Friday, June 20, 2014

Cuba's WiFi crackdown -- substance or theater?

The New Republic blog reported on a crackdown on a 120-user WiFi network in Havana on May 26 and the Miami Herald reported on that crackdown and three others, one of which had 400 users.

When one hears of a "120-400 user network," one might imagine 120-400 simultaneous users downloading files, posting social media content, communicating with each other and, even, maybe, accessing the Internet. But that is unrealistic.

The articles report that these were WiFi mesh networks. I worked on two WiFi mesh networks around ten years ago and in spite of having fast backhaul to the Internet (by Cuban standards) they were limited in physical range, speed and the ability to serve many simultaneous users. (For more on these networks in the figures at the end of this post).

So, ten years ago, router overhead and link bandwidth severely limited WiFi mesh networks. But, what about today's improved equipment, as used in Cuba? The articles mentioned above say the networks used Ubiquity Nanostation M2 outdoor routers, shown here:

These are much faster and have better antennas and radios than we had ten years ago, but they are WiFi devices, designed for local area networks. I have no experience with the Nanostation M2, but I checked the "most helpful" five-star review on Amazon. The review was written by an installer, who states that "One customer uses them for a bridge covering 300' line of sight ... and gets 150 Mbps throughput, which is fantastic." That is better than the equipment we used ten years ago, but it does not sound like a link in a network in which multiple users are simultaneously downloading the latest episode of their favorite TV show from a PC server or surfing the Web (Cuban or World Wide).

I suspect, though do not know, that the routers are running Commotion, a mesh networking program developed by the New America Foundation with funding from USAID. They have piloted networks in a number of cities but I am not familiar with any reports giving performance and capcity data. If you have used a WiFi mesh network in Cuba, I would love to hear about your experience.

Given the limitations of WiFi and the need to keep antennas out of site, I suspect that Cuban WiFi networks are primarily serving and being used by tech enthusiasts -- like our pre-Internet dial-up bulletin boards. These networks would have a hard time competing with shared flash drives for distributing music, video and software and they do not offer a practical, sharable path to the Internet or the Cuban intranet -- they do not seem to me to pose a political threat.

(We can imagine future mesh networks using very fast cell phones with smart, non-WiFi radios as posing a political threat -- see this speculative paper on a mesh network in North Korea).

If I am correct, why did the government bother to shut these networks down and why is the enforcement somewhat sporadic?

Cracking down on these networks is reminiscent of, though less tragic than, the Alan Gross case in that the government is overstating their threat. Had Alan Gross succeeded, it would have meant little, and, if my speculation about the performance of these mesh networks is accurate, they too have little political or practical importance.

Enforcement also seems to be selective. Several networks were closed down, but people openly advertise WiFi equipment and weekly packets of entertainment and software for sale on the Revolico Web site, for example:

They may have stopped these networks as a PR/propaganda measure -- for internal and external consumption. Perhaps it is just a general slap to intimidate people who are uncertain as to what the rules and regulations really are -- to let them know who is boss. Another possibility is that these networks might be seen as a threat to ETECSA's revenue. It does not seem like much today, but one could imagine mesh networks as one day impacting ETECSA's bottom line.

It seems that issue of WiFi networks was included as part of a discussion at a forum in Havana earlier this week. Were you there?

Update June 24, 2014

I have had off-the-record conversations about these WiFi hotspots with people in Cuba since writing this post. They say there are many such networks -- possibly in every large or medium size city in Cuba -- and the networks are not political. There are unwritten rules against political discussion and a member could be banned for breaking them. They say the major uses are sharing programs, songs and videos and playing games.

This tends to confirm my suspicion that these are more like hobbyist bulletin boards than a political threat and still leaves me speculating about the motive is for closing some of them.

Two WiFi mesh networks -- ten years ago

This university housing network was a class project connecting 22 small apartment buildings to 100 Mbps backhaul links (in the red buildings). The three buildings on the lower left were unable to connect to the backhaul points, so we installed a two-hop mesh to extend the network to them. The addition of a single hop added significant latency and we could not have realistically gone further. 

Around the same time, I worked on a public-access WiFi mesh network with a radius of around 2,000 feed for laptops with external antennas in downtown Hermosa Beach, California. The meshed computers shared a 6 Mbps backhaul link, as shown here, the traffic was spiky, but spikes saturated this link at times.

Update 11/21/2014

A friend forwarded me a link to a story on another crackdown on a Cuban WiFi network. Five men were arrested and their equipment confiscated.

As we see above, this and similar networks do not pose a political threat and, indeed, the charges against the five were not political, but economic -- the arrests were the result of a complaint by Cuban State Radio and the men were charged with illegal economic activity.

This sounds like a desire to protect an economic monopoly and it reminds me of the efforts of Internet service providers in the United States lobbying for state laws that prohibit local governments from offering broadband service.

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, has said he would seek to invalidate those laws. Perhaps small WiFi networks like this (and "sneaker nets") should be considered legitimate small businesses and encouraged as part of the Cuban Small Business Initiative.

Update 2/8/2015

Ted Henken found an article describing Street Net (SNET), a large WiFi network in Havana.

The post describes the network and its uses (a lot of gaming) and gives a list of 14 rules of membership, including:
  • Don't speak of politics or religion.
  • Don't post illegal material like pornography or television programs.
  • Don't charge for services offered on the network.
Evidently the restrictions they place on users are sufficient to keep the government from closing them down -- they are far from secret. It is interesting to note that they seem to have banned the posting of copyrighted material while weekly information "packages" publish TV shows, movies, magazines, etc. I've read the hypotheses that the weekly packages are distributed by the government -- perhaps SNET is staying out of their territory.

I also skimmed the comments. One said -- perhaps half seriously and half gallows humor -- that it was a good article and he hoped the network would not mysteriously disappear after it was published. The author replied that he was not worried because the network was well known and would have been closed down long ago if it bothered the government.