Running internet to Cuba

America, the internet server room of democracy, needs to play a role in the Cuban struggle for democracy

  
0:00
-58:43

Late last week the Cuba story took an interesting turn as both Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr issued public calls for the Biden administration to intervene in somehow getting internet to the beleaguered Cuban protestors.
The United States has a long history of providing subject peoples uncensored information, often despite the considerable annoyance of the authoritarian governments in question. Voice of America has been in operation in 1947, originally beaming news at the former Soviet Union. More locally, Radio Martí has been providing radio and TV programming to the island since 1983 (despite heavy blocking from the Cuban government1).

I spoke to FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a public Twitter space about what the US can do next in the contemporary internet war with the Cuban government. The full audio and transcript appear here.

Antonio:

Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining. I'm getting Commissioner Brendan Carr into the room, so we'll just wait for him to get into the room and then we'll start.

Antonio:

Commissioner Carr, you might have to unmute yourself to speak.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Yeah. Great to join you, thanks so much.

Antonio:

No, thanks for coming on. This was kind of whipped up last minute because of a mutual friend and it's super timely because both of us have been posting things about Cuba, and a lot of stuff going on in Cuba, so I hear, so I think this would be an interesting conversation.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Absolutely. Well, obviously, to start, been a huge fan of your work and your writing, so thanks for the opportunity to do this. I mean, look, I think the general issue doesn't need any introduction. I think this is a moment in history that we just cannot let us pass by. Increasingly, we have dictatorial regimes across the globe, and the very first thing they do at the first signs of push for freedom is to shut down the internet. Now, in Cuba, it's not a complete shutdown right now, they're focusing on certain applications and they aren't as sophisticated, necessarily, in their blocking as perhaps they would be in communist China, but the ability to get pictures and videos out of what is taking place just 90 miles from the US is a powerful, powerful development.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Just think about the US and what it has meant when we have cell phone video of various movements taking place here. It's a game changer in terms of putting energy and attention behind those movements, and there's really nothing that brutal dictatorial regimes like less than having a bright light shine on what they are doing. That's the power of the internet and videos and pictures. I think it's incumbent on us to do everything we can to back those efforts, and we have the technological capacity to do it. Happy to talk a little bit through at a high level or get more specific on some of the different technologies that are out there.

Antonio:

I actually want to get to that. I will say, I think a small introduction might be worthwhile because in 20-plus years of being a Cuban-American sort of exiled type in United States and trying to explain Cuba to Americans, or just trying to explain the nature of how the internet works in Cuba, I found that Cuba is one of these topics that people find super interesting, but it's typically poorly understood just because totalitarian societies like Cuba are so exotic and I think people in the West have never had an experience of it. Can I maybe just give maybe a three to five-minute introduction of how the internet works and doesn't work in Cuba just to set, I think, basic knowledge for everyone in the room?

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

That would be great.

Antonio:

Yeah? Okay, great. Just broadly, as I think I mentioned, Cuba is this anachronism. It is this communist one-party state and we use terms like totalitarian and we don't quite understand what it means. The Cuban communist party is a totalizing presence on the island. There's no individual, there's no civil society outside of the state or the party and there isn't much in the way of private property right there. Cuba, as it is today, would be unrecognizable to most people in this room, in the sense that there's no political party that's actually legal of any size that's outside of the communist party. It was only very recently that the state actually authorized private entrepreneurship, it's called cuentaproprista, it's basically what we would call a sole proprietorship, which is really the only form of any sort of private capitalism or entrepreneurship on the island.

Antonio:

There isn't conventional banking. There's actually two currencies, the internal currency, which is basically worthless, which is what you get paid in, and there's the convertible currency, which you would see as a tourist or that the government accepts from foreign investors to then pay the internal population in basically monopoly money. It's a very strange ...

Antonio:

There's that, and then the other thing I'll mention is that even though it's completely a throwback to Soviet era economics, Cuba, I mean, despite the rhetoric around the supposed of blockade and the embargo and whatnot, Cuba trades with the entire world, and even to a certain extent, even the United States actually. Under Obama, they actually bought food from the United States. It's not that Cuba doesn't trade with the world or that ... People talk about it as if there's a naval blockade around the island, which is not true at all. Cuba trades with Mexico, Canada, Europe, et cetera, et cetera, but you don't see that.

Antonio:

To the degree that there is foreign investment, I stayed in a hotel, for example, that was run by a Spanish hotel chain. The Spanish hotel chain does not own that hotel, they lease it and they basically do a rev share with the government and that's it. They don't own anything. Even outside investment isn't at all as we would recognize. There's no stores there. If we lifted the embargo, there's not going to be a McDonald's on the Paseo del Prado, there's no European version of that at all, none of that exists. Okay. Just to level set on what the economy is.

Antonio:

Let's talk about specifically the internet for a second. As you would imagine in such a world, it's very backwards from the telecoms and internet point of view. Up until 2008, portable phones were actually illegal in Cuba. There was an American named Alan Gross who actually got arrested and spent years in jail because he brought in phones and gave them to Cubans, which at the time, that was illegal contraband. Obviously, attitudes have shifted somewhat. Phones were legalized, but the internet side of things is still in a very basic state.

Antonio:

Let me just summarize for everybody how the internet works now. This is a total self plug, but there isn't a lot of media about it so I'll just go ahead and say it. In 2017, I wrote a Wired story called ‘Inside Cuba's DIY Internet Revolution’ that gets into a lot more of the detail, but the short version is the way that most Cubans access the internet now is through public wifi hotspots, I mean like open public squares, in a few public squares, not even all of them. The way you get internet service, which is controlled in a monopoly by Etecsa, which is, I mean, again, the state. It's a totalizing presence. There's no private internet, there's no private telecoms companies or anything.

