Cuba's digital destination
By Rosario Falls
The shortest distance between two points is defined by the type of connection those points have managed to establish between them. In the virtual era, places separated by trans-Atlantic kilometers may be quite close thanks to the World Wide Web; on the other hand, neighboring towns may appear to be separated by half a universe should the digital breach have been imposed upon them.
Everyone knows this, but not everyone deals with it in the same way. For years Cuba has been relegated to the soft shoulders of virtual highways. In 2014 it only had slightly over two hundred users connected to the Internet for every thousand inhabitants. Two years later, when Cubans now have daily access to the net, there are over 150,000 users, a figure which represents approximately 1.25 percent of the population.
That’s one reality of the matter. The other reality shows us how Cuban universities are continuously turning out professionals in the informatics and telecommunications fields, course after course, and many other professionals are graduating from technical schools. All of this, as anyone with a minimum of two megabytes available in their head can imagine, brings with it results that go far beyond the expectations and calculations of our planning bureaus.
And so, from house to house, an alternate solution began to appear around 2001. It was a self-managed network that came to be called the Street Network (or SNET) and also as the Republic of Gamer (or RoG) and it now takes in some 8,000 computers in Havana alone. They are linked via M2 and M5 NanoStations, generating private Wifi and LAN networks crisscrossing the capital from Cojímar to the east of Havana to the town of Bauta in neighboring Artemisa Province to the west. Other similar networks, even though they have a more reduced geographic scope, have also sprouted in cities like Matanzas, Santa Clara, Camagüey or Holguín, further to the eastern end of the Island.
With no connections to the world web right from their beginnings, since they have no legal status for distributing and commercializing the Internet through its infrastructure, SNET is local and limited. But in the words of twenty-something-year-old Rafael Broche, one of the engineers who participated in creating the net, “At least we feel connected to a whole bunch of people. We’re talking to them and sharing files.”
That is one of the chief virtues of SNET: it has platforms configured for playing Warcraft, Call of Duty, Dota 2, FIFA, WOW, BattleField, Starcraft, and also for using several thematic forums as well as the TeamSpeak app, which lets you voice-chat with anybody who is connected. You can also download movies or popular TV programs, consult a copy of Wikipedia filed on the servers or have access to an ingenious Cuban version of Facebook.
As in any community, some basic principles govern the functioning of SNET. For example, it is completely free of charge, does not provide Internet services, TV channels, pornography or anything else considered to be illegal, and you cannot use obscene language. That is one of the survival strategies agreed to by the administrators who invested in the technology that today supports the network.
Without a doubt, SNET is one of the best examples of Cuban improvisation, applying telecommunications engineering in order to generate an organized structure with ethical rules and techniques, which, even though it doesn’t provide the solution, does ameliorate the condition of virtual non-connectivity and puts thousands of young people who are craving interactions into lucid and creative relationships. Each of them leapt over the virtual gap with whatever they had at hand—their knowledge, their enthusiasm and their capacity to bring to reality the dreams for which they did not want to wait any longer.