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."