Antonio:

It's very expensive. To get one of these little scratch off cards with a code, at the time, in 2017, cost about $4, at least for an outsider, which when you consider the average Cuban wage in their funny money converted to us is like $20-30 a month, it's a fortune. The use of the internet isn't very well spread and it's typically only on mobile. There was no 4G or 3G or any sort of mobile data until I think it was 2018 that the made it legal. Even then, the speeds were very low, very expensive. The adoption curve has been very, very slow.

Antonio:

As a reaction to that, just to mention how crazy it is, people completely freak out when I tell them this, but in Cuba, given these limitations, the internet is often a physical medium. Since people typically don't have internet at home and the internet they have is of bad and a very short duration and only mobile in a public park, how do they watch Netflix or whatever? Well, believe it or not, there's what's called the el paquete, the package. There are people who basically download a week's worth of the internet. Imagine what you consume on the internet, like every Netflix show, Formula One, soccer or whatever, that actually gets copied onto like a one-terabyte hard drive or a USB stick and you go to a paquetero and you buy that. You pay like a dollar and you get a week's worth of internet on physical media and you carry it home, plug it into your junky little laptop, and that's how you get "online" in Cuba.

Antonio:

The reason I'm mentioning that is that internet in Cuba is not the dynamic, real-time, decentralized, everyone talks to everyone phenomenon that we expect here. It's often not that. You have to assume things are not going to be online. Even though I was talking about the internet in Cuba in 2017, it really hasn't seen anything like our internet until very recently, which again, getting to Commissioner Carr's point, this is a unique moment in time. You've had the biggest protests since probably the '90s, there was the so-called Maleconazo that was sort of like this, but this is bigger than that even, and at the same time, you have some Cubans finally having the "black mirror" in our pocket. The same sort of networked mobile computing device, everybody's eyes in our pocket, that we just have lived with, that's novel in Cuba. It's never been seen before.

Antonio:

In my post, maybe Commissioner Carr mentioned on my sub stack, you see images coming out of Cuba of that phalanx of raised hands with phones in them pointed out the security people when they beat up a protestor and drag them to a car. We're just used to that being an element of our civil society. That's never been seen in Cuba before. All the video you see coming out of Cuba, all the stuff I've posted, that was all there before, just like police brutality in the US was there before, you just never saw it. Certainly, Cubans never got those images to the outside world or even saw it amongst themselves.

Antonio:

Anyhow, I'll stop there because obviously our guests here is the focus, but that's kind of the nature of the internet. Again, to highlight what you said again, it's a unique moment in time in which you have massive protests from the biggest extreme and the longest time, and you have Cuba going from zero to a hundred miles per hour when it comes to phone and mobile technology happening at once. Unless of course they block it, which is what this conversation is about. This is one of the big problems. Cubans are amazing at being super resourceful and hacking all sorts of stuff, but the government at the end of the day can just turn the internet off. It's an island that's 90 miles from Key West and that that's it.

Antonio:

The question that that presents itself to us is what do we do about that? At that point, I'll turn it over back to you, Commissioner Carr.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Thanks so much for providing that context. One other analogy that I'll start with as well is we have long had a government agency, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, it's under the US Agency for Global Media, Radio Marti is one of their operations. I had a chance this morning when I was in Miami to visit Radio Marti. For decades, they have broadcast content into Cuba, radio content, short wave radio. They have operations in Marathon they broadcast there, actually from one of the Carolinas they broadcast from as well.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Cuba has long taken the position that the broadcast of content into Cuba from Radio Marti is a violation of Cuba law. Some officials at international bodies, like the ITU, have similarly taken the position that that is a violation of international law. We, in the US government, tell them to pound sand with respect to that. I think if we start with that understanding, which is we have long sent transmissions, airwaves, into Cuba contrary to Cuba's wishes, that gives some precedent for what it is that I'm going to talk about here.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Now, Cuba tries hard to block that content. In fact, the television signals from Radio Marti, they've largely stopped doing that because there's been fairly effective blocking technologies of the TV signals, but they continue to send radio signals into Cuba because Cuba's had a harder time blocking that. That's sort of the concept. Now-

Antonio:

Can I share an anecdote there, Commissioner Carr, just for one second?

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Yeah.

Antonio:

People might find it amusing. I'm glad you're highlighting Radio Marti. That was a program I think started in the '80s under Reagan and it's been there for a while. It's one of these things that everyone from Miami knows about it, but again, I'm glad you bring it up because I think everyone here may not know about it. As you said, one of the things that the government does is block those frequencies, not just Radio Marti, but actually even Miami radio stations that was a big enough antenna you can actually get from Cuba.

Antonio:

I'll give you an anecdote from my childhood. We were in a car trip, headed north around Orlando or something, flipping through the dial, listening to random stuff. Suddenly, we hear Radio Rebelde, Rebel Radio, which is Cuba's state radio, in the middle of central Florida. We're trying to figure out how the hell is that possible. Then we realize, it's like, oh, they transmit ... We had default, like the Miami radio station, they transmit, blasting at however many watts, they don't care about the FCC, Commissioner Carr, blasting at however many watts to drown out the Miami stations. Once we were away from Miami, we were actually picking up the Cuban stations, that they would try to overlap the Miami ones.

