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    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

    HAVANA
    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
    network.

    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
    Cuba policy.

    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
    engineering.

    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?”