Cuba’s network without internet

One of the few countries that don’t have a fully functioning internet access is Cuba. It is partially because the government wants to keep a tight lid on information and partially because of US sanctions which make it hard to important any telecom or related equipment. As per an Harper’s article, in 2017, there were only 53 Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana all run by the state telecom monopoly (ETECSA) and internet could be accessed by buying vouchers with scratch codes(!). Vouchers go for 1.5 Cuban convertible pesos (1 CUC = $1) per hour. But that’s it – personal internet connections are rare and tightly controlled (according to Freedom House, only 2% of Cuba’s population gets online regularly).

So, when I read this article – I was blown away by how information and culture can find its way regardless of constraints. I discovered that Cubans have created a rich thriving offline world by means of something called as ‘El Paquete Semanal’ (the weekly packet). Some of you may remember pre-internet days where some magazines in India came along with a CD. This CD had all sorts of applications and games– ranging from anti-virus to video editors to games. This Paquete is something like that – except that instead of CDs it’s hard disks and instead of applications it’s everything!!

The way it works is that there are three ‘producers’ who create a sort of master hard disk. These distributors copy trailers, books, movies, Khan Academy shows, manga comics, music, anthropology shows, discovery tv episodes, weekly soaps, tv series, and so on. These master hard disks are then passed over to a few distributors who then copy over all this content into their own hard disks. From there on, there are an estimated 45,000 (!) couriers who in turn copy selected media and content onto their own hard disks or flash drives to deliver to individual customers. Some people may want Blue Blood episodes, some may want videos that teach a language, some may want programming videos – the Paquete man knows their customers tastes and preferences. The end customer, then copies content that they want onto their PC and hand back the hard disk/flash drive to Paquete man. Paquete man also takes requests – it could be specific show or movie (latest Avengers) or general guidance (learning C++) – these are then passed up the chain. It is not clear how these ‘producers’ are able to lay their hands on so much content – but everyone just assumes that it is someone high up in the government who has access to high speed internet and satellite TV. This way people in Cuba, which is one of world’s most closed economies, access same content as us, albeit with some delay.

These producers have opened another revenue stream for themselves by inserting advertisements for local businesses into videos. You may be watching latest episode of Black Mirror and at some point, during the episode, instead of Walmart you may see an ad for a local restaurant.

Some producers and dealers have also entered the mobile world by creating an ecosystem of offline apps (don’t remember last time I used one). These apps have everything from restaurant reviews to photos on demand.

And Cuban’s are not stopping at Paquete or offline apps. There is also a parallel free internet that has been built by physically linking some 20,000 homes. It’s called SNet and has now become a thriving portal for social media, dating and sharing videos.

Given the nature of Cuban state, it’s a certainty that government is aware of existence of Paquete or apps or SNet but these are tolerated – for now! And just to be sure, producers and distributors make sure that no content of political nature or pornography is circulated via their hard disks. They know that Cuban government can shut them down in a day if they want – so it’s best to stay on the right side and be tolerated.

We have it so good, right? Enjoy your unfettered access…..

You can read this detailed and great article by Harpers here.

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