Antonio:

Anyhow, you bring up the good point that anything that the US government tries to do, the Cuban government's going to try to block instantly, but please continue.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Right. Once you accept the proposition that, as we talked about at the beginning, the minute that there is unrest in any country, particularly brutal dictatorial ones, the first thing that happens nowadays is the people bring out their smartphones. Look, a separate topic, I've had my fair share of criticism of a lot of the tech companies, but I'm not full bore what have these tech companies done for us lately. There is a lot, obviously, of good that has come from technology in terms of helping to shine a bright light on these movements and fights for freedom, whether it's Arab Spring, whether it's the Iranian protest. Once you accept the idea that the power of the internet and the transparency that it brings to those that are fighting for their God-given right to pursue liberty, once we accept the value of that, then I think it's pretty easy to say we need to do something to bolster that.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

There's a lot of people putting pressure, maybe pressure's not the right word, urging the Biden administration to show solidarity and stand up with the Cuban people. People have put forward a range of options, some politicians have said it's time for a military option. There's a range of options that have been put out there. What I say is boosting internet connectivity is an effective, implementable, technologically-capable way of showing solidarity and support for this movement that is short of some of those other ideas that have been put out there.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

The way you do this has two tracks. Track one is what I call an infrastructure track, and we can talk about that. That's in the main what I've been talking about the last couple of days. Track two is how do we empower the Cuban people to get around the censorship and continue to use internet connectivity that is available still in the island? They've not shut off the internet entirely, as we talked about, they're mainly blocking applications. USAGM, that government entity that I talked about earlier, has a technology that is public called Psiphon, I believe it's P-S-I-P-H-O-N, that helps people get around some of these blocking technologies. We need to bolster that effort.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

What I've talked about that's sort of new, to some extent this week, was I had a trip already planned to go to Florida this week. I was heading to the airport Tuesday night and I saw a story that Governor DeSantos had a round table he called for beaming internet connectivity into Cuba. This is something that I've had some experience with, and I'm going to walk through one way that you can do this. The point of telling this story is not to say that we necessarily need to put all our eggs in this basket, it is to demonstrate that it is technologically-

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

... is to demonstrate that it is technologically possible. There may in fact be many other ways to do this, including from government entities that, like the FCC, have three letters, but that I don't have as much insight into what it is that they do day-to-day from a technology perspective. In fact, former Secretary Pompeo tweeted yesterday that the US engaged in some activities to boost conductivity during Iranian protest that I'm not aware of, and it's not the technology that I'm talking about. So that table set, there is a company that was behind the efforts by Google Loon, which used these stratospheric balloons and these platforms to provide conductivity. Now, Loon has stopped operations, but the actual company that built and manufactured the actual platform and stratospheric balloons has not. The company still exists. Raven Industries is its name. I've visited their facilities in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

I've been in Nairobi, Kenya, where they did a deployment and seeing their platforms in operation there. And the FCC has approved their operations in the wake of a hurricane that came through Puerto Rico to boost emergency conductivity there. And so what I can tell you is the technological capacity to do this is there. And the way this particular one would work is you have stratospheric balloons that are way above the altitude that airplanes fly, and they go up and down and they can stay relatively anchored in the same place. Because the way the winds work at the stratospheric level, you go up a little bit, they go West, you go down a little bit to go East, and you can basically maintain, within certain number of miles, your location. So you can stay in international airspace over, over international water, 20, 30 miles from Cuba, and you can go directly to a handset with either a 4G signal, potentially a wifi signal. And the upside is you don't necessarily need any other technology on the ground.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Other technologies out there like Starlink, people have said, "Well, why don't we get Starlink on there?" Well, one, the latitude that Cuba is that maybe a challenge given where Starlink is is their network deployment. Two, you need these pizza box sized dishes to operate. So those are some challenges. So this idea with the Raven Industries project is when it doesn't necessarily require new infrastructure on the ground. So you stay 15, 20, 30 miles off Cuba, international airspace, and then they could potentially beam back to Marathon or Key West for the back haul portion. So this is a technology that's works. It's one that we at the FCC, including then Chairman Pai, approved operations around Puerto Rico.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

And like I said, I say that as to give you a very concrete example of one way that this absolutely could work from a technical perspectives. There's still logistics to be worked out, obviously. But again, I think there's other ways to do this as well. But once we get a public commitment from the administration that says, "We are behind this effort," I'm confident that these private sector entities can move heaven and Earth and get this done quickly. Why do you need the federal government backing? One, as we talked about with Radio Marti, Cuba will view this as a violation of Cuba law. I don't care, but that is an issue. The pinheads at ITU will likely view this as a violation of international law. So we need to stand up the support of the federal government to do this. Potentially this is delivered by the federal government using this technology that I talked about.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

But again, I give that just to give an example. Not saying we put all the eggs in one basket, but if the federal government says we're behind this, I'm confident that whether it's this avenue or ones that I'm not aware of, even from other three letter agencies, we can get this done from a technological perspective. And I was very heartened to see tonight that President Biden did say at a press conference, that they are looking at how to re-establish internet conductivity. I think this is a great bipartisan moment. I think Senator Menendez had talked about it. And again, today, I was at an event with Governor DeSantis, Lieutenant Governor of Florida, two members of Congress drawing attention to this issue. The technology is there that can do it, and I think this is a great way that we can show support for the Cuban people that is far short of some of the other interventionist ideas that have been put out there.

Antonio:

Thanks for that. I noticed, by the way, you mentioned Former FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai. He's actually in the audience. Mr. Pai, if you want to come up, by all means, raise your hand and I'll let you up as a speaker. I'm glad we have such a distinguished audience. Yeah. That would be amazing. Because again, that solves a major problem, which is that at the end of the day, the Cuban Government can just turn the internet off. So what they're doing now, there's another avenue, which is a hack, which is the VPN route, which is the Cuban Government doesn't know all the VPN addresses for every VPN in the world. Some of them actually intentionally ship them. So in fact, the one that you mentioned, Commissioner Carr, my local contacts who are in the underground internet mentioned that they were actually using it and that it works pretty well, actually. That would be another potential solution. But the solutions you're sketching out would be the real solutions.

Antonio:

And the winners there, ideally, there wouldn't have to be a hardware solution on the Cuban side, because getting network hardware into Cuba is difficult. As you mentioned, it's not just a question of drop shipping a bunch of starlings into Cuba. It's just not going to work because they'll get found, et cetera, et cetera. It would have to be some way for the average Cuban to be able to connect on your typical, mid to low market Android phone that is the most common phone in, in Cuba. So yeah. So I guess, I'm obviously not a creature of DC. Commissioner Carr, I really have no idea how that city works. Oh, so hold on. Former Chairman Pai actually just requested. Let me go ahead and out of the speaker. He probably has something to add here. Let's see. Okay. Okay. I think he's connecting. There we go. Welcome to the panel, Former FCC Chairman Pai.

