Inside Cuba’s secretive underground gamer network
Polygon By:May 15, 2017
- Evolved from gamer network, to social community
The last rule of the Street Network is that you don’t talk about the Street Network. But that wasn’t always the case.
For several years the clandestine Havana network of illegal Wi-Fi repeaters, lengths of high-speed network cable and squirreled away servers packed with pirated games, movies and music was sort of an open secret.
The government didn’t just turn a blind eye to it; in some cases it protected the valuable equipment located on windowsills and rooftops, keeping an eye out for potential thieves.
All of that changed in some people’s eyes in 2015 after several people in the Street Network (often just called the Snet) talked to the Associated Press and brought too much attention to their efforts. Since then, the Snet has continued to grow, quickly stretching outside the bounds of Havana and becoming something more than the gaming and entertainment network it started out as. But now that growth happens despite the government’s continued efforts to take the network down, several people who help maintain the network tell Polygon.
It’s like, for me it’s the most magic place,” says Fidel Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Havana department of journalism who has studied the Snet. “It is the most magical thing happening in technology in Cuba because it’s like a live organism. It’s always changing and it points out the contradictions of Cuba life, about Cuban society and the potential young people have to make things happen.”
Rodriguez also sees it as an excellent example of how things can be built communally instead of through more vertically structured organization.
In researching the Snet, Rodriguez discovered that the network, one of many that seem to stretch like cobwebs across Cuba’s major cities, started up about five years ago and has, over the years, expanded with the help of literally thousands of “young people” without any help from the Cuban or any other governments. It is, he says, purely a thing born of the need to socialize, initially to socialize through video games.
“You have a situation where you find some young people who do something for the common good,” Rodriguez says. “They do something to be together and take responsibility to develop complex things. So you have … 18-years-old kids who are taking this kind of complex responsibility in the development of this huge network.”
Rodriguez traces its origin back to 2012 when the country introduced a formal system for providing limited internet to the public. Raul Castro formed ETECSA, a government run telecommunications service provider, and opened 35 Wi-Fi parks. Anyone can go into these parks with a pre-purchased internet card and get online. The scratch off cards, which provide a unique login and password, originally cost about $5 for an hour. Nowadays, they cost $2 an hour.
By 2014, the country estimated that about three million people, or about 27 percent of the country’s population, were using the parks, according to Rodriguez’s research. By the end of 2015, ETECSA estimates that 150,000 people were getting online through the parks daily.
The available, but limited, internet access expanded the desire for networking at a time when Cubans who grew up playing video games were leaving high school and moving on to college.
The Snet started, according to several people I spoke with who help administer nodes and to Rodriguez, when two friends strung some cable between their homes so they could play LAN games. When one of them moved away, they extended the network so they could continue gaming. Soon friends were building out the network so they could get in on the gameplay. Within a couple of years, the network was massive. By 2015 it stretched from one end of Havana to the other, but 2017 it was in other regions around the country, I’m told.
Things became more complicated in 2015 when the government passed regulations banning the importation of 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi equipment. Moving forward the equipment had to be smuggled into the country. Often, people take the equipment apart and slip pieces into different suitcases or their pockets, reassembling and selling them once they get into the country.
The Snet has rules: No talking about drugs, no sharing pornography, no talking about politics or religion, no selling access or connecting nodes to the world’s internet and when you’re not on the Snet, you don’t talk about the Snet.
It’s one of the ways the many network moderators try to fly under the government’s radar. The Snet now is massive; one person estimates that more than 20,000 people use it in Havana alone, and its web of interconnections might make taking it down impossible, but no one wants to risk that.
So they follow the rules.
It does create a bit of a conundrum for someone who doesn’t have access to the Snet. If you’re a member, you’re not supposed to talk to non-members about it. And to become a member you need to have an existing member vouch for you. But it somehow still works out
I spend much of my time in Havana, while talking to gamers, visiting government centers and tracking down developers, on the hunt for the Snet and its members.
Finally, I gain the trust of one member who was willing to introduce me to another, more highly placed member. He, in turn, brings me to one of the neighborhood hubs to meet one of Havana’s Snet administrators.
As we drive through the side-streets of Old Havana in a meticulously cared for 1960s Russian car, the neighborhood leader points to one of the thick clusters of cables strung across the road between telephone poles.
“See that yellow cable?” he says. “That’s an Snet cable.”
The road, packed with traffic and near a busy intersection, is hardly an out of the way byway. I ask how they managed to string a LAN cable across the road.
They just do it, he says. They come out at night and run the cable.
When we arrive at the heart of this part of the city’s Snet, I’m told not to take any pictures. Somewhere past the many windows facing the dusty park rests a major server, home to all of the content found in this cluster of the network. My contact points out cables surreptitiously running out of windows, or between buildings. He points to small white devices attached to the sides of buildings or resting on their rooftops. They’re nanostations, tiny relatively inexpensive but powerful point-to-point wireless bridges. They are the wireless form of those long cables connecting people to one another on the Snet.
I’m introduced to the leader of this area. He looks at me for a second, his red-rimmed, slightly glassy eyes staring at me as the translator explains that I’m hoping to talk to the leadership of the Snet.
