14ymedio, Ricardo Fernández, Camaguey, 7 February 2018 — The city of Camagüey is experiencing an intense digital transformation thanks to independent wireless networks that connect thousands of users throughout the country. It is a complex framework that carries the Wi-Fi signal from the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) to all neighborhoods and also eliminates censorship.
In this city, in the center of the island, there are only nine wireless zones installed by the state telecommunications monopoly and the majority are located in the most central areas of the city.
In parallel, dozens of NanoStation or Mikrotik devices capture the signal and broadcast it. That web of connections not only offers a cheaper internet experience but one that is also free from censorship thanks to the fact that the flow of data passes through virtual private networks (VPNs).
Previously it was the users who, on an individual basis, made a joke of censorship through anonymous proxies. Now, it is the administrators of the nodes who are in charge of doing it.
“What started with some guys offering Wi-Fi connections through a laptop is now a well-structured business that takes the Internet to all neighborhoods,” one of the young administrators of one of the most popular networks, who prefers to be called “AA” (Anonymous Administrator), tells 14ymedio.
The official service costs 1 Cuban convertible peso (CUC) for each hour of navigation, but local entrepreneurs make it possible for the same connection to be shared among several users in order to reduce costs. The price can fall to less than half the ETECSA rate and even go as low as 0.30 CUC an hour.
The purchase of service is made directly through those who manage the antennas, and prepaid cards have been created for that purpose. Regular customers benefit from the signal reaching the doors of their houses and others who receive a weakened signal, because they are further away, at least no longer have to travel long distances.
The commercialization of ETECSA’s Nauta Hogar service that supports Internet browsing in private homes began in the city on December 11. Right now, this service is available only in three of the council districts in the city and Internet users do not want to wait for Etecsa to extend the service to all neighborhoods.
The alternative network also offers the advantage that “you can access the pages stapled [i.e. blocked] by the government,” ’AA’ tells 14ymedio. The government censors dozens of sites, including this independent newspaper and the webpages of human rights organizations.
Last September a report from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), an organization associated with the anonymous network project and the free VPN tool Tor, revealed that after analyzing access to more than 1,400 web pages in three cities on the Island between May and June of 2017, it detected that at least 41 of them were blocked.
Most of the blocked sites belong to independent media and opposition organizations, so OONI concluded that the only Internet provider in Cuba, ETECSA, censors sites that “express criticism (direct or indirect) towards the Government.”
“The private [providers] not only have better prices but the user’s final experience is more pleasant”, says Mandy, 34, an administrator of a dozen antennas that provide service in Havana. “At the beginning we transmitted the ETECSA signal as it came to us but now we’re trying to give a superior service.”
Contracting with an efficient VPN means that these entrepreneurs must have a credit card for online payments, an obstacle they skillfully overcome through contacts abroad. “We take out our MasterCards and pay the fees for the different services so that our internet is really free,” explains another young Camaguey computer expert.
The business is attracting many interested in joining. The initial investment to manage your own node is around 500 CUC. The most expensive part of hosting is the NanoStation or the Mikrotik — costing up to about 200 CUC — and the rest of the capital is invested in routers or switches and mobile phones.
“All the sending and receiving equipment is configured through telephones so as not to use computers, in this way we minimize the damage if the police search us [and sieze the equipment],” AA explains.
Some of these wireless networks have managed to get official backing by signing up with the Youth Computer Clubs as communities dedicated to video games. Other distributors prefer to mask the network so that it is visible only to customers who pay for the service.
“This is not a business to get rich, but it gives us enough to live on. We have taken advantage of the lack of a laws [that we could be charged under], although we know that if they set the police on us everything would be complicated,” acknowledges AA.
However, much remains to be done. “The connection gets slow at peak times,” Yunior Rodriguez, a young man from the Guernica neighborhood, who connects from his home portal to one of these alternative networks, comments to this newspaper. He appreciates that the independent providers have a more attractive access interface than ETECSA does.
“There are the little things that make the difference: the homepage of the network where I have to put my user data is updated regularly,” he explains. Once again, competition knocks at the door of Etecsa, which since the beginning of its web browsing service has not changed its access portal or carried out many other improvements in the service.
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