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In Cuba, gamers lament what they see as the end of the island's underground network

Ernesto Echevarria Sarmiento, left, Christian Echevarria Sarmiento, center,
Hector Echevarria Sarmiento, top, Christian Echevarria Sarmiento, middle, and Ernesto Lopez Valdez, bottom, play games at home through Cuba's largest, private underground network called SNet, in Havana on Aug. 20, 2019. -
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HAVANA ­— A vast and intricate underground private network built painstakingly and used mostly by gamers throughout Havana is coming to an end and many young users on the island are upset they are losing a dear friend.

On a recent afternoon, Hector López Valdés, 22, went over to the apartment of brothers Christian and Ernesto Echevarria Sarmiento to play video games like they usually do.

The three friends play with a community of 150 gamers in the Altahabana neighborhood of Cuba's capital. They all connect through SNet (short for street network).

"It's a way to communicate with friends and spend some down time," Christian, 23, a refrigerator technician, said.

But SNet will soon come to an end. Until now, the government largely tolerated private networks, though they were not officially legal. Government measures passed at the end of July legalize the many private networks throughout the island but restrict the use of cables and the high potency power networks that were used to build SNet -- the largest one. As a result, SNet is being absorbed by the state-run Youth Computer Club.

The move brought protests by many young users who saw it as an alternative to the internet.

Private networks emerged over a decade ago as Cuba lagged behind most of the world in internet connectivity. They were built and financed by users, utilizing a labyrinth of cables to connect home computers with their neighbors' computers. Eventually, entire city blocks were connected to an administrator -- through a high potency wireless network -- who would then connect the users to the next nearest administrator.

The number of users is estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000. SNet is not connected to the internet. It was initially used for gaming but eventually branched out to include other activities, like a Facebook-style social media, a telephone guide, an offline Wikipedia and many web chats. Administrators ban any talk of politics, religion or the exchange of pornography.

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Opposition to ending SNet was swift, and a small protest took place outside the Ministry of Communications on Aug. 10. Cubans have been feeling more emboldened to speak out in recent months. Encouraged that the protest was not quelled by authorities, another one was planned for Aug. 17. News spread through social media, which more Cubans have access to since 3G service on mobile phones was introduced in December. But protesters did not show up, though a strong police presence was noticeable. Some of those who planned to protest, as well as independent journalists, tweeted later that day they had been prevented from leaving their homes by plainclothes security officers.

Resistance to ending SNet was noticeable on social media with many young Cubans tweeting directly to Minister of Communications Jorge Luis Perdomo, pleading with him to not end the network they painstakingly built over years. Twitter campaigns using the hashtag #YoSoySnet which translates to #IAmSnet also sprung up.

Dissidents, to whom most SNet users do not have links to, began supporting the young users on social media and even U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kimberly Breier criticized the resolutions on twitter.

But for many young users, who stay away from politics, losing SNet has been emotional.

Back at the apartment, while playing games, Christian said, "I feel a great loss." He composed and recorded a song called "Si te vas SNet" that has gone viral within the network. The lyrics are about losing friends and describe SNet as the only place where enemies do not exist.

Ernesto, 16, who is in school, says he enjoys playing games, such as "Call of Duty" and "Hurtworld," but stressed that SNet is also a source of information that helps him with schoolwork.

The Ministry of Communications did not respond to request for comment. But the government has said it's not the end of private networks since users have the option to join the Youth Computer Club.

Some users have complained that even though the club has been around for 20 years, it does not have the technological capacity to connect as many users as SNet. But in an evening news broadcast on Cuban television, sources from the Ministry of Communications and the Youth Computer Club said they are working on improving the infrastructure so SNet can continue running as it has. They also said in the future, private networks across the island will be connected to each other.

Some SNet administrators have already joined the Youth Computer Club. One SNet user who declined to be identified said he had been vocal about his opposition to terminating SNet until he received a visit by state police and was threatened with prison time. "Similar things happened with other people and mainly with the administration of SNet," he said.

Private networks are not exclusive to Cuba and can be found around the world, including in Spain, Britain and New York. "The ones in Spain and Britain are not in big cities, like New York City, where there is a good alternative. They tend to be in rural areas where it's not worth it for the phone companies to bring connectivity," according to Larry Press, a professor of Information Systems at California State University in Dominguez Hills who also blogs about internet in Cuba.

"Cuba should work with SNet and provide internet connectivity, but it's obvious that is not going to happen," Press said.

López Valdés and brothers Christian and Ernesto say they don't want to see the end of SNet but the Youth Computer Club is the only way left to go. "I don't understand why such a benign network that does not talk about politics, religion or pornography would disappear," Ernesto lamented. They hope the government's promise of higher speed with fiber optics at reasonable prices come through.

Orlando Matos reported from Havana, and Carmen Sesín from Miami.

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