Cuba’s Underground Gaming Network

Cuba’s Underground Gaming Network


DREW VO: I’m Drew Scanlon.
I’m exploring the world through the lens
of games, and I’m doing it with the support
of people like you on Patreon.
Help us out at patreon.com/clothmap.
Despite being barely 100 miles from the tip
of Florida, Cuba is a place many of us think
of as being isolated, cut off from the world,
like a caribbean North Korea.
Indeed, the country is famous for its classic
cars, their enduring presence partially a
byproduct of longstanding trade embargoes.
But while much of Havana looks like a time
capsule from the 1950s, the country is slowly
working its way into the 21st century.
For instance, Cuba has Internet.
Internet access is still rare in private homes,
but is supposedly rolling out to more and
more people every year.
The rest of Cuba’s citizens rely on publicly
available access points, commonly situated
in parks or public buildings.
At all hours of the day, pockets of Internet
surfers can be seen around Havana, noses down
in their phones, or with the occasional laptop.
Whether you connect at home or to a public
hotspot, you are greeted with a captive portal,
familiar to anyone who has tried to log in
to free wifi at the airport.
To get my own login, I had to buy a one-time-use
card, good for five hours of Internet.
Our guides Alfredo and Carolina led us to
a small shop run by ETECSA, Cuba’s state-owned
telecommunications provider.
Technically, I didn’t buy the card, since
each card must be registered with a Cuban
citizen.
Carolina showed her ID and paid the five CUC.
However, there was a guy selling cards nearby
for twice the price, who would have probably
waived this requirement.
ALFREDO: Here’s your card.
DREW: Alright!
ALFREDO: And this is mine, thank you so much.
DREW VO: On each card is a numeric username
and a scratch-off that reveals the password.
From there, it’s as simple as connecting
to the public hotspot and logging in on the
ETECSA login page.
DREW: “WIFI_ETECSA?”
ALFREDO: “WIFI_ETECSA.”
DREW: And I bought this card, so this is my
“usuario.”
That’s a long string.
And once I use this, this card is done, right?
CAROLINA: Yeah, but you can close the card,
so you can save time.
Okay, you have five hours, so your time is
running.
You have Facebook, Internet, Instagram.
DREW: YouTube?
ALFREDO: It’s slow, okay?
DREW VO: The speed is decent.
But more importantly it felt like the real,
full Internet, not some government-approved
walled garden.
DREW: Hey, look at that!
It’s not so bad!
It’s pretty good!
DREW VO: There was a catch to this, however.
DREW: So this card won’t allow me to look
at political things?
CAROLINA: Yeah, it will, but it will go directly
to my ID.
DREW: Oh, because you showed your ID.
CAROLINA: Yes.
DREW: Okay, so…
Wikipedia?
CAROLINA: Yeah, you can go to Wikipedia, but
just for…
normal stuff.
DREW: Okay.
DREW VO: That’s enough, it seems, to keep
the whole thing self-policing.
Phones have limited data abilities over cellular,
such as ETECSA email, but they connect to
wifi just fine.
The world’s Internet is available, but expensive.
A dollar per hour of Internet is a lot in
a country where monthly take-home pay ranges
from 25 to 50 dollars per month.
That expense, and having to go to a park to
get online, is a pain if all you really want
to do is play online games with your friends.
Thankfully, there’s a workaround.
SNET, short for “Street Network,” is Havana’s
city-wide home-brew intranet.
This building houses a bank of servers called
Henetica, and broadcasts a limited-range signal
that can be picked up with devices called
nanostations.
Jesus is an administrator for SNET and showed
us how the whole thing works.
His friend Roberto translated for us.
ROBERTO: The signal comes from there, from those
buildings.
That’s called Henetica.
From there to that nanostation, that black
bag, for protection against the water.
The signal with the current equipment isn’t
strong enough to broadcast to everybody.
So, what they do is they send the signal and
bounce from here to there, so it can get to
the whole city and everybody can stay connected.
Now, the whole Havana is connected to the
SNET and you can access the wifi from practically
anywhere.
DREW: How many people does this tower give
Internet to?
ROBERTO: 250.
DREW: 250 people?
ROBERTO: Yeah, connected to this one.
Several people are connected by cable, because
not everyone can get access to the wifi.
For the location, or doesn’t have the
money to buy the equipment, and so on.
But they connect to it with cable.
You can see the cables here.
There’s extensions of cable and cable, out to all
you see.
Everywhere.
This is what they call “nódulos.”
I don’t know how to say it in English.
DREW: Node?
ROBERTO: Node.
Okay, like that.
This tower bounces the signal to the little
ones.
There are 12 towers connected to this one.
It’s a lot of people.
DREW: So if someone new wants to connect
to the network, what do they do?
ROBERTO: He would have to buy a nanostation
and build a small tower and he’d give access
to that person with the nanostation, and other
