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Lifting of US restrictions could help Cuba telecom

By PETER SVENSSON – AP Technology Writer

Cuba is a blank spot on the Internet map, the only country in the Western Hemisphere that lacks a fiber-optic connection to the rest of the world.

The lifting of U.S. restrictions on telecommunications, announced this week by the White House, could go some way toward breaking its isolation. Calls to and from Cuba could become cheaper and have better quality, and visiting Americans could be able to "roam" with their cell phones.

Several obstacles remain, though. It’s not clear how eager the Cuban government would be to allow connections from the U.S. The communications network on the island is also underdeveloped, and few people can afford cell phones or computers.

Cuba’s telephone monopoly Etecsa already has roaming agreements with carriers in other countries, meaning that European tourists can use their phones there. An American arriving with a phone may be able to use it by buying a local SIM card, giving the phone a Cuban number, but it wouldn’t be able to receive calls to that person’s regular U.S. number.

A roaming agreement with Etecsa would take care of that.

If the Cuban government goes further and allows foreign investment, that could be a huge shot in the arm for the island.

"We would expect numerous carriers from around the world to be interested in being one of the first carriers in Cuba," said Christopher King, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

While the island is poor, it’s one of the few areas left in the world where cell phones aren’t ubiquitous.

The Cuban government said in February that nearly half a million cell phones are active there. That is an increase of 60 percent from the previous year, when the government relaxed restrictions on phone ownership, but still small on an island with more than 11 million inhabitants.

Apart from U.S. carriers, Cuba could represent an opportunity for Mexico-based America Movil or Jamaica-based Digicel.

Right now, most communications with the island run over satellites, which are expensive and introduce delays in the audio transmission. Internet surfing is slow, too.

In the heavily Cuban immigrant Miami suburb of Hialeah, Rene Cisneros, 32, says the quality of calls to Cuba has improved but remains somewhat unpredictable.

"Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes you can’t get through at all. Sometimes you hear an echo," he said.

He sells cellular phones that families can send to relatives in Cuba – phones are more expensive there – as well as phone cards that save money on calls from the U.S.

Osmel H. Aguero, 60, calls his mother in Camaguey, Cuba, with a cell phone he sent to her six months ago, which she activated there thanks to money he sent. It’s a complicated system, but before it was even worse. He had to arrange calls at a time when she could go to the neighbors because she didn’t have a home phone.

AT&T Inc. has a long history of connecting to Cuba, starting with telegraph cables in the 19th century. Even after Fidel Castro’s revolution, AT&T intermittently operated a copper cable running underwater from Cojimar on Cuba to West Palm Beach, Fla. But its capacity was at most 144 calls, according to a NASA telecommunications history.

AT&T spokesman Michael Coe said the cable is no longer in operation, and the company connects calls to the island through third-party carriers. As for roaming agreements and direct connections to Cuba, the company has no plans yet.

"We’re certainly going to study the administration’s proposal," Coe said.

Barbados-based Columbus Network operates several fiber-optic cables spanning the Caribbean, including one that runs just off the coast of Cuba not far from Havana on its way from Florida to Mexico. That cable has an installed "branching point" that would make it easy to extend a connection to the island.

Even without a branch, laying a cable from Key West to Cuba would be easy and cheap, said Alan Mauldin, who covers undersea cables for research firm TeleGeography. The distance is only 90 miles.

However, U.S. firms may be beaten to Cuba by Venezuela, which plans to complete a 900-mile fiber-optic cable next year. The countries are political allies. But a direct U.S.-Cuba connection would make calls even cheaper.

"It would make sense for Cuba to be connected with a modern high-capacity optic cable," Mauldin said. "There’s a cable being built to Greenland now … You’re having the ends of the Earth connected with undersea cables."

AP Hispanic Affairs Writer Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this story.