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Cuban Undersea Cable Politics

Undersea cables between the U. S. and Cuba have long been intertwined with politics.

In 1887, The New York Times reported on the inauguration of a cable in support of the Cuban insurgents fighting for independence from Spain—a precursor to the Spanish-American war. Phone service between the U.S. and Cuba began in 1921 with AT&T’s installation of an undersea cable and AT&T dominated international telephony to Cuba until the 1990s.

In 1994, WilTe1 applied for permission to construct a 210-kilometer, 2.5-gigabit fiber optic cable that would have had roughly 41 times the then-authorized capacity, but they never received approval for an Internet cable.

In 1966 Sprint established a wireless link from Florida to Cuba, providing Cuba with its first Internet connection with funds from the U. S. National Science Foundation International Connections Program.

When President Obama relaxed relations with Cuba, Daniel Sepulveda, who led two U. S. government delegations to Cuba, said there were at least a half-dozen proposals —from U. S. and non-U. S. companies—to construct an undersea cable between the US and Cuba. The most promising proposal was for a 56-kilometer link between the existing ARCOS cable, which connects to southern Florida, and Cuba. The proposal was submitted in August 2018, and the FCC deemed it acceptable for expedited 45-day processing, but nothing happened until Trump established a committee to consider the security risks of the cable. This month the committee advised the FCC to deny the politically hot proposal.

Within a week, ETECSA, Cuba’s state-owned telecommunication monopoly, and the French telecommunication company Orange announced an agreement to construct a 2,470-kilometer cable connecting Cuba and the Caribbean Islands of Martinique. At the announcement ceremony officials of ETECSA and Orange said technical work had already begun and the permits for the cable had been granted. This was clearly planned in advance, and the announcement was triggered by the decision on the ARCOS cable. (I wonder if the topic came up when President Biden and Prime Minister Macron met recently).

As shown here, Cuba currently has undersea cable connections to Venezuela and Jamaica (red) and a U. S. owned cable (green) between Guantanamo and Florida. (There has been discussion of giving the Cable to Cuba someday).

The new Arimao cable will run from Schoelcher, Martinique, to Arimao Beach in the Cienfuegos Province on Cuba’s south coast and will connect to Havana and other Cuban locations over the domestic backbone. They have already begun laying the cable, which will take around three weeks, and it is expected to be ready for service in 2023. Its capacity is listed as “unknown.”

The Arimao cable will improve service and resilience in Cuba, but approving the ARCOS cable would have been a better solution for the following reasons:

  • It would have improved the standing of the U. S. in the region and the world. The UN General Assembly has voted on a resolution calling for the end of the U. S. embargo on Cuba every year since 1992 (except in 2020 due to COVID). This year 184 nations voted for the resolution, Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil abstained and only the U. S. and Israel voted no.
  • The 56-kilometer ARCOS cable would have been cheaper and a little faster than the 2,470-kilometer cable. (I do not know how the cable is being financed, but ETECSA and Orange are listed as owners).
  • The cable would already be in service.
  • The cable would have landed on the north side of the island at Cojimar, a district of Havana, the source and destination of heavy traffic, lightening the load on the Cuban backbone and improving latency.
  • It may have improved U. S.-Cuba relations.

In my opinion, this was a lost opportunity.

Update Dec 18, 2022:

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tweeted the following after the Cuba-Martinique undersea cable was announced:

Establishing a submarine cable connection between Florida and Cuba would be a positive step for both countries and would expand Internet access for Cubans. Denying it contradicts the position declared by the US government in May 2022. (original in Spanish)

Why did he post that at this time? Was it to make it clear that the U. S., not Cuba, had stopped the ALBA cable link? What impact would a third international link have?

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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