Ajit Pai:

Hey, it's great to be with you and nice to be with Commissioner Carr as well.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

It took me a long time to walk out of the long shadow of Chairman Pai, and now I have such quick back under that shadow, but t is fantastic to have you on as well. This is such an important issue and, and obviously your leadership on some of these technologies was important. Again, I mentioned that one company, but again, there's a lot of other technologies that are out there that can get this done. Oh,

Ajit Pai:

You're very kind, but Commissioner Carr has really been leading the charge over the last 24 hours, last many months on these issues, and extending internet access, not just to American consumers, but to those around the world. I think he's highlighted very well, as have you, that really the information asymmetry is what allows some of these authoritarian dictatorships to really maintain their grip on power. And once you introduce information that's successful over the internet, all sorts of the entropy that they can't control, in a good way, starts to generate.

Ajit Pai:

So I'm really optimistic about what he's doing and what the administration overall might be doing to help boost internet access. Over the last couple of hours, I've been re-tweeting some of the stuff I posted on Twitter over the last several years about internet access in Cuba, and it's really striking looking back that all of these green shoots were there, but the government there has just consistently stamped it out. And so I think, as all of you know better than I do, this is a very unique moment in time. And so I hope we can meet that moment with the ability to allow Cubans to access the outside world electronically.

Antonio:

So Former Chairman Pai, I don't know what the correct honorific to use. I'm not enough of a DC person to even know. But at any case, are there any previous experiences you'd like to share in terms of trying to get internet into Cuba or challenges faced either politically, internally, or technically, or with the Cuban government itself? What's it take to run internet to Cuba? The technical realities are obviously cool and I'd love to geek out about it with Commissioner Carr, but what are some of maybe the non-technical realities for that?

Ajit Pai:

That's a great question. Well, first and foremost, just the name is Ajit. I'm a civilian now. No honorifics necessary, certainly not even when I was in office. But I think more importantly, secondly, it's just a challenge. Because as a Commissioner Carr pointed out, you've got to be able to reach Cuban consumers in a way that is number one effective, in the sense that the Cuban government can immediately stamp out the connection. Number two, it doesn't require a lot of CPE or power or other things that Cuban consumers might not have access to. And especially if it's a wireline connection, then it becomes exceedingly difficult. I joined a little bit late, so I don't know if he pointed this out, but the number of undersea cable landings in Cuba is relatively limited.

Ajit Pai:

And there's been a lot of talk over the years about laying more undersea cables throughout the Caribbean and using Cuba as a landing point, but that's always been fraught with peril, but just because the government, for obvious reasons, doesn't want to allow that. So in terms of some of the political issues, I can't really speak to it, in part because my experience within the ITU, which Commissioner Carr mentioned, and within other multilateral organizations, for example, there's one focused on the Caribbean, one focused on Latin America, and I participated in a lot in all of those fora, but Cuba was never present in any of them. And so it was almost erased, if you will, from some of the policy discussions that I was privy to. Because when we were discussing conductivity, it was the countries surrounding Cuba that were most interested in promoting it. Unfortunately, I can't really shed a lot of light on that.

Ajit Pai:

As far as Washington goes, and I certainly hope the stars would align where you've got Senator Menéndez and Senator Rubio and others. Both sides of the aisle, I think agree on both the importance of connectivity and the importance of Cuban self-determination. So hopefully this is another aspect of the unique moment of time that we're in. I'll simply add as well that several years ago, there was a very interesting project. I think it was called the portals or something like that. And they set up these essentially open internet cafes in various countries, Cuba, Kazakhstan, and others. and they allowed people in the United States to participate in them. They set up essentially a portal in these cities, Washington and New York, and I actually signed up about five, six years ago.

Ajit Pai:

And the woman I ended up speaking with was in Cuba. And I very vividly remember thinking, you could tell, by the way she was speaking that she was guarding her words. She wanted to express herself, but she was holding back, because I think she knew obviously that somebody might be watching. But secondly, you could just sense, and I don't want to extrapolate from the anecdote to make data, but you could sense that there's a huge aspiration for young people in Cuba to just make a better life for themselves and for future generations and that they thought the internet and connection with the outside world was a part of that. So yeah, I certainly commend Commissioner Carr for his leadership and Governor DeSantis and hopefully President Biden. I just heard what Commissioner Carr said about the President, making those statements. I think that enabling them to get access to information, even if it ruffles political feathers and multilateral fora or even some of our bilateral relationships, is worth it in this case.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

And there's certainly a, you know, an urgency of now. This protest is going on now and everyone wants to support them now. But there's also, if you step back and we need to focus on that, this is a tool that we need in the toolkit, because again, this is the increasingly go-to move of brutal regimes around the world. As soon as there is pushback, they start to turn the lights off on the internet. Now, historically, in terms of some of the political issues, there's been some bipartisan failure to provide support for US AGM in the office of people broadcasting. Again, for people that are new, it's where I was this morning, spent time with their operation there in Miami. There were some budget cuts during the Trump years. Before that, they had started to use some interesting techniques, including looking at some satellite phones and some satellite based connectivity and inserting that surreptitiously into Cuba. This is public reporting. I'm not taking anything I've learned in a skiff and bringing it out into this forum.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

And there was a pullback, at least according to some of the public reporting, I didn't track it at the time, during the end of the Obama Administration, because it was causing relationship issues with the US Government, Cuba, and their efforts to take another look at the relationships between those two governance. So that effort was ended, at least according to the reporting under the guise of some of the efforts that were going on to revisit the relationship there. So I do think there's been some bipartisan failure to provide robust support for US AGM [US Agency for Global Media], and I don't know a ton about the organization historically, so I don't want to go all in or not all in on that one entity. But the point being politically, I think if you look at Radio Martí and what it's done in the past, that type of a model of providing greater government support to do the digital version, today’s version, is the internet. So of course we need, in our federal government arsenal, a way to stand up and insert internet connectivity in parts of the world where brutal dictators would work to shut it down.

