The Case for Beaming Internet Into Cuba

The technological hurdles might be too difficult to overcome, but it's worth trying.


When thousands of Cubans took to the streets earlier this month to protest the failures of the island nation's communist government, pictures and videos captured on cell phones told the world what was happening.

At least, they did until the Cuban regime cracked down on mobile internet access in an attempt to quell the protests.

It's a familiar pattern for political upheaval in the iPhone age. Twitter, WhatsApp, and other social media messaging services have been used by dissidents to organize on a scale that their 20th century predecessors could never have dreamed—and in ways that even police states like Cuba have a difficult time combatting. Once the ball is rolling, the same tech can quickly turn a mass demonstration into a worldwide event. Almost inevitably, governments respond by trying to cut off internet service or block the use of certain apps, as the Cuban regime reportedly did on July 14.

When that happens, there's usually not much the United States can do about it. But Cuba happens to be just 90 miles from Florida.

"Internet access for the Cuban people is of critical importance as they stand up against the repressive Communist government," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, wrote in a letter to the White House earlier this month, urging President Joe Biden to provide "all necessary authorizations, indemnifications, and funding to American businesses" to get Cubans back online. He noted that the crackdown on internet access in Cuba has left many Floridians without the ability to communicate with loved ones on the island.

DeSantis has become one of the leading advocates, along with Reps. Maria Salazar (R–Fla.) and Carlos Gimenez (R–Fla.), both of whom are Cuban-American, for a radical plan to beam mobile internet service into Cuba from balloons anchored offshore that would effectively serve as temporary cell towers. It's an idea that would rely on the technological know-how of Google and the diplomatic might of the United States—and even then it might be of limited value. But it might, as DeSantis put it in his letter to Biden, also be "the key to finally bringing democracy to the island" without the need for military intervention.

The diplomatic and political dynamics are actually more straightforward than they might appear. There are plenty of precedents for beaming signals across international borders against the wishes of a domestic government. Radio Free Europe is probably the most famous example, but the better comparison here is Radio Televisión Martí, run by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which has broadcast news into Cuba since the 1980s. Clearly, the U.S. has no qualms about whatever international laws it might be violating by sending television signals into Cuba against the Cuban regime's wishes. Sending mobile internet signals is a difference of degree—a slightly different wavelength of light—but should not require a total overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

"It is time to build on [the Radio Televisión Martí] model and include the delivery of Internet service," argues Brandon Carr, one of the five commissioners in charge of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Still, due to the diplomatic issues involved, any effort to beam internet into Cuba would have to be cleared by the White House. Earlier this month, press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was "actively pursuing measures" to "make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people."

On Friday, however, Psaki sounded a less optimistic note when asked for an update.

"I wish it was that easy," Psaki said in response to comments from Salazar suggesting that the White House could restore internet to Cuba "within minutes."

"We are exploring a range of options," she added. "And we feel if we can get it done, that would be a great step forward and beneficial to the people of Cuba."

As Psaki suggests, the technological hurdles are in some ways more complicated than the political ones, but they are not insurmountable.

When DeSantis first called on the White House to deliver internet service to Cuba earlier this month, he nodded towards satellite-linked connections like SpaceX's innovative Starlink program. Using low-level satellites in stationary orbit, Starlink promises to beam high-speed mobile internet to parts of the world that are inaccessible for traditional cell phone towers. Unfortunately, the service requires small satellite dishes on the ground to act as receivers—not a problem in rural Kansas, but not a viable option in Cuba at the moment.

So the discussion about beaming the internet into Cuba quickly turned to a more Earthbound option: Project Loon.

Originally developed by Google before being partially scrapped for not being economically viable, Project Loon was a pre-Starlink attempt to bring mobile internet to rural areas by attaching antennas to weather balloons that could function as de facto cell phone towers floating more than 10 miles up in the air. The idea has only been tested on a large scale once—in Puerto Rico during the aftermath of the two devastating hurricanes that hit the island in 2017—but showed some promise. A 2018 test showed that a fleet of Loon balloons could maintain a connection over 620 miles, according to the Associated Press.

Again, Cuba is just 90 miles from the United States.

It's not a slam dunk, of course. Signals could be jammed by the Cuban government, which already tries to block Radio Televisión Martí as much as possible. Many Cubans' cell phones might not be able to connect due to differences in network protocols. And whatever connectivity is possible will be slow and spotty, at least by American standards.

But it may be worth making the attempt anyway, particularly since the technology already exists and could be deployed for minimal cost. There's little to lose, and much that could be gained—not just in Cuba, but in other fights against tyrannical regimes.

"Internet shutdowns are increasingly becoming a tool of tyranny for authoritarian regimes across the globe," says Carr. "America must stand against this anti-democratic tactic and move with haste to provide internet freedom to the Cuban people."

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  1. Guantanamo General. Don’t forget Guantanamo.

    (0 miles from Cuba)

    1. Unfortunately, zero miles from Cuba translates into 1000 kilometers East of Havana in this case. Even with a big Gitmo balloon for the reds to shoot at, there’d be zero bars of pirate wifi in the capital.

