Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The US and Cuba both overestimate the impact of small Internet ground stations

The Alan Gross case has been in the news, but Phil Peters just posted a description of another attempt to smuggle satellite Internet ground stations on his blog the Cuban Triangle. The ground stations were the type used by people in rural areas who cannot get cable or DSL connections, and the antennae were disguised as surf boards. Peters summarizes the failed attempt and links to a Spanish language post with several photos of the equipment and a Cuban TV program on the project:


Let's put these smuggling attempts in context. In my recent report on the state of the Internet in Cuba, I observed that there were reportedly over 300,000 mobile phones (2008) and 455,000 Internet-connected computers (2009) in Cuba.

How many cell phones, laptops or ground stations could Gross or this project have brought in without attracting attention? Had these efforts succeeded, they would have had a negligible marginal impact -- they would have been minuscule drops in the bucket. Both the US and Cuba appear to have grossly overestimated the possible impact of this equipment.

As I have shown in an earlier post, low-speed satellite ground stations are quite limited, but the Cuban government has reported that they represent a serious threat. In doing so, they have scored a public relations victory -- showing Cuban citizens that they have defended them against a "major" cyber attack.

The US also overestimates the value of personal Internet ground stations. The State Department budget request for Cuba is $20 million for fiscal year 2011. Those funds will be used to
continue to promote self-determined democracy in Cuba. Funds will be used to provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners, their families, and other victims of repression; advance human rights; strengthen independent civil society organizations; and support information sharing into and out of Cuba.
I don't know what percent of their budget goes toward the "support of information sharing" using Internet ground stations, but it would have to cover the cost of the equipment, travel and expenses, bandwidth charges, overhead charges, etc. On top of these financial costs, there is the possibility of failure and the subsequent PR cost. It is hard to know what they hoped to achieve in these cases, and easy to think of alternative ways to use the funds.

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I got the Cuba budget figure for the State Department here.

The clandestine TV reception discussed in the comments of this post seem much more important than a few Internet links. How many Cubans see foreign TV? What do Cubans watch? How does it influence them?
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