Wireless Networking

Tech-Savvy Cubans Build Their Own Private Internet

Because Cuba’s government makes it difficult for all but a handful of Cubans to access the Internet, people in Havana and other parts of the country have linked thousands of PCs to create an informal network known as “StreetNet,” or “SNet” for short, the AP reported.

The network was built with commercially available equipment. The PCs are connected by WiFi antennae and Ethernet cables strung across streets and over rooftops, the AP said.

SNet’s main uses appear to be sharing gossip and news, accessing popular TV shows and movies, and playing online games.

“It’s probably better to think of [SNet] as a public intranet that doesn’t support aliases,” Charles King, principal at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

Unspoken Agreement

The network is said to consist of powerful PCs with extra-strong WiFi antennas that communicate with each other and act as portals for smaller networks of perhaps a dozen nearby PCs.

The most popular portal in SNet reportedly has more than 7,000 registered users.

It’s said to cost about US$200 to equip a group of computers with the antennas and cables necessary to become a node.

Technically, SNet is illegal, because WiFi equipment use requires a Ministry of Communications license, but the authorities apparently turn a blind eye so long as SNet doesn’t breach Cuban laws.Volunteer administrators ensure that users don’t share pornography, discuss politics, or link up to the World Wide Web through illicit connections.

The self-policing “may be the reason authorities are turning a blind eye,” King suggested. “There’s wisdom in turning a blind eye to minor infractions so you have the energy to address major crimes.”

Although SNet users carefully skirt politics, some daring Cubans with access to the Internet have created a vibrant blogosphere that questions national policies and on occasion has pressured the government to act on issues of public interest.

However, the vast majority of Cubans cannot afford the steep prices for Internet access in the few places it is publicly available.

Issues With SNet

Even joining SNet is too costly for most people — and the system is iffy for those who can.

Connections may be lost if people object to Ethernet cable running over their roofs, as reportedly has happened.

Also, the tolerance can be hit or miss. last year Cuban authorities’ reportedly dismantled several informal WiFi networks

The Net Is Everywhere

Cubans have set up their own cybernetworks not only with PCs, but also with satellite cellphones.

“This is often how the Internet spreads in developing countries — cobbled-together technology networked with a mix of wired and wireless transmission and routing facilities,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

It’s difficult to conceal miles of Ethernet cable running across rooftops or to conceal WiFi routers, but “often in countries like this, as long as you don’t rub the government’s face in what you are doing or are fostering revolt, they’ll leave you alone,” he told TechNewsWorld.

WiFi networks have been widespread in Havana for some time now, “hyperbovine” said in this Hacker News forum about SNet.

It’s easy to acquire a computer in Cuba, “quickvi” said in the same discussion, pointing to the Cuban eBay.

Hope Springs Eternal

The existence of the intranets “is a good example of Cuban ingenuity,” said Sue Rudd, a research director at Strategy Analytics.

They are “similar to [Cubans’] efforts to keep older cars running long after they should have died, without any help from the firms that built the cars,” Enderle said. “This is a unique kind of problem-solving that likely exists in countries that are under heavy sanctions.”

Although the Obama administration is normalizing relations with Cuba, it’s not clear when the country will open up to Internet access.

“You’ll probably need a generational shift in the country’s leadership,” King said. “That will eventually occur, and the thaw [in U.S.-Cuban ties] bodes well for the future.”

The solution “may be more political than cost-based,” Rudd told TechNewsWorld. “American tourists and Cuban migrs might pay for initial service.”

This “would be an ideal place to try Google’s or Facebook’s emerging drone or satellite solutions,” suggested Enderle, “coupled with very low-cost hardware.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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