FCC Commissioner Says US Government Can Provide Internet Access to Cuba

Defunct high-altitude balloon project could give Cubans ability to share protest videos and photos

A Project Loon balloon in 2013 (Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)
July 16, 2021

Federal Communications commissioner Brendan Carr says high-altitude balloons could be used to deliver internet to Cuba, as the country's communist regime shut down internet access to block protests from spreading across the country.

"There's an urgent need right now," Carr said, but "a lot depends on the level of federal support." The federal government could leverage a defunct Google initiative that used stratospheric balloons like cell towers to deliver internet access, Carr told the Washington Free Beacon. Called Project Loon, the initiative was shuttered due to a lack of commercial viability. Carr said sourcing the balloons and "de-mothballing" them from warehouses would pose a logistical problem but noted the technology had been successfully used around the world, including in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed cell towers in the country.

Carr said the technology would not immediately connect every Cuban smoothly to the internet. "I would say the goal is not universal coverage with speeds that would allow you to download Netflix. The question is, how do we create the opportunity to continue to share videos and photos?"

Videos of protests across the island have spread under the hashtag #SOSCuba. In response, the Cuban regime appears to have tried to shut down access to WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, and other social media. Cubans have reported they are unable to access the country's sole telephone service provider. The regime has denied blocking access to the internet.

Cubans have long struggled to access the web in a country due to censorship and poor internet infrastructure. According to the nonprofit Freedom House, Cuba has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere. Some doctors and state employees can access dial-up internet in their homes, but most Cubans rely on a combination of VPNs, USB drives, scratch-off Wi-Fi cards, and some recently installed public wifi to connect to the outside world.

Project Loon balloons function much like traditional cell towers, but float for roughly 100 days at extremely high altitudes, above airplanes and clouds. Their distance from the ground enables them to cover a broader area.

Carr said the United States faces both an urgent need to support protesters now and a strategic, long-term need for this technology. In the short term, Carr said that "we need to bolster attempts to circumvent the blocking technology" used by the Cuban regime. Going forward, balloon internet technology would help citizens of brutal regimes around the world.

Florida Republicans have led the push for internet access in Cuba, with Governor Ron DeSantis calling on President Biden to provide funding and federal resources. "What does the regime do when you start to see these images?" DeSantis said. "They shut down the internet, they don't want the truth to be out, they don't want people to be able to communicate." Senator Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American, called on "innovative American companies" to provide internet access.

In a press conference Thursday, Biden said his administration would look into ways to deliver internet to the island. "They've cut off access to the internet. We're considering whether we have the technology to reinstate that access," Biden said.

The Cuban communist regime has taken advantage of the internet for its own ends. President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for "all communists and revolutionaries" to "be armed and defend the revolution" against "American mercenaries."