Human Rights in Cuba

Time To Change

January 2017
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Cuba’s Wireless Networks, the Web that Envelops the Island / 14ymedio,
Marcelo Hernandez

14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 4 January 2017 – All one has to do
is turn on a small wifi antenna and aim it toward the balcony for a
computer screen to show the long list of wireless networks that link the
entire neighborhood. Invisible threads that connect hundreds of users.
The material support of this network are the NanoStations, Bullets,
Rockets, Routers and Yagi antennas, the most coveted technological
objects on the island.

“In that building over there, there are like nine networks,” says
Ricardo, known as Rupert at the node he administers in the Havana’s
district, in the west of the city. The young man, with a degree in
geography, decided one day to invest in several devices to send and
receive wifi signals. In a short time he set up a network with more than
250 users.

“Before it was very difficult, because we couldn’t find the equipment,
but now the market is saturated,” Rupert tells 14ymedio. Although no
store in the country sells this type of technology, the informal market
offers a wide range of receivers, wireless stations, antennas and even
specialized technology for its mounting and configuration.

rules that went into force in mid-2014 are very clear about the
importing of data networking devices such as routers and switches. The
regulation warns that in order to bring them into the country, the
traveler “requires previous authorization from the Ministry of
Communications,” but in practice the authorities do not always apply the
established rules.

“There are workshifts where the customs officials are stricter and
confiscate every NanoStation they detect, but others turn a blind eye
because they end up with a lot of this equipment,” an employee of
General Customs of the Republic who works at the international terminal
of José Martí International told this newspaper,

The worker, who requested anonymity, said that along with flat screen
TVs, air conditioners and smartphones, the wireless communications
devices are among the items most frequently brought in by the “mules”
who operate on the short distance flights and import merchandise for the
informal trade networks.

The equipment for wifi is shifting from satellite dishes. Although many
families still choose the TV programming that arrives this way, a la
carte consumption of audiovisuals is growing. The alternative wireless
networks have joined the “weekly packet,” with a varied assortment of
games, documentaries, courses and forums, where you can’t talk about
politics and religion nor share pornography.

The advantage of the networking devices lies also in their discreet size
and their ability to pass unnoticed. “Unlike an antenna, a Nanostation
doesn’t raise any suspicion, it is small, it can be placed on a balcony
and people who don’t know think it’s just a small white box that has
been left there,” says Rupert. However, he notes there have been several
raids in his neighborhood to dismantle the networks, but says it
is a long time since they’ve been back.

SNet, the biggest spider

StreetNet, abbreviated SNet, is the queen of the wireless webs that cut
through Havana. It extends everywhere and its tentacles reach each
neighborhood. In cities like Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Pinar del Río and
Santiago de Cuba, similar initiatives also operate. In the middle of
this year, it was estimated that more than 30,000 users in the capital
were plugged into SNet, but in recent months its growth has been
strengthened by the arrival of more infrastructure.

SNet’s strong point is its social networks, which allow users
to interact as they would on Facebook or Instagram, share files and play
games. It contains more than fifty sites that work without having to
connect to the and offers the ability of uploading or
downloading heavy files through the FTP protocol.

But every king can be dethroned and SNet also has competition. “The
smaller private networks are growing very fast,” Rupert told this
newspaper. “People are looking for smaller virtual spaces where they can
meet and share and now that anyone can put up a network, they don’t have
to wait for an SNet administrator to give them a password to enter.”

For those who can’t afford the costs of a NanoBeam, one of the most
ambitious teams of those who put up wifi networks, they can get
inventive. Kirenia and her brother Amaury are dedicated to making
Yagi-Uda directional antennas with a power of up to 19 dBi, the unit of
measurement that describes the ability of the apparatus to capture and
receive signals.

“At first we made an antenna to play on the web with some neighborhood
friends, but then we started to sell it and now we have a lot of
interested people,” says the young man, 21, a resident of Santiago de
las Vegas in the south of the Cuban capital. He learned the rudiments of
his work through “some manuals downloaded from the internet,” and since
then he is passionate about designing the stylized anatomy of each
antenna, which he offers for a price between 25 and 40 Cuban Convertible
pesos (roughly the same amount in dollars).

“The one I’m doing now is for a customer who lives near an (Cuban
phone company) wifi network,” says Kirenia. “So you can tap into the
network and navigate from the living room in your house,” she says,
although “ideally there are no great obstacles in the way, like
buildings or trees.”

In one of the countries with the lowest internet penetration in the
world, reaching a Nauta wifi signal from the state service, installed in
some plazas and parks of the country, becomes an obsession for the
antenna “cacharreros,” as Karina calls them. “There are people who live
several kilometers from one of these zones and who want to connect, but
even though the antennas are good, they can’t do magic, because the
signal often is not stable and there are many users connecting at the
same time,” she reflects.

Currently, the island has 1,006 public internet browsing points,
including 200 wifi zones, with a total of 250,000 users connecting every
day, according to recent information released by the Telecommunications
Company of Cuba (Etecsa).

Kirenia’s dream is to buy a LiteBeam, the ultimate “creature” to mount
wireless networks that have entered the country illegally; it looks like
a small satellite and reaches up to 23 dBi. With such a device she
believes she can “make a powerful network to share a good volume of
content.” The girl calls herself a “woman internaut.”

The arrival of the state-owned internet in homes could change the
landscape of the alternative wireless networks. At the end of last year
the government began a connection test with some 2,000 users of the
popular councils in Catedral and Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, but the
timetable for extending access has not yet been made public.

But while waiting for the great World Wide Web to connect them with the
world, Rupert, Kirenia and her brother Amaury are already weaving
invisible threads with their Yagi antennas, NanoStations and LiteBeams.

Source: Cuba’s Wireless Networks, the Web that Envelops the Island /
14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez – Translating Cuba –

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