Georgia Tech Research Into Cuban 'Offline Internet' Could Inform Future Definitions of Connectivity

Havana, Cuba

A pervasive assumption says that internet access is determined by wires or some unseen signal that delivers information from a source, through the cloud, and onto your hard drive in a matter of seconds. Often, though, environment and resources determine how digital media and information technology is shared and consumed.

In a paper being presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, researchers in the Georgia Tech College of Computing outline a unique, and positively thriving, media ecology that operates mostly independent of traditional internet norms. Understanding the success of such a system could better inform how the internet is deployed in similar environments.

Titled El Paquete Semanal: The Week’s Internet in Havana, the paper examines a human-centered “offline” internet that, despite lacking widespread affordable internet access in the traditional sense, nonetheless delivers information and entertainment in a locally-relevant platform.

Access to the web in Cuba has, historically, been prohibitive. Up until recently, as much as 95 percent of the population were without access. And, while that is changing with the introduction of public Wi-Fi hotspots, the public internet is slow and too expensive for a large portion of the population. To use the internet, the Cuban people must prioritize time and money.

Yet, School of Interactive Computing (IC) Ph.D. student Michaelanne Dye realized in past research in the country that many still had access to things like movies or television entertainment, new versions of software and more, often before she would have gained access to it in the United States.

The reason?

El Paquete Semanal ("the Weekly Package"), a weekly “offline” internet that delivers a terabyte worth of multimedia, digital content, and news in an offline form. El Paquete is compiled by people with internet access, sold to “paqueteros” (packagers), and distributed throughout communities in the form of data on a USB drive.

The content is often delivered by hand or sold in physical stores that have popped up in apartment fronts. Individuals can enter the shop, select the content they want and pay a price per unit size of data.

“It’s done in a way that is incredibly affordable and accessible to most people,” Dye said. “People from all socioeconomic statuses use this network.”

Not unlike YouTube, it also affords local artists the opportunity to reach new audiences. Local content, like recording or visual artists, is included in El Paquete and shared throughout the city, country, and beyond.

“Their work will go into El Paquete, and it’s making its way out of Cuba,” Dye said.

Local journalists challenge the norm of government-run media channels, distributing their own literature through El Paquete. Whereas non-government journalists typically sent news outside of the country for publishing in the past, now it can be delivered weekly in this offline format.

As it has become more pervasive and successful, El Paquete challenges what is typically viewed as “internet access.” Dye argues that, while some attempts to establish more traditional access have failed, this has had unparalleled success.

“It goes back to this larger question of how the internet is designed?” she said. “And does it have to be this way? As communities are brought online, how do you make information access or communication technologies that are flexible and adaptable to the local condition?”

El Paquete offers one benefit that traditional internet lacks: a distinctly human infrastructure.

“Every system has a human element, but this infrastructure is literally held together by humans, not wires,” Dye said. “So, the human element of it makes visible that this is a negotiated, relevant, and participatory internet that is very adaptable to a variety of cases.”

Because it avoids automation, though, it requires painstaking work to be maintained.

“There’s affordances that the system provides that the internet doesn’t provide us,” Dye said. “At the same time, there are limitations.”

Ultimately, though, what are the limitations of the traditional internet and is it necessarily the right decision to replicate it in its entirety from the top down in a one-size-fits-all version?

“Who are we to say that this is exactly what everyone needs access to?” Dye said. “Who determines what is valuable for people? This paper argues that there are varying successful iterations of the internet and that local norms and values should play a role in determining how access is delivered in different locales.”

Research for this project was accomplished through in-depth interviews with the local population of Havana over the course of two years, as well as personal participation by authors in the system. The paper is being presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 21-26 in Montréal, Canada. Dye’s co-authors are David Nemer (University of Kentucky), Josiah Mangiameli (Independent), IC Professor Amy Bruckman, and School of International Affairs and IC Assistant Professor Neha Kumar.

Contact: 

David Mitchell

Communications Officer

david.mitchell@cc.gatech.edu