Antonio:

That sounds like an amazing vision, Commissioner Carr. It's like the voice of America during the Cold War, but it's the 4G edition version of that. And I wanted to highlight one thing that Ajit said about Cubans’ speaking in fear. In one of my Substack posts I shared a few of the anecdotes, which, again, I'd never really been inside a totalitarian society. I have traveled the world a lot, but living inside a police state is really trippy, to be honest. And the business of everyone living in a web of lies and only speaking about a certain reality, a certain way to one person and another one to another one. And everyone's scared of the informant or of eavesdropping, it’s really something that you can't understand it until you've experienced it.

Antonio:

Once you understand that, you understand the transformative nature of the internet. I’ve had people, I've got contacts whom I message regularly via Signal, and they're asking me for confirmation from about things from the outside world. Because of course internally, it's never quite clear what is true and what isn't. Whoever it was that said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," the internet would actually be a bright ray of sunlight into Cuban civil society that it hasn't had any in a very long time.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

The other issue I'll touch on, you talked about some of the ways that can be done. Again, why do we need the federal government backing? I've talked about some of the international issues as to why that is, but also obviously there's going to be FAA approvals for this particular idea that's been offered up there. There's an international version of FAA, FCC where I still work. There may be special spectrum authorizations, which we call FCAs, potentially to enable that. DOD may need to be involved, state department given the international issues. That's why I think it's important that at the top, we say we're behind this, get the machinery of the government to help these technologies, whether it's this one I've talked about or others, get moving.

Antonio:

And why... So a guest sort of DMed me a question. Why wouldn't they do it? What would be the forces against it, right? In the case of the past, obviously there was a relationship to be maintained and that was a whole haggling process and so they could squeeze concessions from the American side. But to the extent you can read the political tea leaves, commissioner Carr, why wouldn't the Biden administration get behind it?

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Well, I would say I think they should. Some of the early calls behind this and in support of the movement in Cuba, I think, again, and I welcome Ajit or others with different political perspectives on this to offer their view, it seemed at least initially that some of the first and most vocal echoes of support were coming from Republicans on this one. But again, as Ajit pointed out, Democrat Senator Menéndez, now Biden, I think there's increasing support for it. But I think there's a broader discussion, different from my pay grade at the FCC, that can get into Democrat and Republican politics when it comes to Cuba generally or the fight for freedom.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

But I think really if you see what's going on today, and to some extent, this is the power of internet connectivity. When you see the videos, when you see the photos, I think it unites us across the political aisle and puts us together as we have to do something. And we can disagree when it comes to some of the more interventionist ideas that are out there. But when it comes to providing internet connectivity, I think this is something that we can get behind. And when you move up the stack of interventionists actions, I think there's some more historical potential political or other views that might result in people reaching different conclusions on those.

Antonio:

Yeah. Sorry, I was just going to comment. I think it was Mayor Suarez who mentioned the military as a possible intervention and Twitter went nuts over the comment. But sorry, I interrupted you, Ajit.

Ajit Pai:

No no, not at all. I was just going to back up what Commissioner Carr said that I think that one of the things that is unifying in this moment is that we see happening in Cuba, I mean, transgresses all sorts of values that all of us as Americans, or as those who have embraced classical liberal ideals of free speech and free expression hold dear. I mean, I don't know if you've mentioned this already, Antonio, or whether listeners have seen it, but I mean, I really encourage people to look at the disturbing video of Dina Stars, who in the middle of a TV interview, a live interview with a Spanish TV network, her home is raided by the police. She's taken out in a police car and hauled away.

Ajit Pai:

I mean, this is the sort of thing that when we were kids you might read about happening behind the Iron Curtain and read Vaclav Havel's books about it and things like that. But to actually see it in a two minute clip, I mean, it just shocks the conscience, to borrow a phrase that comes from Supreme Court jurisprudence. And I think that's one of the things that, I would hope anyway, would unite Republicans and Democrats. That whoever you are, whatever your politics are, I mean, my gosh, this is not right. This is just not right.

Antonio:

Right. I mean, that's one of the points that I made in... I had this sort of long rambling piece in the Substack about like, what is the sort of media impact of this, right? Again, we live in a world in which an eight minute video, just to cite the George Floyd example, can polarize and create an entire movement and move an entire nation, right? And Cuba's just never had that before. Again, it's been happening since forever, but you've never seen somebody actually just picked up and hauled off for doing a YouTube interview with a Spanish news channel. That is actually illegal to do in Cuba.

Antonio:

And so just speculating a little bit and thinking forward, and of course this is just almost beer talk, but I just don't understand... To the extent that you believe that the device that we're all holding in our hands, right, has fundamentally changed the way humans relate to each other, I don't understand how a society as anachronistic and totalitarian as Cuba can survive. I just don't understand how it could possibly happen if you're seeing the video you just described, who's this famous YouTuber in Cuba. If you're having that happen every day, which is what you'd have to have happened or what the government would have to do to maintain itself in the status quo, I don't see how this can persist.

Antonio:

And the only thing you could do is in some sense slow down the rollout of the internet. The Cuban economy is so backwards, it doesn't need it in the same sense that we would. Our economy would shut down if we didn't have the internet. So I don't know, I don't know if you're willing to... if speculation is something DC people do, but I'm curious what your views are in terms of what happens when this sort of immovable object of the Cuban communist party meets the implacable force of the internet? Do you have any thoughts there?