people can connect to him.
That’s how it keeps growing.
The thing most popular in the network is games.
Here, we love playing games.
We can’t play a lot of games but the ones
that can play in a local network, because we
don’t have internet.
For example, World of Warcraft.
Everybody plays World of Warcraft, Call of
Duty, those things, that’s the most played in
this network.
This is not professional.
We invented this.
When I was connected, we were like eight people
and it was all by cable.
There was no wifi.
Before there was the cable, we would have to
carry our computer, our PC, and go to a place,
a house, anybody’s, other house.
So we would play, connected by small cables
and little switch of eight ports.
Everybody connected. Cable everywhere. The machines were old. Super Old.
It was amazing.
One day we were playing at four AM, five AM–we
didn’t know, we just love playing games.
We were packing up and helping each other
carry our computers to each house.
One day we were at the corner of my house
and the police came and it looks like a robbery.
It really looks like a robbery.
Then they came and it was like, “where are the
papers of all the machines?” and…
“Papers? Here we don’t do papers.”
It was a long problem, all night talking and
talking.
Also, when we started to take the cables across
the roof we had problems with the law, getting
permission to pass it.
And it was really difficult because it was
illegal then.
DREW: But it’s legal now?
ROBERTO: Yeah, because we ask permission and
they give us a document, like a license.
And there’s no problem because it’s only for
gaming.
Allegedly, it’s only for gaming.
In SNET, there’s no profit.
There’s no profit at all.
The money that we pay is in case the thunder
damages the equipment or something.
There’s no profit at all, it’s all for free.
Mostly.
But we don’t spend money on that.
If we spend money it’s because we’re trying to connect
someone that is far away or is difficult to
connect because of the place or something.
And we help them because we like to add people.
DREW VO: We then went downstairs, where Jesus
and Roberto showed us the software side of things.
ROBERTO: So we communicate through this chat.
It’s called BORGChat.
Those two white cables are from the tower,
from the nanostation.
Those two are the ones from the tower and
that one connects to the switch.
That’s a nanostation.
He has to put this one in the tower, to connect
more people to this one, because the other
one is full.
You put it there and point into the direction
where all the people are.
It’s like a radius, like that.
And another one in the other direction to
connect the other people.
From all the people who lives there, the people
from the river, everybody.
That’s all the little nanostations that are
connected to the big one.
When they are gray, when they are dark, it’s
because they are turned off.
In that program you can control all the other
towers.
That’s the control of the whole network.
Those people are connected to that nanostation.
That’s the little towers that are connected
to this big one.
He just connected that person, that little
tower, and now they have wifi.
You see?
DREW: Yeah.
ROBERTO: It’s connected now.
Sometimes the people that are connected to
a little station, between them they have
problems–in the computers, in the cables,
in those things–and those problems come back
to the big tower, to him, and then they start
a chain reaction.
Everybody has a problem.
If one is having issues with a computer or
whatever, it transmits to everybody.
So he disconnects it and when it’s fixed,
he connects it again.
DREW: Do people ever get kicked off of the network
for bad behavior?
ROBERTO: When they start making business with
profit, for himself, we don’t permit that,
we ban them from the network.
That’s how we say, “bañamos.”
We ban him.
For cheating in games.
There’s two or three people that are the admins
of games.
There’s one for Call of Duty, there’s another
one for World of Warcraft.
And they have, not employees, but they have
people that help them to detect people that
is cheating in the game.
We don’t like that because we are trying to
make everybody even.
So, if we caught you cheating, we ban you
from the game.
Not forever, but maybe in a month or two,
you can play.
If you keep doing that, and doing that, we
just ban you and…
I don’t know, go to other network, I don’t
know.
It’s the only one.
DREW: How do people find out about new games to play?
ROBERTO: Mostly we… “somebody,” anybody
who has access to the internet–good internet–downloads
one game and then magically it just comes
to the network, and share it.
It’ll be like, “let’s play this game, it’s
good.
We can play on the local network” and everybody
could play that.
And we just copy things, from machine, to
machine, to machine, to machine.
We don’t just go and download one game because
downloading one game, here, one gigabyte,
long time downloading that.
DREW VO: To see the network in action, we
walked the length of one of the ethernet cables
leading from Jesus’ home.
ROBERTO: You can see the blue cable goes down
to that house.
