Work set to begin on Venezuela-Cuba undersea cable

A specialized ship has arrived in Venezuela carrying enough fiber-optic cable to connect the South American country to Cuba, and will soon begin laying the cable along the sea floor to establish a link expected to dramatically improve telephone and Internet service for Cubans.
The French-flagged ship Ile de Batz was anchored on the Venezuelan coast and will begin rolling out the cable across the Caribbean Sea in the coming days, said Jose Ignacio Quintero, a manager for Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent SA, which is carrying out the project.
He said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the ship brought the cable from the French port of Calais, and reached Venezuela on Sunday. He said the cable is scheduled to be functional in July, spanning about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Camuri in Venezuela to Siboney in eastern Cuba.
Cuba is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that is not linked to the outside world by optical fiber. Instead, it relies on slow, expensive satellite links because the U.S. government's embargo has prevented most trade between the island and the United States and has made companies in other countries shy away from doing business with Cuba.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch supporter of Cuba's communist government, has said he plans to be there to inaugurate the project, which is one in a growing list of joint efforts by the two countries.
In a speech on Saturday, Chavez called the telecommunications link a step toward greater independence, and he condemned the U.S. government's trade embargo against the island.
Quintero said no U.S. entities or American citizens are participating in Alcatel-Lucent's project so that they would not be "exposed in any way to any type of sanction." While Alcatel-Lucent was formed by a 2006 merger involving Lucent Technologies of the United States, it is incorporated in France.
President Barack Obama's administration loosened some embargo restrictions in 2009, opening possibilities for cooperation with Cuba in telecommunications.
A Florida company called TeleCuba Communications Inc., founded by Cuban-American Luis Coello, wants to lay its own fiber-optic cable from Key West to Cuba. It would stretch about 110 miles (177 kilometers), much shorter and cheaper than the cable from Venezuela.
However, the project is stalled because U.S. regulators have balked at the Cuban government's demand that companies connecting calls to Cuba pay the Cuban phone company 84 cents per minute. The U.S. government has approved a maximum of 60 cents per minute.
That means calls from the U.S. to Cuba have to go through other countries, which relay the calls at the Cuban rate, so U.S. customers end up paying 91 cents or more.
TeleCuba has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to pay Cuba 84 cents per minute, saying that would make a direct link possible for the first time in decades, improving call quality and reducing the price.
But the fiber-optic connection from Venezuela looks set to be finished first, driven in part by the strong political alliance between Caracas and Havana. The cable is dubbed "ALBA 1," after the Bolivarian Alternative bloc that includes Venezuela, Cuba and other left-leaning allies.
A China-based subsidiary of the company, Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell, signed the contract to do the work for Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, a Cuban-Venezuelan joint venture owned by the countries' state telecommunications companies, Quintero said.
Cuban officials have said the project is expected to cost about $70 million. Quintero declined to comment on the projected cost.
After the cable reaches Cuba, a second segment of about 150 miles (245 kilometers) is to extend from the island to nearby Jamaica.
The cable's takeoff point on Venezuela's coast is at a crossroads for other international telecommunications cables, including one that stretches from Brazil to Florida, Quintero said.
Alcatel-Lucent will lay the optical fiber over varying terrain including an area off the Cuban coast that drops to a depth of about 19,000 feet (5,800 meters), Quintero said.
He said the 460-foot (140-meter) ship is equipped with a remote-controlled submarine robot that allows the crew to keep watch over the work while the cable is laid on the sea bottom.
When finished, the cable will be capable of handling about 80 million simultaneous phone calls, though some of that bandwidth will serve the Internet, Quintero said.
Having the connection will mean that callers to or from Cuba will no longer have to wait for an available line, he said. "Users are going to have a much better experience than they have today."
AP Technology Writer Peter Svensson in New York contributed to this report.