Sometime in 2010 or 2011, José Javier Mena Mustelier’s friends invited him to join a Defense of the Ancients battle in eastern Havana. His compadres recalled a sort of LAN party, at which young people gathered on a local network to play pirated video games together. At the time, getting an internet connection in Cuba looked like a distant dream. The United States’ economic embargo had made it nearly impossible to find routers and other equipment, while the government kept a close watch on the circulation of information. Cables scattered throughout buildings created small, hyperlocal intranets. But they rarely went beyond the neighborhood. Mustelier joined his friend, but the game suffered delays as contestants struggled to stay connected.
Back then, a Cuban citizen could legally buy a computer but not network equipment. Internet service was expensive and slow; only around 16% of the island’s population had access to the web in 2011. (Nowadays, monthly use of even the slowest private Wi-Fi connection comes to 120 convertible Cuban pesos a month, nearly four times the average Cuban salary.) As a response, in 2011, a group of more than 100 Havana residents decided to unify their hyperlocal networks into a larger structure.
The Havana “street network” (or SNET) would soon become one of the largest such community networks in the world. At its peak, user estimates hovered around 100,000 IP addresses. Isolated from the internet and beyond the government’s control, young Cubans set their own terms on forums, social media platforms, and local websites. During the network’s decade-long golden era, it offered a rare example of citizen and community exchange in a country where the state carefully controls communication, until the state finally took it over. To many users, SNET’s amateur, volunteer intranet provided a better service than the network the Cuban government ultimately replaced it with.
Mustelier was part of this effort to bring together groups of computers that were already connected from the beginning. This meant gathering necessary hardware, like longer cables and better routers and servers. To acquire it, SNET’s founders relied on Revolico, Cuba’s version of Craigslist, which runs classified ads on- and offline, as well as on friends and family who traveled abroad. The group would then link the small neighborhood networks, set up servers, and tinker with the equipment.
Yenier Medina Chávez, another SNET founding member, told Rest of World that they “used $60 equipment for something that would require a $500 machine.” Routers meant for households were made into primary links to the system; 100-meter cables connected houses. Chávez also contacted the devices’ manufacturers. “When we told them the details of what we were doing,” he recalled, “they did not believe us.”
SNET in time became a kind of citywide internet, one divided into neighborhoods with sites of all kinds. Some resembled social networking sites like Facebook; others offered copies of Wikipedia and video game platforms, like Steam. Members hacked popular multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft and Dota, and ran them on SNET. Artists would release their latest works there, and cinephiles could stream their movies of choice. Users would contribute monthly to a tip jar to cover the costs.
Workarounds of this sort have a long-standing tradition in Cuba. Since most can’t afford streaming, they rely instead, for example, on external hard drives called paquetes semanales (“weekly packages”), on which television shows, albums, and offline versions of entire sites are available for download.
Administrators describe SNET as an attempt to “connect the Cuban family.” It came at very low cost to users, while also offering a glimpse of what was available outside the island.
This access was limited. Websites for international publications were unreachable, unless someone hosted articles on a connected server. SNET’s moderators would often curate information for thematic forums and sites. To avoid government interference, users were obliged to obey strict ground rules. They were not to discuss religion, politics, or topics that could “destabilize” the Cuban state — including news and controversial public posts. Viewing pornography, posting insults, or attempting to connect SNET to the World Wide Web could lead to a temporary or permanent ban.
Ensuring compliance with these rules required hundreds of volunteers, including software developers and gaming enthusiasts. Volunteers were tasked with tracking down users who harassed or leaked private photos of other members. They sometimes took extreme measures, like infecting a harasser’s computer with viruses or even attempting to delete their files from hard drives remotely.
The street network felt homemade and small-scale. Although users could choose to be anonymous, they depended on their neighbors to connect their computers physically to the network as well as on local administrators to restore access, in case they lost their passwords.
SNET was an open secret in Havana, its routers visible on the city’s avenues. In 2016, the state-run news site Cubadebate launched its technology section with an article about it, which members took as a sign the government knew of their endeavors.
But the country’s growing access to the internet proved detrimental to SNET. In 2015, the state-run telecommunications giant ETECSA expanded its public Wi-Fi hot spots. Three years later, it provided nationwide 3G mobile internet. In mid-2019, the ministry of communications authorized private wired and wireless connections for local businesses and individuals; 63% of Cubans can now connect to the web, joining platforms like Facebook and Instagram as well as Cuban sites (which are more affordable to access).
New laws restrict community-run networks, requiring each constituent to be registered, sanctioned, and overseen. As a result, Cuba’s network has lost its homemade feel and become a state-run institution, where decisions have little to do with LAN parties and compadres. Coming up with new sites, launching a tool for beta testing, and moderating forums have become complex bureaucratic processes. Authorities had promised to deliver a revamped nationwide intranet, previously only accessible at public computer centers. But to do so, they needed SNET; members were forced to donate their own equipment in order to expand the state-approved intranet into people’s homes.
When the pandemic hit, and the computer centers closed down, 18,000 users could still access the new national network from home, including state-approved games, like Fighting Covid-19, and educational content. But the state-run site remains faulty. Parts of the original platforms have not migrated to official servers — instead languishing in the neighborhoods where they were conceived, as divided as they were before SNET. Former members regret the loss of their network: “In a way, the state was the big winner,” said Mustelier.