US politicians are asking President Joe Biden to beam Internet connectivity into Cuba after protests led to a state-sanctioned social media blackout.
July saw Cubans protesting against shortages of food and medicine and the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Reports claim this month’s protests were the largest since the 1994 Maleconazo uprising.
As a result, Internet watchdog NetBlocks reported that social media and messaging platforms within Cuba were being blocked from July 12. The BBC reports the state claimed the protests were "organized and financed" from the United States, and egged on by a "perverse" and coordinated communications campaign on social media.
"I have irrefutable proof that the majority of those that took part in this [Internet] campaign were in the United States and used automated systems to make content go viral, without being penalized by Twitter," Cuba's Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez said.
Beaming Internet into Cuba
Currently, only the state-owned telco ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba) is allowed to grant access to the Internet or the web within the country.
However, the US currently runs Radio Martí; a radio and TV station which broadcasts news in Spanish to Cuba akin to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty model used during the Cold War. In the wake of the protests, some officials are suggesting a similar model be applied to supply Internet access to the country from US-based infrastructure.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has urged President Biden to help provide Internet access to Cubans on the island remotely.
“The Cuban people have lost their ability to communicate with one another and many Floridians born in Cuba have no information on the safety of their loved ones,” DeSantis wrote in a letter to the President. “Technology exists to provide Internet access into Cuba remotely, using the innovation of American enterprise and the diverse industries here.”
According to the Washington Post, De Santis has said a number of options including satellite broadband, balloon-based connectivity (a la Google’s now-defunct Project Loon), or using the US Embassy in Havana as a WiFi hotspot should be considered.
A number of officials, including FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, Senator Marco Rubio, and Representatives María Elvira Salazar and Carlos Giménez joined De Santis’ requests.
“Radio Televisión Martí continues to broadcast and deliver messages of freedom to the people of Cuba. It is time to build on this model and include the delivery of Internet service,” said Carr.
“I ask that it become an urgent priority of the United States to facilitate open and free satellite Internet access on the island of Cuba,” said Rubio.
“In recent years, American firms have made significant strides in telecommunications technologies, including fiber-less solutions that can be deployed to remote regions at relatively short notice,” added Rubio. “For example, in 2017, during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the island of Puerto Rico received emergency connectivity through balloon-supplied Internet. American technical capacity, coupled with the physical proximity of Cuba to the United States and its interests, make providing unrestricted access to the island an attainable and morally imperative goal. Today, US companies stand ready and willing to support this effort with the support of the federal government.”
Rep. Salazar even suggested that the Biden administration could enhance the WiFi from Guantánamo Bay, saying “this can be done in minutes.”
The White House said the President was looking into the issue.
“We’re considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access,” President Biden said.
“We are working with the private sector & Congress to identify ways to make the Internet more accessible to the Cuban people,” added Acting Assistant Secretary for US Department of State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung.
WiFi unlikely, satellite impractical, balloons uneconomical
As a number of outlets reported, WiFi has a limited range and therefore wouldn’t be practical beyond the local range of the Embassy or Guantánamo Bay site. Satellite-based Internet, whether from traditional providers, or the new breed of Low Earth Orbit constellations from the likes of SpaceX’s Starlink require ground receivers.
While balloon-based connectivity could work in theory; the Cuban government would likely be able to block the incoming signals.
Despite commercial deployments in Kenya and Mozambique, Google announced it was closing its Loon project earlier this year. It said that while technically the project was functional, it wasn’t able to make a viable economic business case.
While a determined Government might be willing to take on the losses of a potential balloon deployment, many experts say the limited navigation capabilities and on-board power means that Loon was never the most practical method for supplying stratospheric Internet at scale.
A number of companies, however, are looking at fixed-wing drones as a way to deliver connectivity more efficiently. The likes of SoftBank, BAE, and telcos such as Deutsche Telekom are in various stages of testing to deploy large solar-and-battery-powered High Altitude Pseudo-Satellites (HAPS) that are able to fly remotely (with the eventual aim to fly autonomously), hold station in a fixed area, and beam either broadband or cellphone signal below.