Gearhead News

July 22, 2021
U.S. Weighs Deploying Balloons To Provide Internet Access To Cubans During Crackdown

In the aftermath of the Cuban government’s response to protests throughout the country, the United States government is weighing what options it has for restoring communication services on the island nation. Internet service is currently suspended throughout Cuba, and some ham radio frequencies are even being jammed in Florida, preventing even rudimentary communications with the island. 

In an attempt to remedy the situation and reestablish communication networks in the one-party socialist republic, some officials in the United States government have proposed launching sophisticated high-altitude balloons made by Raven Aerostar over Cuba to provide wireless internet access from above. While the plan sounds good on paper, there are some doubts about how well it could work.

Raven Aerostar via YouTube
Concept art from a Raven Aerostar promotional video demonstrating how only a few balloons can establish a wide-area communications network.

The protests in Cuba began earlier this month in response to widespread shortages of food and other vital resources like medical treatment. According to some observers, many protestors feel the Cuban government has been investing too heavily in tourism while overtaxing the general population and catering to foreign investment rather than shoring up the national economy. 

Cuba hasn’t seen widespread public protests in over 60 years, except for the occasional state-organized protest, as defiance of this nature is illegal in Cuba. Some protestors are now facing up to 20 years in prison for their participation. The Cuban government, meanwhile, has blamed the protests on American-sponsored counterrevolutionaries.

AP/Eliana Aponte
Protesters in Havana on July 11, 2021

Images of protesters being beaten or detained by police painted a grisly picture of the Cuban government’s response to the protests, but definitive information about what is happening in Cuba can be difficult to come by due to the fact that communication with the island is so limited. The Cuban government has even been accused of sharing fake news immediately after reports of the protests began to spread.

According to a 2017 white paper published by the non-profit Freedom House, Cuba has “the most repressive media environment” and “the most restrictive laws on freedom of expression and the press” in the Americas. Freedom House notes that while there are a growing number of independent news outlets on the island, the Cuban government heavily restricts the information coming into and out of the country:

Government publications come out irregularly, and their reports often lack details considered to be “sensitive.” Journalists must receive authorization from the relevant government department to gain access to press conferences and other information; independent reporters are typically denied this access.

The Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) censors official media through its Ideology Department, formerly known as the Department of Revolutionary Orientation. Editors and reporters are responsible for adhering to the department’s “thematic plan,” which details which topics to cover and how to cover them. Some independent journalists who favor the government stay within the guidelines, while some critics try to dance around them and others disregard them and risk the consequences.

Internet service, meanwhile, is reportedly expensive and relatively new in Cuba, at least among the broader public. While the Associated Press claims that more than half of Cubans today have internet access, the Cuban government owns the domestic telecom service and heavily restricts and censors what Cuban people can access. 

AP/Ramon Espinosa
A protestor being detained in Havana on July 11, 2021.

In response to the Cuban government restricting internet access in the wake of the protests, some members of the U.S. government are considering using high-altitude balloons in order to provide Cuban residents with some form of internet service. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida recently called on President Joe Biden to “immediately authorize and allocate funding to provide emergency connectivity to the internet for Cuba through balloon-supplied internet coverage.” 

According to Politico, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr stated that high-altitude balloons made by Raven Aerostar are a “proven technology” that could be deployed just 20 miles north of Cuba in international waters, 70 miles south of Key West. Carr mentioned two other cases in which Raven balloons have been used to operationally provide internet service, one in remote areas of Kenya, and another in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. 

AP/Wilfredo Lee
Brendan Carr, center, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, speaks during a news conference at the offices of Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and Marcell Felipe, right, founder of the Inspire America Foundation.

Raven previously worked with Google’s parent company Alphabet on the Loon project, manufacturing the balloons used in Loon’s tests of technologies to provide high-speed internet to rural or diaster-stricken areas. That effort shut down in January, but Raven Aerostar is still making the high-tech balloons for a number of different applications. Earlier this year, Raven’s balloons appeared off both U.S. coasts, sometimes hovering in the same general area, even against the prevailing winds, for extended periods of time by varying their altitude in order to leverage variations in wind patterns. According to some estimates, the balloons are able to stay on station for up to 30 days. 