Ajit Pai:

That's a good question, and I'll defer to Commissioner Carr since he's in office and he's the bigwig in the room, so to speak.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Look, I think there's no doubt that cell phone video and pictures is an accelerating factor towards change. And to some extent, the phenomenon is new. I mean, what is one of the very first sort of things that I remember as a kid was the video of Rodney King and the power that actually seeing something like that has on you, rather than just reading about it and hearing stories of what takes place in Cuba versus for the very first time, seeing it take place visually. It parts the seas of partisanship. It strikes you between the eyes right in the heart and you have this visceral reaction, we have to do something, I feel solidarity, we need to do something.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

And the power of the internet is not just obviously sharing that news out, but that's a huge part of it, but it's allowing coordination and communication among people that are trying to stand up. And as you've talked about in your piece, the regime is shifting tactics as well. Whereas two days ago you could spot a lot of the regime's thugs, they were wearing all black, they have now shifted techniques and they have relatively new, but colorful clothes that they're putting themselves on. And yet, they still have the pieces in at the same point in time. So I think to your point, look, I think there is a natural arc of where communist regimes are going to go. I think internet connectivity, cell phone videos and pictures is going to get us there faster and save lives along the way.

Ajit Pai:

And to add to that, I mean, I guess the other point I would make, we all know about the power of the immovable or irresistible force of the internet. I mean, this is a good example, that we're hosting this conversation. 15 years after Twitter was released to the public this date in 2006, here we are having this discussion across states and perhaps even countries. The only thing I don't understand yet fully is how adept is the Cuban government's ability to restrict or control the internet in Cuba? I just don't know. For example, do they have the same resources devoted to the project as say the Chinese communist party does, where the control is quite stringent to say the least? And so I don't know whether there's a sort of a citizen led effort that can break through in the same way that you might see in other countries in the past.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Yeah. This is an issue that came up today in my meeting with Radio Martí in Miami. And the position there is that there is not technology as sophisticated in Cuba as there is say in communist China. So the ability to get around some of the internet blockades is easier to do in Cuba than it is in other places. And as I talked sort of earlier, we've got to dual track this. So that first track is infrastructure. We talked about one concrete way that that can get done, I think there's many other ways as well. But that second track is how do we help evade the censorship technologies? And I talked earlier about this technology that's publicly known, or Psiphon, P-S-I-P-H-O-N, that is used to help people get around some of these blocking techniques. So we need to sort of pursue both those tracks.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Again, Cuba tries to block, and in some ways successfully blocks, Radio Martí from a television signal perspective. But part of the issue there is they're trying to provide TV coverage over Havana, which is the population center. To some extent, the ingenuity of the Cuban people that we were talking about earlier in terms of physically experiencing the internet through the transfer of USB drives, even if you're in a situation where you have a difficult time getting internet connectivity into Havana itself, you can still take these videos, take the pictures on your phone, and without moving very far geographically, you can then potentially find a signal. So I'm not of a position that takes the view that Cuba right now has the technology to block sort of a 4G signal. They may be able to, we may get around it, but there's ways that you can do what you need to do, which is sufficient connectivity to get information in and get these compelling pictures and videos out.

Antonio:

Yeah. Commissioner Carr, I think that's exactly right. Cubans always know how to ‘resolver’, as they say, which is kind of like... literally means resolve, but it's really more of kind of a resourceful life hack. Speaking of which, I do want to... unless there's some specific agenda item that either Commissioner Carr or Ajit want to get into, I was going to actually bring somebody up on the panel who's Cuban and actually been very involved with a lot of what's been going on in the past few days.

Antonio:

In fact, Geek Cubano who's in the audience and I'm going to bring up in a second, he actually hosts a Twitter space like this one, typically late at night with a lot of people actually coming in from Cuba who are often having to VPN in and discussing the situation on the island. And it's just so mind blowing to me that here we are on the cutting edge of Twitter social audio, and albeit haphazardly, albeit with not great connections, you've got Cubans actually tuning in, which is incredible. So let me go ahead and bring up Git Guano. And I think I just brought him up. Let's see. Git Guano, can you hear us?

Geek Cubano:

Yeah, I'm online.

Antonio:

Great.

Geek Cubano:

Thank you, Antonio. Thank you, Commissioner Carr, and thank you Ajit for your words. Commissioner, I had a few questions for you. They're a bit more on the technical side of things. So I don't know how much you really know about the technology, but if you could answer it just to clear some doubt that I have. So you spoke about this balloon technology that it's going to emit a 4G signal or a wifi signal over Cuba. And realistically, I would like to know how much coverage would this have? Would it reached the entire island or just some parts of the island? And you already spoke about that the Cuban government can try to block it, but realistically, do you think that they have a way to block this?

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Well, thanks for the question. So again, we've done this at the FCC before. In the wake of one of the hurricanes in 2017 that came through Puerto Rico, we authorized the deployment of this exact type of technology around Puerto Rico. There were seven to eight of these stratospheric balloons that went up and stayed relatively static over Puerto Rico to provide service. I'm not aware right now of blocking technology that Cuba has to do this. Given that this hasn't been done, it may be difficult. This may not be something that Cuba has in the can. And the ability to purchase and obtain blocking technologies may be a challenge for them as well. So at this point, I'm not aware that there would be significant successful blocking by Cuba.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Is it possible? Yes, of course. Because we see that with Radio Martí and their television signals. But look, again, this is one technology. And I've spent time with this particular entity, their technology has worked and they feel confident from a technical perspective this can be done. There's going to be logistical issues getting stuff there, getting stuff set up, but we need to move quickly with this direction. But again, Secretary Pompeo talked about efforts that were under underway in Iran. So while this technology is proven and they're confident in how this would work, I don't want to get too bogged down in the particulars of that because my sense is there's going to be other technologies that I'm not aware of, including from DOD or CIA, that can also help facilitate this.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

And again, it's dual track. Let's get more infrastructure in there, and let's continue to bolster Psiphon and other ways of getting around the blockades. In fact, I think the latest internet report, and you may track this better than me, today showed that Cuba is actually lessening some of their blocking today than what they'd done in a couple of days prior.

