On Thursday, July 15, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Cuban American Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr held a press conference where they discussed the possibility of the United States helping to reestablish the Internet in Cuba when the island’s citizens are protesting against the Castro regime. Senator Marco Rubio, also a Cuban-American and Republican from Florida, asked the president to do the same.
During the press conference, Governor DeSantis asked the Biden administration to provide Internet access to the people of Cuba who are rising up against communist oppression and demanding a voice after decades of suffering under the yoke of a cruel dictatorship.
Rep. Salazar said, “America is the home of innovation. No one does it better than us. We have Bezos. We have Google. We have Microsoft. We have Apple. We work best when the private joins the public sector. Now it’s up to the president to unlock this capability. The administration can do this now and must do this now.”
Can the U.S. re-establish internet on the island so that the Cuban people can continue to send videos demonstrating, denouncing repression and calling for freedom to the world?
According to Commissioner Carr’s statement at the press conference, helping Cubans access the Internet “is not a technology problem.” In fact, helping the protesters would be a matter of political will.
El American reached out to the commissioner to delve deeper into what options the Biden administration has to help with the challenge of returning connectivity to Cuba.
“I believe the U.S. should take a two-track approach here,” Mr. Carr said. “First, the U.S. should support the introduction of new Internet services to the island (whether it’s the high-altitude balloons that the FCC approved for use after the hurricane in Puerto Rico or the addition of wi-fi services from our embassy in Havana or the introduction of new satellite Internet services). We know this technology works.”
“Secondly,” the commissioner continued, “the United States should strengthen support for circumvention technologies, such as VPNs. “Psiphon is one of the most popular among people in Cuba right now. This method of circumvention is having and will continue to have an immediate impact.”
The Wall Street Journal: “Communist firewall must be broken.”
The editorial board for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), as well as Commissioner Carr — who endorsed on Twitter the newspaper’s editorial — said that the United States has the possibility of helping the reestablishment of connectivity in Cuba; if that is what the Biden administration wants.
According to the editorial, “Despots have often sought to crush democratic uprisings by shutting down the internet. Cuba’s Communist government did so last week, but President Biden can leverage U.S. technology to tear down Cuba’s cyberwall.”
“Mr. Biden told reporters his administration is ‘considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access’ in Cuba. The U.S. does have that ability, though it won’t be without logistical challenges. The question is whether the Administration has the political will to do it” the WSJ board explains.
“Some Cubans have been using a censorship-circumvention tool known as Psiphon to access websites, though connectivity is slow and not secure. Another technology the U.S. could deploy is high-altitude balloons that float in international airspace. Google pioneered the technology with its startup Loon, which aimed to connect remote and rural areas of the developing world. Tennis-court-size aerial balloons function as selfnavigating wireless cell towers that can deliver mobile internet coverage over more than 4,000 square miles.”
El American also consulted Commissioner Carr on the possibility and obstacles posed by the hot air balloon option.
“As for technical feasibility (…) we know it works. The FCC approved the high-altitude balloon technology for use in Puerto Rico in 2017. The US inserted satellite Internet devices into Cuba in 2013 and 2014ish only to stop doing so for what reporting says are political reasons”.
In 2017, the U.S. government worked with Loon to help Puerto Rico regain Internet access after damage from Hurricane Maria. Likewise, “Loon also successfully tested the technology in remote areas of Peru and Kenya, though the project was shut down in January because Alphabet, Google’s parent company, said it was too difficult to build a commercially viable business model.”
South Dakota-based manufacturer Raven Industries, the company that built the balloons for Loon, is still in business. “The Biden administration could work with it and Loon’s former engineers to jump-start the project. While the service might be somewhat slow, it would require relatively minimal government investment,” reads the WSJ.
Likewise, The Associated Press also published a report explaining how feasible is the idea of using high altitude balloons to supply Internet to Cubans. AP explains and confirms that it is an interesting possibility, explaining the characteristics of this technique:
“The Loon balloons were effectively cell towers the size of a tennis court. They floated 60,000 to 75,000 feet, or 11 to 14 miles (18,000- 23,000 meters, or 18-22 kilometers), above the Earth, well above commercial jetliner routes. Made of the commonplace plastic polyethylene, the balloons used solar panels for electricity and could deliver service to smartphones in partnership with a local telecom.”
“Each balloon could serve thousands of people, the company said. But they had to be replaced every five months or so because of the harsh conditions in the stratosphere,” the news agency adds.
In addition, the balloon network could be established over a distance of more than 1,000 kilometers: “Loon used multiple balloons to extend connections beyond the necessary ground link. In one 2018 test, Loon said the connection jumped 1,000 kilometers, or about 620 miles, over 7 balloons. Another time, it bridged a wireless connection over 600 kilometers, or about 370 miles, between two balloons. Cuba and Florida are only about 100 miles (160 kilometers) apart at their closest”.
As points against, there are experts who point out that it would not be too easy to set up the network. “It would need an unused band of spectrum, or radio frequencies, to transmit a connection to Cuba, and spectrum use is typically controlled by national governments. Anyone trying this would have to find a free block of spectrum that wouldn’t be interfered with, said Jacob Sharony, of Mobius Consulting, a mobile and wireless consulting firm.”
In addition, “Balloon, or drone-powered networks aren’t likely to be economical over the long term” and wouldn’t serve all Cubans.
In an article for Bloomberg, Eli Lake, explained that the protests in Cuba are driven neither by Cuban opposition leaders nor by the Castro regime’s false claim of American intervention, but by the spontaneous organization via social networks of disgruntled citizens. For this reason, the regime cuts off online services.
“The Biden administration has been talking with private companies to pursue the feasibility of providing Cuba with an alternative to the state’s internet service provider. One option is to use communications satellites to link up with satellite phones. Another is to create the equivalent of mobile phone towers in hot-air balloons that would float over the island. Len Khodorkovsky, who advised the State Department’s program to reach out to Iran’s social media during President Donald Trump’s administration, told me that the technology existed to turn the internet on in Cuba, and that similar programs had been tried with some success in Iran in 2018 and 2019.”
In a way, beyond the complexity and challenge of setting up an Internet network “in guerrilla mode” on an island more than a hundred kilometers away, the cause is worth it. Cubans today are being disappeared and repressed; some use VPNs to circumvent the regime’s censorship, but it is not enough. An alternative option would further complicate Castroism and would be a direct endorsement to the citizens of the island who are today fighting for their freedom.
A week has passed and the Biden Administration has not made any further pronouncement on the issue. El American attempted to contact the White House for an update on the reestablishment of Internet in Cuba, but there was no response.