The Department of Defense has been a major partner in some of Raven Aerostar’s endevours. Naval Sea Systems Command awarded the balloon manufacturers a five-year contract in 2020 to develop unmanned systems, and Raven engineers were previously awarded by the Naval Air Warfare Center for their work in high-altitude surveillance platforms in Afghanistan. U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) sponsored the development of similar Raven Aerostar platforms for use in anti-narcotics operations and disaster relief which were tested over the American midwest. 

Raven Aerostar
A Raven Thunderhead balloon.

In addition to serving as communication nodes as has been suggested in Cuba, the balloons can also carry a wide variety of advanced radar sensors, electronic intelligence systems, electronic warfare packages, optical payloads, and much more. Multiple Raven balloons can set up advanced networking capabilities among themselves, and can stay at high altitudes out of the range of many anti-air systems. While some of these capabilities can be offered by satellites, balloon launches are exponentially cheaper and can be performed much more rapidly. They also have far better persistence than many satellites, especially those in low earth orbit. You can read all about these revolutionary balloon systems and their applications in this prior feature of ours

This current case in Cuba is different than previous deployments of Raven balloons to provide internet services, however, as it would be in direct response to a foreign government’s actions against its own people. “The first move that brutal dictators make around the world is to shut down the internet to block messaging apps, because the thing that communist dictators like least is the bright light of international attention, the world’s eyes, seeing what is going on inside their regime,” FCC commissioner Carr said at a press conference with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and U.S. Representatives María Elvira Salazar and Carlos Giménez. Salazar added that “We’re not talking about Netflix-quality video; we’re talking about just the ability to lift the videos that show how they’re being beaten on the streets.”

Meanwhile, an unnamed Biden administration official told The Washington Post that the White House “will be actively collaborating with the private sector to identify creative ways to ensure that the Cuban people have access to the free flow of information on the Internet,” but did not elaborate further. Telecom experts told the outlet that providing a network without a license to operate in Cuba would be in violation of international law. 

Despite the fact that the FCC commissioner feels the idea of sending balloons to reestablish some form of internet services in Cuba is sound, some have cast doubts on the efficacy of such a plan. One Internet services consultant told the Washington Post that the idea was a “Hollywood scenario.” Speaking to the Associated Press, satellite communications consultant Tim Farrar says such a network of balloons would be insufficient to provide the entire island nation with internet coverage. In addition, any wireless internet service the balloons provide would need a sufficiently large unused section of the radio frequency spectrum, and would ultimately be prone to jamming efforts by the Cuban government. 

There have already been reports that the Cuban government is actively jamming ham radio frequencies used to communicate with operators in Florida. Amateur radio operator and Cuban exile Alex Valladares posted a video to YouTube demonstrating what he claims is “malicious interference” on a wide band of radio frequencies. 

In addition, several amateur radio operators told IEEE Spectrum that they believe a “coordinated jamming effort” is underway. Meanwhile, the American Radio Relay League, which calls itself the “national association for Amateur Radio,” said that “there’s no proven connection between the jamming and the protests, as evidence has been circumstantial.” Nevertheless, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave a statement to Motherboard stating it is “assessing these reports in conjunction with our field agents and communicating with the Department of State as this issue develops.” Cuba reportedly has a long history with jamming radio frequencies in Florida. If these reports are true, it would seem the Cuban government is attempting to restrict even the most basic forms of communication from the island.

AP/Eliana Aponte
Special forces police parked outside of the National Capitol building in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

While the debate over whether the United States will send Raven Aerostar balloons near the island nation is still ongoing, these balloons could end up being the right technology available at the right time to provide a way around information suppression by dictatorships during a major crackdown or crisis. If they are put to use over Cuba, at the very least it could serve as a test as to their utility and it could offer a better understanding as to how to employ them under similar circumstances in the future. 

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com

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