Posted on Monday, 04.21.14
A Wi-Fi network for Cuba? Maybe
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
A program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to
develop the technology for a novel Wi-Fi network in Cuba has not been
deployed on the island and is under review, a USAID spokesman said Monday.
USAID approved the grant to the Open Technology Institute (OTI) in
Washington in 2012 as part of the agency's efforts to promote Internet
freedom, democracy and civil society in Cuba, said Matt Herrick, a
spokesman for the agency.
The network, known as Commotion, "is not operational in Cuba" and no one
has traveled to the country for the program, Herrick said. Cuban
authorities have jailed USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross since 2009 for
a somewhat similar program.
OTI's grant "is now under review. We are looking into it, to see if it's
consistent with the [OTI] proposal and achieves expected outcomes," said
the spokesman, declining to provide further details. The grant is set to
expire Sept. 30, 2015.
The USAID grant to OTI was made public in 2012, but came under a new
spotlight after The New York Times reported Sunday on a similar
Commotion system in Tunisia, financed by the State Department, and
mentioned the Cuba program.
USAID drew a lot of fire from critics of its Cuba programs after the
Associated Press reported earlier this month that it financed a
Twitter-like system for Cubans. The agency said the system was not
secret but had to be "discreet" because of Cuba's "non-permissive
In contrast to Cuba, which has branded the USAID programs as thinly
veiled efforts at "regime change," the Tunisia program was launched in
December with the approval of authorities in the town of Sayada.
Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence for delivering satellite
phones to Cuban Jews so they could have uncensored access to the
Internet. While Wi-Fi signals are easy to intercept and pinpoint,
satellite phone signals are more difficult to locate.
OTI is required to develop the technology for a Cuba version of
Commotion — basically a way of linking several Wi-Fi routers into a
"mesh" that can bypass government snoops — but has not tried to deploy
it on the island, according to knowledgeable sources.
The Wi-Fi program "is part of the U.S. government's long-standing
commitment to facilitate open communications among the Cuban people and
with the outside world," Herrick said.
The Times report said the Sayada network was started by Tunisian
academics and computer geeks who took part in the 2011 uprising that
overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It described his government
as "deeply invested in digital surveillance."
The State Department provided $2.8 million to U.S. "hackers, community
activists and software geeks to develop the system as a way for
dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely," the
Sayada's mesh is not connected to the Internet but covers big areas of
the town of 14,000 people and gives users access to a server containing
2,500 books, Wikipedia in French and Arabic and an application for
secure chatting and file sharing, it added.
"It is clear that the United States sees Sayada as a test of the concept
before it is deployed in more contested zones," The Times said, noting
the USAID grants for the OTI and Twitter-like ZunZuneo programs for Cuba.
One odd aspect of the USAID grant is that OTI is a part of the New
America Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that has another part, the
U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, which strongly favors warming relations
with Cuba's communist government.
"I'm not involved in any USAID grants — and I frankly don't want to be,"
Initiative director Anya Landau French wrote in a blog post in 2012 in
which she made it clear she opposed OTI's decision to apply for and
accept the USAID grant.
"I think I'm pretty clearly on record in my belief that USAID's programs
in Cuba have largely failed in their objectives and are in fact often
counterproductive to anyone associated with them," she said.
The New American Foundation describes itself as a nonpartisan
organization investing "in new thinkers and new ideas to address the
next generation of challenges facing the United States."
OTI founder Sascha Meinrath did not reply to El Nuevo Herald requests
for an interview, but the group's website said it is dedicated to
promoting "affordable, universal and ubiquitous communications networks."
Source: A Wi-Fi network for Cuba? Maybe - Cuba - MiamiHerald.com -