Balloons, satellite links or even a gigantic hotspot at the Guantanamo Bay military base. As Cuban authorities regularly shut down the nascent internet on the island to quell protests, US politicians scramble with creative plans to provide the Cuban people with uncensored internet access. And indeed, President Biden said last week in a report with which his government “cooperates” civil society and the private sector to give Cubans access to the Internet without censorship.
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The internet did not become mainstream on the island until late and was initially only available through expensive and slow connections in internet cafes. The first public hotspots appeared in 2015, and at the end of 2018, the public telecommunications company ETECSA introduced the first 3G connections. Until then, many Cubans were content to The Weekly Package, a hard drive updated weekly and filled with contraband movies and series, music, news and advertisements that acted as a kind of snapshot of the global web. This way, many Cubans could still talk about the latest hits on Netflix.
This package is no longer available. According to world Bank In 2019 – the latest year for which reliable figures are available – around 62% of Cubans had access to the internet.
After the first demonstrations Begun due to a collapsing economy, food shortage, a health system collapsing under the crown and lack of freedom, images of police brutality shared on social media have pushed over people taking to the streets. It is therefore not surprising that the authorities seem to have quickly decided severely restrict internet access.
hot air balloons
According to, among others, Netblocks, an organization that monitors internet blocks around the world, 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 than not all analysts agree on the exact cause. Although the biggest blockade appears to be over, Cubans still regularly report interruptions in their often already fragile data connection.
For American politicians, especially in 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 hot air balloons provide Cubans with wireless internet access.
This proposal is less strange than it seems. Tech company Alphabet, the parent company of Google, helped Puerto Rico with the internet after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Two years later, the balloon technology was deployed to a seismic area in Peru.
Still, this technology is unlikely to help Cuba get back online anytime soon. 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 should not depend on Cuban cell towers, but in principle it should be possible to extend the mobile data network from Florida to Cuba using balloons. The southernmost tip of the United States, Key West Island, is approximately 160 km away. However, Cuban phone SIM cards cannot handle the US signal, Kentik CEO Doug Madory recently explained in a statement. The Washington Post.
Read also : Biggest social protests in decades: Cubans are fed up
Another option would be to use satellites, such as: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proposed. SpaceX, the company of Tesla founder and aerospace entrepreneur Elon Musk, is currently testing its Starlink network in part of the United States. Using a special satellite dish, customers can access high-speed internet through a swarm of thousands of small satellites in low earth orbit. This requires special receiving equipment – a satellite phone or a receiving dish – which is not legally available to ordinary Cubans.
One of the proposals: equip the Guantanamo Bay military base with Wi-Fi hotspots
Then there is the suggestion of Republican MP Maria Elvira Salazar, daughter of Cuban refugees. His plan is the United States Embassy in Havana and the military base at Guantánamo Bay provide powerful WiFi access points Also meets practical objections: such hotspots are limited in scope. It would be very easy for Cuban security services to cordon off the area and arrest American Internet users.
Encrypted Internet traffic
Methods of bypassing censorship and blocking of existing Cuban Internet connections therefore seem more promising. Many Cubans already use VPN software. This allows Internet traffic to be encrypted and to mask the origin and destination of data packets. This allows the use of normally blocked services, such as messaging apps, social media, and censored news sites. Shortly after the first internet restrictions, Canadian software company Psiphon reported that within one day nearly 1.4 million Cubans used his tool, which uses various technologies, including VPN, to bypass internet censorship. Psiphon obtains funding from the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the US government that advocates for Internet freedom.
A activist blog always be on apps like Bridgefy in Heather, which allows users to send messages to each other over a Bluetooth connection between their phones. An important drawback is that the distance between the transmitter and the receiver cannot exceed a hundred meters. The advantage is that messages can “jump” from one phone to another during the demonstrations. It also makes it easier to share images of demonstrations and their exit from the country, for example via people with a VPN connection or via physical data carriers – as in the past with The packet.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on July 29, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of July 29, 2021
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