. More than 9,000 computers have connected over the past
five years, and about 2,000 users connect on an average day.
Many use SNet to get access to popular TV shows and movies. The system
also stores a copy of Wikipedia. It’s not necessarily current, but is
routinely refreshed by users with true Internet access. There’s also a
homegrown version of a social network that functions similarly to Facebook.
Because most data passes from computer to computer in SNet, everything
takes place much faster than on the achingly slow and expensive
connections available from government servers that pass all information
through central points.
Broche Moreno estimated it costs about $200 to equip a group of
computers with the antennas and cables needed to become a new node,
meaning the cost of networking all the computers in SNet could be as
little as $200,000. Similar but smaller networks exist in other Cuban
cities and provinces.
“It’s proof that it can be done,” said Alien Garcia, a 30-year-old
systems engineer who publishes a magazine on information technology
that’s distributed by email and storage devices. “If I as a private
citizen can put up a network with far less income than a government, a
country should be able to do it, too, no?”