They’re all connected, they’re all connected
to the network.
And from that house, the signal keeps going
through all the streets.
DREW VO: When the cable terminated, so did
the reach of Jesus’ node.
But of course, there are more nodes, which
turn into more switches, that connect more
people to SNET, and the network grows.
By some estimates, SNET serves over 20,000
people.
ROBERTO: See there?
We were walking over here and police stopped
us right there.
It was very funny.
The cables from his network end here.
From this point further, other people control
the network.
DREW: But it’s the same network?
ROBERTO: It’s the same network.
DREW VO: Dariel, alias “Butty,” provides one
of these switches.
ROBERTO: That’s the switch.
All the cables, they connect there.
DREW VO: Butty is also an avid gamer.
So avid that he was up on the latest Zelda,
despite only owning a PC.
Game consoles are not unknown here, but are
extremely expensive, so the PC tends to rule.
As Roberto said, World of Warcraft is quite
popular. Impressive considering SNET is, again,
not connected to the Internet.
ROBERTO: And… he won.
DREW VO: Henetica, in addition to providing
servers for games and communication to run on,
also has a front end that acts as a sort
of portal.
Clicking on anything in this list will bring
you to a lobby where you can wait for others
before launching the game.
ROBERTO: And when the room is full, the game
starts.
DREW VO: But it’s more than just games.
ROBERTO: We have a football page where you
can go and see the latest news from games
and players.
A chat room, also, where you can discuss after
a game.
DREW: What is “Steam SNET?”
ROBERTO: They are working to be able to play
football–FIFA, Pro Evolution, those games–in
that page.
This is like Facebook for SNET. Cuban Facebook.
DREW VO: There’s even a Craigslist of sorts,
where you can buy enough networking equipment
to make your own node.
ROBERTO: Those are nanostations and switch
and things to connect to the net.
DREW VO: Jesus and Butty spent a few minutes
geeking out over CAT6 cable.
But the site also lists gaming accessories.
DREW: Is that the only way to buy things like
that?
ROBERTO: No, you can go to a store, but
the stores are very expensive, and it’s weird
to see those things in the stores.
The electronic stores here, they sell little
Logitech mouse.
They’re white, they get yellow, and.. bad. It’s bad.
DREW VO: As Americans we weren’t allowed
to buy anything from state-run stores, but
we walked inside one to see what it was like.
Sure enough, your standard barebones keyboard
(with 30-day guarantee) shared shelf space
in this electronics store with hair curlers
and ovens.
ROBERTO: You can buy anything in this page.
A car, whatever.
DREW VO: This extends, of course, to game
consoles, which, since most were listed at
roughly US retail price, are prohibitively
expensive for most Cubans.
ROBERTO: You can just put here whatever you
want to sell.
A place or whatever.
You post a picture, the price, comments
about the item, and your phone number.
DREW: Where do those people get those games?
ROBERTO: Somebody travels to another
country, they buy games, because they’re cheap.
For example in your country, they must be
cheap, buying a game.
And they bring it here and they sell it and whatever.
DREW: Is it okay to bring it into the country
like that and sell it?
ROBERTO: They really don’t care.
You can bring the game and say that it’s for
you, for your own gaming, and you just go
to that page and you post “I wanna sell all
my games.”
And it’s okay, nobody cares.
DREW: But you’re selling it for profit.
ROBERTO: Yeah, it’s not really a felony, per
se.
But it must be illegal.
But they just don’t care.
DREW VO: I asked repeatedly if I could include
everything Roberto and Jesus told us, and
they said yes.
It seems the government is content to let
the people of Havana operate SNET as long
as it doesn’t abuse its privileges.
The “alcohol in a paper bag” of connectivity.
This is fascinating in its own right, but
what really amazed me is that it’s all home-grown
and maintained free of charge.
People like Jesus and Butty put in the work
to connect people, figuratively and literally,
because they know the value of communication,
of cooperation, and what it means to play
together.
Doing so purely for the good of the people
is something truly revolutionary.
This is the first video from Cloth Map’s series
on Cuba.
Stay tuned over the coming weeks for a look
at the games that are part of Cuba’s DNA…
SUBJECT: This is Sports City of Havana.
DREW VO: ..an interview detailing Cuba’s
surprising links to another Cloth Map subject,
and, for Patrons, a behind-the-scenes travelogue
documenting our entire trip.
If you liked this video, or any of our other
ones, consider supporting us on Patreon.
Regular folks just like you contribute a few
bucks a month to keep Cloth Map going.
Their support helps pay for flights, lodging,
guides, translators, camera operators, editors,
music licensing, and more.
If you think learning about the world and
bringing us all closer together is important,
we’d love to have you with us.

