“The Biden administration could enhance the WiFi from the Havana embassy or from Guantánamo, and this can be done in minutes,” Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) testified at a congressional hearing Tuesday, adding to a chorus of voices from Miami urging the Biden administration to help activists in Cuba stay connected.
Floating Internet balloons or broadcasting mobile Internet from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base could work — at least in theory — but the realities of physics, technology and diplomatic cooperation make them largely non-starters, multiple experts told The Washington Post.
“It’s a Hollywood scenario,” Doug Madory, who directs Internet analysis for the network monitoring company Kentik, said of the balloon proposal. “It certainly has never happened, and there have been a lot of Internet outages where this would have been useful.”
Authoritarian governments are increasingly using Internet blackouts and slowdowns as way to squash protests, with multiple recent high-profile incidents in countries such as Myanmar.
The recent protests in Cuba were no exception: As demonstrations spurred by fast-spreading news on social media broke out, the communist government moved to block Internet access. The demonstrations, mounting frustration and a deep economic crisis pose perhaps the biggest challenges to the country’s one-party system — started more than six decades ago by Fidel Castro at a time when phones were used only for talking.
According to Netblocks, a London-based organization that monitors Internet access, several of the most popular social media platforms were restricted on state-run Internet provider ETECSA in the days after the demonstrations, what activists called a blatant attempt to hinder more protests. As Cubans began getting back online days later, their cellphone videos revealed protesters’ enthusiasm as well as the violence at the demonstrations.
“What these protests show is that people are able to overcome their fear, and that’s why the government has refused to reestablish the Internet service,” Guillermo “El Coco” Fariñas, a prominent Cuban dissident, told The Washington Post. “They’re the ones who fear that people will take to the streets again after being able to connect, inspire one another and lose their fear over social media.”
Even before the Cuban government blocked popular messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram, those living on the island had already grown accustomed to poor service. In a survey by Speedtest.net, a group that analyzes global Internet speed metrics, Cuba ranked 179th out of 181 nations in a global review of broadband speeds.
Internet access in Cuba can be described in three words, said Ted Henken, a sociology professor at Baruch College in New York: “slow, expensive and censored.”
Yet despite its deficiencies, the Internet has “revolutionized” the way Cuban society works, Henken said, because the access to information has changed the power dynamic between an authoritarian government and its people. Cubans can easily call loved ones in Miami through Facebook. They can read independent news articles shared via WhatsApp.
“The government has exercised a monopoly control on media for the last 60 years. The Internet has blown a hole in that monopoly,” said Henken, who has extensively studied the impact of access to the online world in the long-isolated nation.
Like the mid-century cars that rumble through the streets of Havana, Cuba’s Internet is vintage by American standards. Cuba had highly restricted Internet access before 2008, expanding slowly over the next decade in government-run cyber cafes, public WiFi hot spots and pricey home access out of reach for the vast majority on the island.
An important shift came in late 2018 when the government enabled cellular Internet access — datos móviles — with 2G and 3G connectivity.
“After 2018, Cubans could use the Internet anytime, anywhere to broadcast live,” Henken said.
Real-time access became a tool for government accountability, helping jump-start groups such as the San Isidro Movement, an organization composed of artists, intellectuals and journalists who led a groundbreaking protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in November. New grass-roots digital news publications popped up. Cubans of all walks of life began sharing their realities online.
“That’s what happened Sunday,” Henken said, referring to the large protests July 11. “People could communicate in real time to other Cubans on the island” so they could know not just “what was happening but act on it.”
Alfredo Martínez, a Cuban activist and collaborator at Tremenda Nota, an LGBTQ independent magazine, called taking away the Internet a violation of people’s rights. The United Nations affirmed Internet access as a human right in 2016; since then, web connectivity has increasingly been linked to free expression — and guerrilla Internet solutions a democratizing force.
“How twisted is it that the government shuts us all out, mothers don’t even know where their children are and the politicians just go on TV talking about the [U.S.] embargo when people are being beaten up in the streets,” he told The Post by phone.
In his letter to President Biden, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) noted that after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico in 2017, the U.S. government deployed “emergency connectivity through balloon-supplied Internet.” At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Salazar also chimed in on the idea, expressing frustration that the United States had not helped to restore at least basic access to Cubans.
“We're not talking about Netflix-quality video; we're talking about just the ability to lift the videos that show how they're being beaten on the streets,” she said.
The Biden administration contends it is taking action on Cuba through a multipronged approach of international pressure, sanctions against the government and buoying Internet access, a senior administration official told The Post.
“We will be actively collaborating with the private sector to identify creative ways to ensure that the Cuban people have access to the free flow of information on the Internet,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters not yet public.
Left unsaid by both the Biden administration and its critics is whether the goal of enhancing Internet access is not just ambitious but also even feasible; Internet balloons in particular can’t create Internet infrastructure, but can augment or supplement an existing one, experts said.
Among telecom specialists and those in the high-altitude Internet balloon industry, reactions to the proposals were mostly skeptical.
In the past few years, a handful of start-ups including Project Loon from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and Starlink from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have sought to bring the Internet to places fiber and cell tower signals can’t easily go.
In 2019, Project Loon partnered with a major Kenyan telecom provider to launch solar-powered balloons that brought 4G connectivity to mountainous villages. It successfully brought LTE service to Peru after an earthquake in 2019 and to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria using surviving terrestrial networks, the balloons acting as relays from towers that were out of range for cellphones.
Yet cost and leveraging a consumer base large and wealthy enough to afford the products have remained stumbling blocks. Project Loon shuttered in January, citing the long and risky road to commercial viability.
Madory, of Kentik, said even if it was possible to set up an Internet base for the balloons in Key West, Fla., 90 nautical miles from Cuba’s coast, or even closer — say, from an aircraft carrier anchored in international waters near Cuban shores — there’s also an issue of end-device compatibility.
In the United States, for instance, a person with a Verizon SIM card in their phone couldn’t access an AT&T cellular network for mobile Internet, Madory said.
“So if I’m sitting in Havana and I want to connect to a balloon, it’s not going to be WiFi, it’ll have to be 4G to travel that many miles,” he said.
Using the U.S. Embassy in Cuba or the Guantánamo Naval Base — the latter of which is largely cut off from the rest of the island — as a kind of mega-WiFi hotspot could work, Madory said. But there are major caveats: Access would extend to people within 50 yards. “It would also make it obvious to Cuban security services who is making use of this service,” he said.
Even if the technology aligns, Madory said the last hurdle is a diplomatic one. Currently, every sovereign government regulates the telecom environment in its country. Without carveouts for taking action against authoritarian governments, transmitting renegade Internet without a country’s consent could be a violation of international law.
“If I start providing telecom services without permission, say if Starlink or one of these services wanted to operate without a license, they’re doing something illegal,” he said.
At least one member of the Federal Communications Commission said it wouldn’t be a deterrent.
Brendan Carr, the senior Republican commissioner with the FCC, said last week during an appearance with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that he did not care about that.
Back in Havana, Martínez, the activist and journalist, said that in a remarkable stroke of luck, he was one of the few people able to stay online in the days after the protests. He speculates that may have been because of his proximity to the state security department.
He used his online access to track down information about people who have gone missing since the protests — many of them young Cubans detained after going out to march.
“Now we have a spreadsheet of almost 400 people,” he said. “I was able to work on that because of how close they are — the irony of it all.”
María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.