FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr (CREDIT: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
In recent weeks, thousands of Cubans have taken to the streets of the island nation to protest against the communist government, chanting slogans such as “We want freedom” and “We are no longer afraid.”
It was a shocking development in a country that has been ruled by an iron fist for decades. The demonstrations come as Cuba faces the worst economic crisis in decades and its health system is increasingly strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the government that controls the internet has cut off many services, trying to block residents from disseminating information from the protests to the rest of the world. For the Alliance for the Protection of Taxpayers (TPA), the bond of the Cuban people is about freedom and the removal of the Cuban government power to dictate the terms of the bond of the population. Government control over the internet is why the TPA opposes strict Title II net neutrality regulations that give government bureaucrats more power over the internet.
Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Brendan Carr recently joined leaders from Florida, including Governor Ron DeSantis, in urging the Biden administration to provide support for U.S. efforts to secure Internet service in Cuba so that residents to spread the word about what is happening there beyond the borders of the nation.
The Taxpayer Protection Alliance spoke with Carr this week about that effort.
TPA: Why is this an important issue for you?
CARR: First of all, whenever we see movements for freedom all over the world, freedom from brutal dictators, the first thing people do is go out on the streets, turn on their smartphones, take pictures, make videos trying to get messages outside the world. And the first thing these dictators do is try to shut down the internet, regardless of whether it is a partial shutdown as we are seeing in Cuba as blocking messaging applications. We have seen this kind of activity in Iran and Myanmar. This is the movement of brutal dictators and historically we have played a role in trying to maintain the free flow of information on modern means of communication. When you do this, it can speed up the decline of regimes. Go back to the printing press, and you had Thomas Paine and Common Sense. We were throwing out leaflets, and now we have operations like Radio Marty, which is a government unit in Miami that broadcasts radio content in Cuba and has been doing it for decades. The update that to increase the internet connection on the island for the people protesting there is in line with the previous precedent. And we have the technical ability to do that.
TPA: How pleased are you to see support from the Biden administration for this effort?
CARR: I think it ‘s wonderful. Look, it’s still TBD in terms of where they come out in their discussions, but it’s really good to see them coming after calls from particularly Republican leaders from Florida, including Gov. DeSantis. Biden himself said they were looking for ways to increase service. I know what White House press secretary Jen Psaki said [recently] in a local television interview in Florida that they are looking for ways to do this. I think it is exciting to see that they are considering this, now we just have to lower the pedal and move on. We are doing this as for Cuba now, but also as a strategic issue I think we should have this ability in our arsenal, being able to go to any area where people are protesting and brutal dictators are trying to shut down the internet and seize power , to be able to provide people there an alternative means of taking their pictures and videos and messages inside and out. Now Cuba takes the position that this is a violation of Cuban law and there are some international heads holding the position that this is a violation of international law, but we have done it through Radio Marti for decades. I think we should give it a kick.
TPA: Can you explain the process of connecting Cuba to the internet?
CARR: There are many technological possibilities out there. What I am talking about some is this high altitude balloon platform. It is a technology that can work without the need for new infrastructure on the ground. Cuba is a challenge as it would not be open to increase internet services from outside the regime. It is a proven technology. We authorized this after a hurricane in Puerto Rico in 2017. These balloons were raised and helped increase connectivity on the island when the infrastructure was destroyed by the hurricane. I personally have been to Kenya and have seen this technology in action there. A regular wireless provider introduced it to see if it made sense to increase service in rural, remote areas of Kenya, where they had no land infrastructure, and the same operation provided services in Peru after several natural disasters there. So it is a technology that works and the advantage of satellite service is that you do not need receivers or dishes on the ground. It can go directly from international airspace to a smartphone and back.
There will be some logistical challenges. I think the key is technically that this works, but do we have the political will? If the Biden administration gives the green light, I think the private sector can move mountains to raise this. I think while technology should be provided by the private sector, it should be the government that actually does the service here, as it would be considered a violation of Cuban law, potentially a violation of international law. I think this is a responsibility, an obligation, the government should take over, not a private entity.
TPA: What would you say to critics who could argue that the focus on Cuba undermines efforts in the US to close the digital divide?
CARR: Arguments is a strange argument because we are talking about apples and oranges. We have hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress has allocated or voted on in the FCC, for example, to close the digital divide. The FCC is a billion. The Treasury Department has billions. Trade has billions. The Department of Agriculture has billions. States have billions through various COVID pandemic packages that they can use for a variety of things, including shutting down digital sharing. So funding is already about to close the digital divide many times over. We need to set policies and make that money, but this is a completely separate path from the funding of public and private sector units that will be involved in this Cuban effort. So doing so in Cuba would not take away a single penny from trying to close the digital divide here. We are not where we need to be in this place in terms of connectivity and we need to keep the hammer down, but this effort in no way slows down or diminishes the work that is going on to do so.
TPA: Biden is pushing fibers on technologies in his latest executive order. Could part of the work being done in Cuba be a testament to the concept in some way for other innovative technologies to close the digital divide?
CARR: The connectivity we’re talking about here with high altitude balloons is not something you would take away from your Verizon or AT&T 4G service. They had problems, Google did, with the commercial application of this in terms of competition when there are other technologies on the market. What we are really talking about here is a strategic move to provide a level of connectivity to receive or exit messages. We’re not talking about 100 percent island coverage for 100 percent people 100 percent of the time you can stream Netflix. We are talking about how we take the times and places and places where people can take pictures of themselves and their videos so that the world can see what is happening. Much is more of a temporary emergency measure.
Biden’s plan for infrastructure so far has relied heavily on a technological solution, that technology is fiber and this is a mistake. We need to make sure we have a lot of different tools in the toolbox when it comes to overcoming digital sharing. For example, I was recently in northern Idaho with a wireless landline provider with a new tower in a remote area. I think it covered about 5,000 premises and it took you a few weeks to do that and you are getting high speed service now for this community. If you only had one fiber preference you are talking potentially 10 times more than the cost and you are probably talking about five to 10 years to supply fiber to all those 5,000 countries. So when you think about the different technologies we have, yes, fiber has its advantages and you want most of the networks in this country to be fiber, but we have to leave room for fixed mobile or 5G services because they can do it faster and more efficiently under certain circumstances than what fiber can do.