      Credit for the workable offshore balloon relay should go to Astro Teller, for the ” radical plan to beam mobile internet service into Cuba from balloons anchored offshore that would effectively serve as temporary cell towers.” is indeed his Loon Project, which Google pulled the plug on last year.

  2. A lucrative market for targeted ads , I’m sure.

  3. Honestly, fuck yeah. Radio Free Europe for a modern era. It’s probably cheaper and more effective than even more direct intervention.

    1. We need to avoid turning this into some invasion.

    2. Harder than RFE, as internet use requires two-way communication. Well worth brainstorming though.

  4. Why aren’t sat dishes viable? They are used in Iran, North Korea and other places, usually at night.

  5. We need to stop meddling in others affairs and let them handle things themselves. Desantis is pandering for votes.

  6. I thought the White House only worked with internet companies to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation from US right-wing nutters.
    This proposal would do nothing to aid this noble effort.

  7. “”Internet shutdowns are increasingly becoming a tool of tyranny for authoritarian regimes across the globe,” says Carr. “America must stand against this anti-democratic tactic and move with haste to provide internet freedom to the Cuban people.”

    “Klobuchar’s Plan To Combat Vaccine ‘Misinformation’ Would Have HHS Decide What You Can Post Online”


  8. >>would be a great step forward and beneficial to the people of Cuba

    Peppermint Paski for “ain’t gonna happen.”

    1. psaki dammit. edit button.

      1. FWIW Psaki is Polish for dogs.

        1. makes my day.

  9. I wish someone cared that much about the substandard internet service I’m stuck with as a rural American.

    Why aren’t you speaking out against the embargo? Milton Friedman would.

    And fuck DeSantis. He thinks he can sanction a Vermont company because they don’t want to do business in the West Bank anymore.

    1. Have to agree it would look silly to say we can get internet to Cuba but not to part of rural America.

    2. I generally agree with any statement that includes “fuck DeSantis,” but the rest of the sentence kind of misses the point. It’s not like that asswipe Elliot Spitzer who thought he could sue anyone out of existence just because they drove through New York once. Instead he’s using things over which he has some degree of control or influence, like state funding, to say “you can’t do business with a bunch of libtards who think the Palestinians are helpless victims.” Same thing CALPERS and a bunch of other libtards do when they divest from shares in Lockheed, Winchester, or whatever other companies make them wet their pants and clutch their pearls. Yes it’s mostly empty virtue signaling and pandering, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sanctioning.

  10. At least, they did until the Cuban regime cracked down on mobile internet access in an attempt to quell the protests.

    Merely cracking down on misinformation.

    I mean, here’s Facebook’s public statement on protests:

    Incitement or encouragement of the events at the Capitol, including videos and photos from the protestors. At this point they represent promotion of criminal activity which violates our policies.

    So video from protesters that is deemed by Facebook to be a promotion of criminal activity– which the protests in Cuba most certainly were, should be verboten on the American Tech platforms.

  11. I think it is worth a try and if it works it could be a bargaining chip with the Cuban government. If successful use it to get some opening of communication with those outside of Cuba. Set the goal as allowing American Cubans to communicate with relatives on the island. Either the Cuban government lets that communication happen or we will facilitate the communication. State we have no goals to bring down the government just to let people talk to people. If it does bring down the government it will be organic and not at our feet.

    I think the US should also allow American Cubans to sent money to island relatives. Even though I accept some of that money will be shimmed off to the Cuban government. Finally let’s vaccinate the Cuban people. Odds are they are smarter than some of the American people and will welcome the vaccines.

    1. Why on earth would the US be vaccinating anyone in a country with universal healthcare?

        1. That’s like Somalia providing the US food aid.

      1. “Why on earth would the US be vaccinating anyone in a country with universal healthcare?”

        1) M4e is a fucking ignoramus.
        2) Cuba is a prime example of how ‘free’ medical care works; it’s great! If there is any.

      2. Because we have extra vaccines that many of our own people are too stupid to use.

        1. You should don your Che tee, fly down to Havana and tell them how great socialism is.
          They’ll welcome you as a hero.

          1. I’d rather do that than fly down to Port au Prince (capital of Haiti) and extol the virtues of capitalism American style.

            1. Yeah, the clintons gave it to them dry.

              1. You can probably give it to them dry too. A servant in Haiti will only set you back a little more than a dollar a day.

  12. Won’t someone think of the children? Right now there are a bunch of Cuban 16-year-olds who have to scrounge for back issues of Playboy rather than having free unfettered access to all the glories of the internet.

  13. Can we beam OCrazio into Cuba? One way?

  14. Or just, you know, go there and kill anybody who tries to stop you.

    1. What are they going to do, hide out in the mountains again?

      1. With more than 60 years of hostility with an aggressive imperialistic power under their belt, I imagine that, like the Gazans or North Koreans, Cuban cities are honeycombed with tunnels and air raid shelters.

        1. Sure, but who’s going to be in them? Just the commies, I’m sure. They won’t even have room for hostages.

          1. “Sure, but who’s going to be in them? ”

            Anyone with a gun.

