Alan Gross set up Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Cuban authorities caught him and threw him in jail in 2009.
While he was behind bars, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, or OCB, was sending satellite terminals to Havana to allow Cubans to connect to the Internet illegally.
Internal memos describe the operation as “extremely successful,” unlike USAID’s failed project.
A July 13, 2012, memo from the International Broadcasting Bureau to the Broadcasting Board of Governors described a meeting to discuss ways to give Cubans better Internet access.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and some of his staffers attended along with representatives of Google and Carlos Garcia, then-director of the OCB. The memo stated:
The Senator showed interest in providing Web access for Cubans to give them a forum to talk with each other. He supports existing radio and TV programs to Cuba, but believes we can also provide access to the Web for its own sake to generate free discussion and the flow of information. Carlos indicated that mobile phones are the fastest-growing communications technology in Cuba, and stressed that any new methods should be implemented “in volume” so individual users would not be prosecuted by the government. Additional technological options were discussed, and BBG staff followed up on the Senator’s requests for further information.
A Nov. 7, 2012, memo said the IBB’s Internet Anti-Censorship team had “finished configuration and testing of 20 small, commercially available Hughes satellite terminals intended to provide Internet access for end users in Cuba. All of the terminals have been shipped to OCB for distribution in Cuba. These satellite terminals will provide users with Internet access that is completely independent of the Cuban telecommunications infrastructure.
A Nov. 13, 2013, memo said the anti-censorship team had taken delivery of “20 additional satellite Internet terminals for distribution to end users in Cuba by OCB, building on the extremely successful satellite Internet program started last year. These will be configured and tested by IAC before shipping them to OCB.”
More than a year later, on July 11, 2014, another memo said the anti-censorship team had “trained OCB staff on the use of the reporting and statistics platform for the satellite terminals that OCB has distributed to users in Cuba so that OCB staff can directly monitor usage of these devices.”
An Aug. 4, 2014, memo cited two additional training sessions for the OCB “on the Hughes satellite terminals web portal for use in their Internet censorship circumvention efforts.”
Cuban authorities freed Alan Gross in December 2014.
ETECSA, also known as Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, has since established 830 Wi-Fi hotspots through the country.