100 thoughts on “Cuba’s Underground Gaming Network”

  1. Such a good Vid,Drew!
    Will you come to Brazil more often?Would be great to see you learning about our culture in games

  2. This is truly incredible. It really shows how us in the US so easily take our access to something as ubiquitous as the internet for granted. Power to our Cuban gaming brethren!

  3. Ah… Reminds me of early 2000's when me and my friends were having LAN parties. It was always pain in the ass to get things working for everyone.

  4. i love how roberto refers to trolling/griefing/etc. on the snet server as "shitting." some concepts are universal, i guess

  5. Man Jeff Backalar would be in heaven at that State run electronics shop. Stoves, phones, etc. all in one place!

  6. This is really outstanding stuff. To have such love for your community is something really special is rare. Making me even more proud to be half Cuban.

  7. I really like when you cover the gaming cultures of different countries. It is a really unique and refreshing content from the usual 'let's play' and 'review videos' that inundates YouTube. I can tell the hard work you put into your videos, as they are really high quality and looked like they could easily be part of a televised show.

  8. This is what true gaming journalism looks like, not sitting in an office 95 percent of the time typing press releases and talking to PR people. Journalism is going out into the world and connecting with people and telling everyone about those connections, and you have done that splendidly.

  9. I usually don't like Vloggers, but you're special, you are a good person who cares and does really interesting and great videos, i subbed because of you chernobyl video, it was almost documentary like. Amazing! Thanks.

  10. Really great material, Drew! Hope you keep on investing on these niches, which is where your series shines the brightest.

  11. This gaming network isnt just in Havana. Here in Holguín, we have one, smaller yes, but equally effective: easily 12-13 users maybe less maybe more. You're welcome to check it out. The only-and main difference- is that here some admin does charges to up to 5 CUC($5) to connect you to the HLG (our city network)

  12. Buen video,uno de los mejores q eh visto sobre nuestra red ,saludos de parte de un integrante de Snet !

  13. I would never know about this if it weren't you. Thanks man, you make my hope for great content on youtube grow even more.

  14. Any foreigner can purchase a card, a national is NOT needed. You should ask for a temporary card, instead of a permanent one. Temporary cards (the one that you purchased in the video) are one-use cards, and are not restricted to Cuban nationals, indeed ETECSA recommends those for tourists. The permanent ones are the Nauta cards, which are tied to a common id i.e: [email protected] and are rechargeable, so you can use it for life. The ID thing was imposed by ETECSA to prevent people from purchasing cards for resale and depleting the cards available in the booth. What was happening before the ID-request is that guys like the one with the LA cap get there early, purchase ALL the cards available for sale, and then resale them twice its price right there in the front of the ETECSA booth.

  15. 10:10 The legend of zelda breath of the wild on the PC. Is he running dolphin?

    edit: Zelda at 14:24 Nice to see our cuban brothers getting their game on. 🙂

  16. Didn’t even use the Internet for the 5 days I was there. Don’t like the idea of using a government portal to connect to it…Maps function would have been nice but there are ways around that. It was the detach and culture that I wanted to experience.

  17. It's a beautiful thing they are putting together for gamers. Cuban peoples' technical mastery over what limited resources they can scrounge together is always amazing.

  18. I'm Cuban (from a different city) and this is all true. I used to play WoW with homemade antenas and usb-wifi. It was really a great thing, because since the community on the servers is so small, you can actually get to meet them in person and have a lot of fun. So it had the benefits of gaming without all the social struggles it can bring. We also had a social-network called "the social" with no more than 100 active users, where, once again, you felt more safe and warm than when you use facebook.

  19. You won`t believe me but the first node in Cuba was created by me 🙂 with this antena https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slotted_waveguide and an old Linksys router flashed with DD-WRT.

  20. This was awesome. Before they had widespread local networks like this, there used to be "publishers" of a weekly or monthly USB HDD that would be passed around the town (duplicated along the way), loaded with all sorts of good stuff from the outside world. Movies, TV shows, games, news, books – all kinds of media! The principle behind the internet can truly find its way into any society.

  21. This is amazing. I'd really love to learn more about the technical side of this. These Cubans are building stuff I always dreamed about. Decentralised mesh networks over metropolitan areas. In theory, impossible to control or shutdown so long as you can keep physically building more nodes.

  22. And people complain about the smallest shit in first world countries, pretty nice to have some perspective. Awesome video <3

  23. Fantastic. The Cuban people are so ingenuitive, so amazing in so many ways..I see people on here asking how they can donate to this group. Can you please give them an answer?

  24. I remember back in 2005 in romania we had similar thing like SNET and kids would accidentaly (or me in most of the cases) kick with the football one cable and an entire block of apartments would have no internet,and they would be people swearing at the children because of what they had done.we had similar situation back in romania,and they would threaten us to beat us if we didn't fix the cable by ourselves!😂😂😂😂👌👌

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