Why the US can’t just beam internet into authoritarian states like Cuba

Protesters in Miami wave Cuban and American flags.
Protesters in Miami wave Cuban and American flags.
Image: REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona
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After an eruption of historic, nationwide protests on July 11, the Cuban government is blocking its citizens’ access to major social media platforms to quash dissent. Now, the US government says it’s looking for ways to beam uncensored internet access into Cuba.

On July 21, a State Department official confirmed that the Biden administration is “working with the private sector & Congress to identify ways to make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people.” A day earlier, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the South Florida local news station WPBF that restoring internet access in Cuba is a priority for president Joe Biden. “That isn’t easy,” Psaki said. “But he’s going to look for ways, working with his team, to expand ways to do that, or see what our options are.”

There are plenty of proposals from Cuban-American activists, Florida politicians, and members of the Federal Communications Commission for how the US might undermine Havana and connect Cubans to the web. The federal government could clear the regulatory hurdles that prevent Elon Musk from using his satellite network to beam broadband down from space. The government could muster decommissioned hot air balloons from Google’s Loon project to position floating cell towers in the stratosphere above Cuba. The US military could turn its naval base at Guantanamo Bay into a massive wifi hotspot.

Yet daunting technical roadblocks severely limit their potential to bring the free and open web to many Cubans.

For decades, countries like the US ran programs like Radio Free Europe, which broadcast news and entertainment to radio listeners living under the censorship of the Soviet Union. The US has run a similar program for Cuba under the name Radio Martí (named after Cuban independence hero José Martí) since 1985. The broadcasts—much like today’s proposals for a guerilla internet network in Cuba—aim to give citizens access to a broader range of information and empower them to challenge their rulers.

But the internet is not radio. It requires more advanced equipment and a stronger, two-way connection between users and telecommunication networks. Transmitting web content isn’t as easy as firing off a pirate radio broadcast from a boat in international waters.

This helps illustrate why liberal democracies around the world won’t be able to just beam in uncensored internet every time an authoritarian regime cuts its citizens’ access to the web. If the US can’t pull it off in Cuba—a country 90 miles away, which sits within range of some American telecommunications systems and hosts a major US military base—it’s hard to imagine any government or company doing the same in a harder-to-reach region like China’s Xinjiang province.

Google Loons, deflated

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been pushing the White House to consider using hot air balloons to connect Cuba to the web—and Biden has reportedly been considering DeSantis’s pitch. This plan borrows from Google’s now-defunct Loon project, which for a decade used high-altitude weather balloons to float internet equipment into the stratosphere above areas with spotty web connections.

Loon successfully brought internet service to mountainous regions of Kenya and to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria downed much of the country’s mobile network. But the balloons can’t provide internet service all by themselves—they can only extend the range of existing telecom networks into hard-to-reach areas. At some point, they need to connect with terrestrial networks.

Cuba’s state-run ETECSA internet network, obviously, is unlikely to connect with the balloons. While American telecom networks in nearby South Florida could provide connectivity, US mobile networks from companies like AT&T and Verizon aren’t compatible with the SIM cards in most Cubans’ phones, which are configured for the ETECSA network.

Moreover, the balloons need unfettered access to a range of radio frequencies to transmit web data down to people on the ground. The Cuban government could jam those radio signals to scramble any connections between its citizens and the balloons.

Could Starlink satellites send internet from space?

A second idea is to offer web access in Cuba from space using SpaceX’s satellite network, Starlink. The satellites act as relays between people in remote locations and ground stations that are connected to the web via fiber optic cables. If you’re close enough to a web-connected ground station—and you have a satellite phone or a computer connected to a satellite dish—you could use Starlink to get online.

Fortunately, much of Cuba’s landmass does appear to be within range of at least one Starlink station in Punta Gorda, Florida. Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly unlikely that many Cubans have a satellite phone or a Starlink satellite dish. The government tightly controls access to that sort of equipment and harshly punishes foreigners who attempt to smuggle it into the country.

There’s also a legal hurdle: Transmitting the internet into a country against the will of its government is a violation of international law. There’s not much the Cuban government could do to sanction SpaceX CEO Elon Musk if he ever did choose to start a pirate internet broadcast, because he doesn’t do any business in Cuba. But in other countries, like China, authoritarian regimes have much more economic leverage over businessmen like Musk that might make them think twice before challenging the government’s internet censorship.

Guantanamo wifi hotspot

DeSantis also suggested that the US could take advantage of the territory it controls in Cuba—namely, the US embassy in Havana and the military base at Guantanamo Bay—to create wifi hotspots. There are, however, some very sharp limitations on this idea. Wifi hotspots have a limited range that tops out around 50 yards, so Cubans would have to physically cluster around the embassy or base to use the internet. Their physical presence, as well as digital evidence that they’ve connected to the US wifi network, would make it very easy for the government to figure out who is trying to evade censorship.

For now, Cubans’ best hope of getting online is through the use of virtual private networks, a key piece of technology that has allowed people living under repressive regimes all over the world to evade censorship online. Any heroics from the US, at this point, will mostly be performative.