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Informal WiFi Networks Have Been Dismantled in Havana

Foto: cubadebate.cu

Nauta, public Internet access center in Cuba. Photo from cubadebate.cu. Used with permission.

Over the course of the last month, several blogs [es] and media outlets have reported on the dismantling of wifi networks in the capital city of Havana, Cuba, by the country's authorities. 

These artisanal networks are not connected to the Internet, and work through high-power devices that amplify the wireless signal, like NanoM2, which are purchased in the black market at prices reaching USD $230. 

The networks are primarily used to play games, share TV shows, series, and movies. At his blog, La red cubana, Larry Press reports that when you hear of a network with anywhere between 120 and 400 users, you could imagine 120 to 400 users simultaneously downloading archives, posting content on social media, and communicating with each other. “But this is unrealistic,” he says. According to Press, the devices used to create and operate these networks, specifically the NanoM2, have certain merits, but do not allow “multiple users to simultaneously download the latest episode of their favorite television show from a PC server or browse the Web”. 

To date, Cuban authorities had not impeded these informal connections, but the existence of groups of friends and neighbors that “began to link their personal routers about a decade ago for use in multiplayer computer games” was known, the Miami Herald noted

Larry Press explains: 

Sospecho, aunque no lo sepan, que los routers están ejecutando Commotion, un programa de red desarrollado por la Fundación New America, con financiamiento de USAID. Ellos han puesto a prueba las redes en varias ciudades, pero no estoy familiarizado con los informes que dan sobre los datos de rendimiento y capacidad.

I suspect, although they don't know it, that the routers are running Commotion, a network program developed by the New America Foundation, with funding from USAID. They have tested the networks in several cities, but I'm not familiar with the reports that provide date on performance and capacity. 

In a Facebook debate a few weeks ago on telecommunications and Internet access in Cuba, Yosbani Deya pointed out that “the Agency of Control and Supervision of the Ministry of Communications of Cuba (…) prohibits by law any radiation over 100mW in WiFi APs of 2,4GHz”. 

Nonetheless, journalist and professor Milena Recio, said that [es]: 

Hace un año apareció el servicio Nauta, que venía con dos promesas: bajar los precios e implementar redes WiFi… Ninguna de las dos han sido cumplidas. Y de eso no se habla. Luego, llegan noticias de desmantelamientos de redes en barrios de La Habana. El marco legal no está claro. ETECSA tiene una concesión de exclusividad para el uso del espacio radioeléctrico con fines de telecomunicaciones. Concesión que es renovada una y otra vez y no se discute con nadie. Estas redes WiFi, barriales, son a-legales, y a-legal es también, hasta donde entiendo, su desmantelamiento policía mediante.

A year ago a service called Nauta appeared and came with two promises: lowering prices and implementing WiFi networks … Neither of the two were kept. And no one speaks about this. Then, news comes of dismantling networks in Havana neighborhoods. The legal framework is unclear. ETECSA has an exclusive concession for the use of radio telecommunication space. A concession that is renewed time and time again, and not discussed with anyone. These neighborhood WiFi networks are neither legal nor illegal, and so is their dismantlement by the police, as far as I understand. 

To date, it is not known if wifi networks will continue to be dismantled in municipalities throughout Havana and others located in different provinces in the country. Larry Press ventures to say that it could be a pressure and control mechanism “to intimidate users in a context where there is uncertainty about what the rules are”. Another possibility is that “these networks could be seen as a threat to ETECSA's revenues.”

The featured image in this post is by Ed Yourdon from Flickr, used under the CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

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