He tells her that he has to check into the request and walks off.
A few minutes later he tells me that he can’t do an interview until all of the city’s administrators approve it and that can’t happen until the next meet-up.
A month later I hear through a connection that the administrator I met is no longer part of the Snet. He’s been kicked out for breaking one of the cardinal rules: selling access, connecting a portion of Snet to the internet or porn.
“Overcoming obstacles is part of the Cuban identity,” Rodriguez says, making it clear that the network isn’t really the by-product of any sort of government or ideology, but rather of necessity. “You have the idea of ‘We have to make this thing happen and we have to make this thing so everybody wins.’ It’s a very pragmatic idea.”
That pragmatism, helped along by a desire to play games with friends and watch pirated movies and television, has helped the Snet spread quickly throughout the country and now it’s starting to connect cities.
“It’s already connecting cities, mostly in the Havana area,” Rodriguez says. “They have connected some parts of Havana with Artemisa. If you look at the map, they are like 100 kilometers apart.”
That’s 100 kilometers of nanostations and hand-strung network cable, almost all of which was done by young Cubans.
“It’s not connecting the whole country right now,” Rodriguez says, and if it ever did he could see the government getting more involved in stopping it. “It’s a lot of work to do this and a lot of work to maintain the service.”
On top of that, he says, there is a lot of internal strife on Snet between the administrators. Whatever the future holds for Snet, Rodriguez just hopes it sticks around.
Havana can feel like a place lost to time
“It shows what we can do as a people,” he says. “We can do something in a collective way that can be an example of development.”
It is a sign that Cubans can, without the help of a company or the government, create something powerful in a collective way, he says.
“That’s probably the main dream of the revolution,” he says. “I think it is a pure idea of the revolution.”
Despite the increased regulations and government scrutiny, the Snet hasn’t just survived; it has thrived. That’s likely because it was so established and steers clear of hotbed political issues, says Ted Henken, a Latin American studies professor at Baruch College who has researched and written about Cuba’s small businesses and internet.
“The government has largely tolerated it,” Henken says. “It’s not hands off, but not a knee jerk repressive approach either as long as the content is relatively non-political and doesn’t include porn.
“They realize it’s a lost battle. It would be like whack a mole trying to root it out. It doesn’t have a central hub. It could also be a strategy of let them eat cake. ‘Let them be entertained as long as we maintain control where it matters.'”
After my failed attempt at an interview with the Snet leadership, my guides brought me to another neighborhood and a friend who regularly hangs out on Snet, so I could see what the network is like.
While the Snet started out as a place to play games, it has evolved to become much more since. When I arrive at the house, I’m let into a room that is home to two desks and computer setups. One person sits watching television shows that were downloaded the day before and the other, my host, is preparing to walk me through the network’s offerings.
Among the most popular online competitive games in Cuba are Blizzard’s StarCraft and StarCraft 2, World of Warcraft’s player-versus-player Arena and Valve’s DOTA 2. Because those online games run through the developer’s own anti-cheat, anti-piracy software, Snet is also home to heavily modded versions of both Blizzard’s BattleNet and Valve’s Steam. Both programs are free and never go online. Instead they run entirely on the Snet LAN. Both are also routinely, manually patched to ensure the games they host are always up to date.
Typically, my guide tells me, a patch hits the Snet version of DOTA 2 within a month of release in the U.S. Sometimes, it can be just a couple of days.
And while the Snet hackers have to remove the official cheat detectors built into the games, the street network has its own program for detecting cheats. In this case, get caught and, like when you break one of the rules of Snet, you’re banned from the network.
The Snet is also home to an extensive network of voice channels where people can get together to talk about just anything that doesn’t break Snet’s own rules. Those voice-over-internet channels can connect anyone anywhere on the Snet to each other. When I was there, I saw they were organized into a slew of channels and sub channels. Inside the game channel, for instance, there were channels for games, and inside those channels were channels for modes and inside that channel, channels for locations and finally smaller player groups.
The end result is the ability for people to hop into a voice channel dedicated to a single match and let the players chat with one another as they play.
Other channels let people chat about general topics, the latest movies or TV shows.
But the Snet and the hacked and modded programs created for it go well beyond that. For instance, the Snet has its own form of Facebook, a program that appears to have been built from the ground up to mimic the best parts of Facebook in a forum more suitable to the street network and the people who use it. Inside, as with the official Facebook, users can share updates, chat with one another and search for friends and family.
There’s a dedicated Snet dating program, a Cuban take on an offline Wikipedia, live chat programs and a special forum created to work like Craigslist, where people can buy, sell and trade items.
The Snet also is host to publications, both from the United States and those indie publications growing inside Cuba itself.
There’s even online versions of Cuban-run pirate radio stations and they have live DJs who mix their chatter with a constant stream of pirated music.
For some, it’s their nearly eight-hour-a-day Snet job, all done free of pay, voluntarily.
Lately, thanks to those DJs and the explosive growth of the Snet, there have been meet-ups, pool parties where Snet users get together in real life to hang out and have fun.
“The thing about the Snet is that people don’t play only online,” my guide says. “They actually want to meet each other so they can socialize.”
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