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  16. Because Facebook needs more viewers.

  17. ‘Using low-level satellites in stationary orbit…’

    Wait…. WHAT?!?!

    1. Yeah, well. you can’t actually be reading a Boehm article expecting him to know what he’s talking about, right?

  18. I’ve got a better idea.

    Let’s just drone/cruise missile all of 115 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba whose homes we can identify at 3 am Havana time, on the indisputable grounds that they’re leaders of a terrorist organization victimizing the Cuban people.

    If that means our ruling political party is subject to similar attacks in retaliation, well . . . what’s the downside, exactly?

    1. Its not like we’ve never directly attacked heads of state before.

  19. Here’s a government subsidy I would support;

    Elon, stop rolling out Starlink in the US for a bit and air-drop some – no, better, use that submarine you wanted to build, to set loose tens of thousands of Dishys to float onto Cuban beaches.

    I’d be willing to let my taxpayer dollars go to that.

    1. Because Facebook needs more viewers.

  20. And who would be paying for this?

  21. The private sector literally already did this, it’s called ‘Starlink’.

    So…that was easy.

  22. Using low-level satellites in stationary orbit,

    Oh, FFS. I guess this is what I get for actually reading the article.

  23. Starlink promises to beam high-speed mobile internet to parts of the world that are inaccessible for traditional cell phone towers.

    No it doesn’t . . . JFC.

    Its satellite internet. Not ‘mobile’ internet. It goes to a fixed ground terminal at your home and then you plug in like normal. Its a satellite modem basically.

    And its ‘high speed’ only in relation to existing satellite and most rural service – which is 25mbps. Starlink will hit 4 times that.

    That’s still a 10th what most people can get from their ISP in a city.

    1. Oh, and it comes with much higher latency than terrestrial ISP’s.

      1. Define “much higher”. Starlink latency tests during the beta period have averaged 42 ms (per a PCMag study). That’s worse than, say, Spectrum’s 24 ms (as measured by US News), but not all that much worse. The satellites being low-flying compared to those of HughesNet and Exede really helps.

        1. Double could be considered much higher, although functionally no one will really care except maybe gamers or remote workers running on an already shitty VPN. Exactly the kind of people who aren’t living in Cuba. The difference is almost certainly a ‘first world problem’ since the alternative for Cuba is no internet at all.

        2. Double is pretty high.

          Its fine if you’re not doing latency sensitive things.

    2. In terms of “mobile internet” that is one of the uses of Starlink, currently there are many places in the world that are too remote to hook a cell tower into a broadband landline. With Starlink you could place a cell tower anywhere and all you would have to supply is electricity. The tower would provide mobile cell coverage and beam it up using a starlink station. Also, I live in a city and 100mbps is the highest bandwidth I’m able to get.

  24. The private sector literally already did this, it’s called ‘Starlink’.

    So…that was easy.

  25. A waste of time & money, as the Cubans will just interfere with it & cause it to be useless!

  26. Starlink would solve those problems, and not just in Cuba.

  27. I am calling bullshit on this.

    I have actually visited Cuba and experienced internet there. Not to mention leaving from Boot Key Harbor via Sisters Creek where the VOA radio towers broadcast to Cuba. When I pass by the VOA towers the autopilot on my boat turns on and other electronics go crazy. Yet the Cuban govt is still able to blunt the messages by strong signals in Cuba.

    Any balloon with wifi would be subject to wind an currents, not to mention it is hurricane season. Ignoring these problems you would still have to deal with Cuban govt gobbling up band width and confiscation of smart phones from those using the wifi. Not to mention simply shooting the balloons down.

    Cuba’s problem is it is a poor third world country with no resources, no money, and it is run by morons. So far this year Cuba has bought about $US170,000,000 worth of food and medicine from the US, goods exempt by the embargo. The reason they do not buy more from the US and the rest of the world is they do not have money to buy stuff. Cuba is just another country Trump would call a ‘shithole country’.

  28. The answer is from the private sector. Its AST Space Mobile. Currently in development, they will deliver 5g via satellite directly to mobile phones world wide. Since mobile phones are how most people in Cuba access internet anyways this is obvious solution.

  29. I think we should drop food packets via parachute by the thousands at 2 a.m. along with Spanish language copies of “The Road to Serfdom.” If people understand that capitalist economies are more likely to produce food surpluses, wheras socialist/communist ones lead to long lines and hunger pangs, there is more possibility for change.

  30. The technological hurdles might be too difficult to overcome, but it’s worth trying.

    If some private organization wants to do this with private funding, they should knock themselves out.

    The US government has no business doing this.

    1. Agreed. Another governmental overreach. And shut down Voice of America, TV Marti and all those other stupidities.

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  32. What’s a “low-level satellite in stationary orbit?” If a satellite isn’t at 22,000 miles AND above the equator, it isn’t stationary, can’t be, and never will be.
    Or am I missing something?

  33. Okay ne0-con traitors, now do the Cuban government case for shooting your stupid balloons out of the sky

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