Geek Cubano:

Yeah. So the VPN definitely helps. Psiphon has been very useful and there's a lot of people on the island using it right now. The problem is that when things get really bad, they just shut down the whole thing and then the traffic doesn't have a way to go through.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Right. And you asked, my understanding from the Puerto Rico project, if I have the numbers right, is something like there was coverage there to something like 200,000 people with an average speed of 18 megabit per second. So again, when you're talking about getting-

Geek Cubano:

That would be incredible.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

... videos up, getting photos up, that's great. Are you going to get 4K Netflix? No. But I think, again, at least one technology being proven to do this without necessarily needing satellite dishes in there. But again, I think we should pursue all of it. Do we have satellite technology that can do it? Let's do it. Can we get some more Iridium, other cell phones that have satellite connections in there? Let's do it. But the great thing-

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Cell phones that have satellite connections in there, let's do it. But the great thing about this is not necessarily needing new infrastructure on the ground.

Geek Cubano:

Yeah. I think that's incredible. And I really want to thank you for all the effort that's been done by the federal government to push internet to the island because internet was the tool that trigger everything. And they're afraid of it.

Antonio:

Yep. Yep. So do you want to dress the speculative question around because from what I understand, you've actually lived in Cuba yourself and you understand the reality of it, but does it survive all this, or what do you think?

Geek Cubano:

I think depending on how fast we move, because we can not let it die right now. The momentum, it requires a push from our side too, because in Cuba, what you're seeing is heavy militarized streets. Right now, someone was messaging me saying that there are security agents on every corner, but they cannot sustain that forever. And eventually things, I'm sure they're going to move the troops out of the streets and the moment will come. The problem is that people right now don't really have a way to organize to do anything because as soon as a person goes out on their own, they're stopped, they're beaten and they're arrested. So we do need to... I think this would be an amazing tool in our fight for freedom. Definitely.

Antonio:

I mean, speaking of the people on the corner, I retweeted somebody from on the island and you see the dude with his scary look and his little mask and his little earpiece, and you can just see him scanning everything. And for those who aren't, again, used to what that means, just imagine that dude or a couple of those dudes, literally on every street corner.

Geek Cubano:

They're watching everything, with dogs alongside. Like yesterday, a friend of mine sent me some pictures from a public park in front of the Capitol. And there were sitting with newspapers rolled on their hands and there were hiding sticks inside the newspapers. And there were ready for if anyone was brave enough to protest and say something, they were going to to beat the shit out of him. And I'm sorry for the word, but that's a reality we live in right now.

Antonio:

That's the reality. And just to freak everybody out and give you a taste of what Cuba is like, I'd be willing to bet anything that there's someone from Cuban state security in this space right now listening.

Geek Cubano:

100%.

Antonio:

100%. Between you and me and people we know, there's no question.

Geek Cubano:

And you can bet, after our conversation, they're going to be calling their contacts in Russia and their contacts in China about what we’re discussing and so that they’re ready. The United States has an implementation for this type of internet and there are already trying to find a way to block it right now as we speak.

Antonio:

Yep. That's the reality of it, unfortunately. That's life inside a totalitarian society. Any agents listening, please send our regards to the Cuban government please. In any case. So what else should we talk about? Anything else, Commissioner Carr that you wanted to get into or mention?

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

No, I think we've touched on it. I mean, again, when I think about it, there's three pieces that need to lock into place in order to do that. Again, as we've talked a lot about the power of the internet, one of the greatest US inventions, one of the greatest technologies for promoting freedom and free speech, I think we've level set around the power of that and bolstering that in Cuba right now. And again, I think there's three pieces of it. There's political will. Once we signal in a bipartisan way at the federal government, that we are behind this way of bolstering internet connectivity, then you need the technological capability and you need the funding. Those are the three key pieces. And in my read of the situation now is if we get that first piece done, if we get the political will behind this, the funding's not going to be a challenge. We know there's technical capacity to do this.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

And so to me the last couple of days have been, through the events that I've done, through events that other people have done, about building that political will to say, "This is technically possible to do." That's not the hurdle. The hurdle here is political in saying, "Yeah, let's get behind this." So I would encourage everyone here to continue to speak out as you have been about the value of bolstering internet connectivity in Cuba using the two prongs, more infrastructure, more strengthening of Psiphon and other technologies, because there's momentum that has built just in the last 24 hours. Pitbull had a video, obviously putting forth different ideas, including internet connectivity. And the more we raise the awareness that this is a relatively low hanging fruit step that will have a big outside impact in Cuba now and globally, as these fights for freedom, continue to take place around the world. We need this capacity in our arsenal.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

So we have to continue to build the strong messaging and public support in favor of doing this because it's not a technological hurdle. It's not a financial hurdle. We just need to pull the rip cord and we can come at this in a way. Yeah, Cuba's going to try to block it. They're going to do different technologies, but we can't let that deter us from trying to do this and deploying multiple technologies to make their job of shutting down the internet and keeping the world from seeing the brutal tactics that they're engaging in, to try to prolong what is a dying regime. This is one effective way that we can do it.

Antonio:

So Commissioner Carr, so essentially you mentioned that you think that the only blocker is really the political will. And I noticed this slightly politically speculative and you're in office, so maybe you'd rather not comment on it, but my feeling from how polarized and I would almost say self-absorbed our political culture is right now, that Cuba presents this bizarre riddle, right? I think in the context, I'm old enough to remember the final years of the cold war. And in that context there was a overarching narrative in which you'd place the Cuba story. And something the Obama administration also managed to put Cuba on the national radar, right? But it seems like one of the challenges now is, how do you justify to the average American doing this?

