Jan 26 ,2015

HAVANA (AP) — Cut off from the Internet, young Cubans have quietly
linked thousands of computers into a hidden network that stretches
miles across Havana, letting them chat with friends, play games and
download hit movies in a mini-replica of the online world that most
can’t access.

Home Internet connections are banned for all but a handful of Cubans,
and the government charges nearly a quarter of a month’s salary for an
hour online in government-run hotels and Internet centers. As a
result, most people on the island live offline, complaining about
their lack of access to information and contact with friends and
family abroad.

A small minority have covertly engineered a partial solution by
pooling funds to create a private network of more than 9,000 computers
with small, inexpensive but powerful hidden Wi-Fi antennas and
Ethernet cables strung over streets and rooftops spanning the entire
city. Disconnected from the real Internet, the network is limited,
local and built with equipment commercially available around the
world, with no help from any outside government, organizers say.

Hundreds are online at any moment pretending to be orcs or U.S.
soldiers in multiplayer online games such as “World of Warcraft” or
“Call of Duty.” They trade jokes and photos in chat rooms and organize
real-world events like house parties or trips to the beach.

“We really need Internet because there’s so much information online,
but at least this satisfies you a little bit because you feel like,
`I’m connected with a bunch of people, talking to them, sharing
files,” said Rafael Antonio Broche Moreno, a 22-year-old electrical
engineer who helped build the network known as SNet, short for

Cuba’s status as one of the world’s least-wired countries is central
to the new relationship Washington is trying to forge with Havana. As
part of a new policy seeking broader engagement, the Obama
administration hopes that encouraging wider U.S. technology sales to
the island will widen Internet access and help increase Cubans’
independence from the state and lay the groundwork for political

Cuban officials say Internet access is limited largely because the
U.S. trade embargo has prevented advanced U.S. technology from
reaching Cuba and starved the government of the cash it needs to buy
equipment from other nations. But the government says that while it is
open to buying telecommunications equipment from the U.S., it sees no
possibility of changing its broader system in exchange for normal
relations with the U.S.

Outside observers and many Cubans blame the lack of Internet on the
government’s desire to control the populace and to use
disproportionately high cellphone and Internet charges as a source of
cash for other government agencies.

Cuba prohibits the use of Wi-Fi equipment without a license from the
Ministry of Communications, making SNet technically illegal. Broche
Moreno said he believes the law gives authorities latitude to allow
networks like SNet to operate. He described a sort of tacit
understanding with officials that lets SNet run unmolested as long as
it respects Cuban law – its hundreds of nodes are informally monitored
by volunteer administrators who make sure users don’t share
pornography, discuss politics or link SNet to illicit connections to
the real Internet.

“We aren’t anonymous because the country has to know that this type of
network exists. They have to protect the country and they know that
9,000 users can be put to any purpose,” he said. “We don’t mess with
anybody. All we want to do is play games, share healthy ideas. We
don’t try to influence the government or what’s happening in Cuba …
We do the right thing and they let us keep at it.”

Users who break rules can be blocked from the network by their peers
for as a little as a day for minor infractions such as slowing down
SNet with file-sharing outside prescribed hours, with lifetime bans
for violations like distributing pornography.

“Users show a lot of respect for preserving the network, because it’s
the only one they have,” Broche Moreno said. “But me and the other
administrators are watching things to make sure the network does what
it’s meant for.”

The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment on the network.

Before Obama moved to restore full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the U.S.
made several attempts to leverage technology against the Cuban
government. Contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison
after a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor sent him
to Cuba to set up satellite Internet connections. He was freed after
five years as part of the deal last month that paved the way for
Obama’s new Cuba policy.

A separate USAID contractor tried to build a text message-based social
network called Zunzuneo whose brief existence was revealed in an
Associated Press investigation last year.

Joining SNet requires resources out of reach of many people in a
country where the average salary hovers around $25 a month.

Humberto Vinas, 25, studied medical technology and accounting before
finding a relatively well-paying job in the kitchen of a bar. He and
nine friends shared an SNet node for several months, running hundreds
of feet of Ethernet cable over neighbors’ roofs until one demanded
they take it down, disconnecting most from the network.

“I miss SNet a lot,” he said sadly. “You can find out about soccer
scores. It allows you to do so much, right from your home.”

Cubans have one of the hemisphere’s highest average levels of
education and years of practice at improvising solutions to scarcity,
allowing many to access and share information despite enormous
barriers. For as little as a dollar a week or less, many Cubans
receive what’s known as “the package,” weekly deliveries of pirated TV
shows, movies, magazines and instructional texts and videos saved on
USB memory drives.

There is no obvious indication the U.S. or any other foreign
government or group had anything to do with the creation of SNet,
making it by far the most impressive example of Cuba’s homemade
telecommunications engineering.

The network is a series of connected nodes, powerful home computers
with extra-strong Wi-Fi antennas that communicate with each other
across relatively long distances and distribute signals to a smaller
network of perhaps a dozen other computers in the immediate vicinity.

SNet started as a handful of connected users around 2001 and stayed
that way for a decade. More than 9,000 computers have connected over
the past five years, and about 2,000 users connect on an average day.

Many use SNet to get access to popular TV shows and movies. The system
also stores a copy of Wikipedia. It’s not necessarily current, but is
routinely refreshed by users with true Internet access. There’s also a
homegrown version of a social network that functions similarly to

Because most data passes from computer to computer in SNet, everything
takes place much faster than on the achingly slow and expensive
connections available from government servers that pass all
information through central points.

Broche Moreno estimated it costs about $200 to equip a group of
computers with the antennas and cables needed to become a new node,
meaning the cost of networking all the computers in SNet could be as
little as $200,000. Similar but smaller networks exist in other Cuban
cities and provinces.

“It’s proof that it can be done,” said Alien Garcia, a 30-year-old
systems engineer who publishes a magazine on information technology
that’s distributed by email and storage devices. “If I as a private
citizen can put up a network with far less income than a government, a
country should be able to do it, too, no?”

Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.