The Wireless Network that Puts the Cuban Government in Check

SNet has turned its users into the best organized and connected group in Cuba outside the ruling party. (Karla Gómez)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 August 2019 — Its users cannot talk about politics or religion, but even so, the Street Network (SNet), which connects tens of thousands of Cubans through the Wi-Fi signal, has become a place of citizen freedom and convergence. This virtual web, where people play, chat and exchange content, is now in the eye of the official censors after new legislation that regulates the use of radio spectrum space on the Island took effect on 29 July.

Creativity has been an escape valve in Cuba for decades of material deficiencies and excessive control. As recipes are invented in kitchens to make the few ingredients sold in the markets less boring, many young people use offline tools that replace part of the experiences they might have on the web to alleviate internet connectivity problems.

SNet was born more than a decade ago, precisely, as a space for videogames, forums, social media substitutes and the transfer of files among those who did not have the ability to frequently access the world wide web. With devices bought mostly on the black market and others manufactured by the users themselves, customers began to connect, the first nodes emerged and even administrators appeared to manage a phenomenon that intertwined Havana with invisible threads.

During all this time they existed in a legal vacuum, somewhat tolerated by an officialdom that preferred to have those thousands of young people more focused on learning the latest videogames than on exercising some civic posture. But even so, SNet never pleased the Plaza of the Revolution, especially because it allowed people to connect and create communities beyond ideology and politics. For a government obsessed with knowing every detail in the lives of its citizens, that was a danger.

In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized in. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

 The new legislation for wireless networks gives SNet legality but has put it on the verge of death. The regulations include rigid technical requirements that, if met, would reduce the range, speed and number of users that can connect. It is a regulation that seeks to cut the influence of this network underpinned by NanoStations and Mikrotiks, some of the devices that compose it. The official decision is a way to kill it without prohibiting it, to diminish its importance by limiting its technology.

The users’ response was not long in coming. Last Saturday dozens of people gathered in front of the Ministry of Communications to demand a special license that allows SNet to continue operating. Several of the protesters proposed that the authorities use the network infrastructure to enhance the computerization of Cuban society and that the state telecommunications monopoly, Etecsa, make agreements with administrators that allow access to the Internet through its nodes and antennas

The official response has not been positive and SNet users are preparing for new actions. In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized and connected community that exists in Cuba beyond the official mass organizations. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

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This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.