Antonio:

And this is Twitter trolls, so whatever. I don't think this is representative necessarily of that much political opinion, but some people were commenting on like, "Oh, why don't we get broadband to heartland America before worrying about Cuba or whatever?" How do you place this in terms of the national political conversation as something that we need to do now? And if it's something you'd rather not comment on because you're in office, I totally understand.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

No, I think this is a national interest and national priority to provide and boost connectivity in Cuba. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We've got a $20 billion initiative. We call it the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that Chairman Pai launched that we were in the midst of implementing to bridge the digital divide in rural America. We've got potentially 65 billion additional funding coming from Congress to go beyond. And an infrastructure package. We've got $600 to $700 billion have been allocated by Congress for various infrastructure projects already that could be used for infrastructure. So yeah, we need to get the digital divide closed.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

We've made, in my view, some people disagree with me, tremendous progress the last three or four years in doing that. We're not raising a mission accomplished flag. But when you look at the hundreds of billions of dollars that we're doing that to the national interest of bridging the digital divide, we are not talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. We're talking about millions of dollars, some in that order to help boost internet conductivity in Cuba. And it would be the right thing to do from a human right perspective and the right thing to do from our national interest to accelerate the known endpoint for the Cuban regime.

Geek Cubano:

Commissioner, I wanted to ask you a question. So for Cubans in the United States, what can we do to get the political, the will that you were speaking about on our side and try to push this with bi-partisan support? Do we have to call our representatives? How do we make ourselves heard? How do we say this is important for us, please back up any initiative that has to do with this?

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Yeah, all of the above. I mean look, from the time that this got on my radar Tuesday night as I was heading to the airport to now, and I'm back in DC, I've been running a two track process here, which is working with staff and my contacts in Congress and they are working behind the scenes. So just us and the hundreds of people listening to this now know, directly with the Biden administration to voice support for this type of a thing. That's one track. I've been also doing public events to have it be another way of drawing public attention to trying to get a critical mass of people around that. So yeah, we need to talk about it. We need to push it. And at the end of the day this is the Biden administration.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

So we need stuff from the top to say, "We're behind this." That's why the development earlier this evening of President Biden himself saying, "We need to look at, or we are looking at boosting internet service into Cuba," is a monumental development in this effort. We've gone from an idea that Governor DeSantis floated on Tuesday afternoon to the president of the United States saying, "We're looking at this," in a matter of what? 36 hours? So let's keep that momentum going because if we get a full commitment from the top, that's what's going to matter. So yeah. Call, talk, Tweet, let's build momentum for this. It's not a porous idea. I did events today, but also Senator Menendez has talked about it and Biden talked about it. So we just got to keep building that momentum.

Antonio:

Commissioner Carr, one thing I'll mention, I got a message from somebody on the inside that they were incredibly heartened by Biden's comments. And that I think the perception of the Cubans who are protesting now is that they're doing this on their own, that they're fighting on their own. The thought that the American government would actually try to help support their struggle, it's a tremendously heartening news. Geek Cubano, did you want to add something else? I don't know if you're going to do the Twitter spaces again tonight, but I found them fascinating.

Geek Cubano:

Yeah, I'm doing it every day this week. I might not do it on Saturday night because we will be going to DC. But every other night I'll be hosting the space. So everyone's more than welcome to join. It'll be at 11:00 PM tonight. I really want to thank Commissioner Carr for everything, all the effort that he's putting into this. And please, whatever comes up, if you guys need help from inside the island in the sense of running tests once the project begins to, is deployed, you can contact me. You can contact Antonio. We know people, we have friends there who are more than willing to help to know if the test is actually successful.

Antonio:

Like I think I mentioned, Cubans always know how to ‘resolver’. And if anyone's going to make this weird internet hack work, it's definitely going to be the Cuban internet geeks. So thanks again, Commissioner Carr, for pushing on this. And again, a lot of people on the island are really looking to the administration and are really heartened by the comments today. And your letter today and also Governor DeSantis' post as well. So I don't think I have a lot of other questions and I don't want to take up too much time. I know it's late on East Coast time, and I want to thank Commissioner Carr for speaking. I hope everyone here learned a little bit about Cuba. Cuba is one of these fascinating topics that is a little bit hard to understand from the outside.

It's funny. I always used to joke that I moved to the United States for college, which basically meant that I moved from Miami to the Midwest. And since then, I've been trying to explain the Cuba situation. And it's so much easier now. And particularly again, with all the images coming out of Cuba, people understand and get what it is now in a way they didn't in the past. And hopefully we can convey that message even more articulately in the future. So thanks again, commissioner Carr. Thanks again. I will probably end the room there unless somebody else has anything else to add.

Commissioner Brendan Carr:

Thanks. Thanks for having it.

Geek Cubano:

Thanks. Awesome.

Antonio:

No, no, thanks again. See you all. And I'll be posting more Cuba stuff, as a total plug, on thepullrequest.com and also my Twitter feed. Anything cool that I get from the inside, I tend to post or share. So please follow me or check out thepullrequest.com. We couldn't have a Cuba thing without shouting at the end ¡Viva Cuba Libre! Long live free Cuba! Bye all.

Geek Cubano:

¡Viva Cuba Libre!

1

A childhood anecdote: My family and I were once taking one of our many car trips north out of Miami to see the ‘real’ America of the Deep South. Somewhere around Orlando, the car radio, which had been programmed to Miami stations, suddenly burst out with “Le habla Radio Rebelde desde La Habana, Cuba!”

We were astonished: it was ‘Rebel Radio’, the Cuban dictatorship’s official radio broadcaster, somehow available in central Florida. As soon became clear, the Cuban government absolutely blasts at maximum wattage their radio stations over the same frequencies as Miami stations, so that nobody in the entire length of the island can tune into ‘imperialist’ radio. Since Miami stations comply with FCC wattage limits, but Cuba does not, you’d lose the Miami signal north of Miami and suddenly pick up Cuban ones. So see…the Cubans broadcast into America as well.