Guantánamo to Dania Beach: Fiber-optic connection goes live in February

An environmental assessment concluded that the best U.S. landing spot for the Miami-bound fiber-optic cable from Guantánamo was a Navy research facility at Dania Beach, as seen here on March 19, 2015.
An environmental assessment concluded that the best U.S. landing spot for the Miami-bound fiber-optic cable from Guantánamo was a Navy research facility at Dania Beach, as seen here on March 19, 2015. MIAMI HERALD

Contractors are finishing the work on a fiber-optic cable between Florida and the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and hope to turn it on in February after ground stations are complete, the military says.

It is being built by a Texas firm, Xtera Communications, which in June 2014 announced that it won the $31,220,394 contract for the 950-mile submarine cable system without ever mentioning Guantánamo. The same firm subsequently was awarded a $3.7 million contract to build the ground stations for the so-called Guantánamo Bay to Dania Beach Submarine Fiber Optic Cable System.

“The contract to install the cable landing station and associated equipment will be complete in January. The launch date for the cable is February 2016,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman from the Pentagon’s Navy Office of Information, in response to a query from the Miami Herald.

Based on those two contracts, the project to expand the bandwidth of the base, which now relies on satellite services, came in at about $5 million less than the $40 million the Southern Command sought from Congress to build it.

Once fully operational, the cable is expected to improve communications between the Camp Justice war court compound and its Virginia headquarters. It should also end complaints by some of the 2,000-member prison staff that Internet access was better during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Guantánamo, the 45-square-mile outpost in southeast Cuba, has had spotty and at times disrupted communications with the United States for years. But the issue became more acute, and costly, once the Pentagon set up the prison now holding 116 detainees in 2002 and later the war court that beams proceedings to U.S. sites on a 40-second delay.

In September 2013 the Secretary of Defense’s retiring chief information officer testified at Guantánamo that the coming fiber-optic cable was such a “gigantic bundle”— dwarfing the needs of the 6,000-resident base —that it would ultimately service mainland Cuba, across a minefield from the base. The official, Ronald Bechtold, also predicted that the fiber-optic cable would go on line in probably two years, meaning this month.

A Southcom spokesman subsequently dismissed the idea, in May 2014, calling it “a closed node for Department of Defense personnel.”

Since then, the time-line was extended and the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Obama administration is also permitting U.S. companies to partner with the Cuban government’s telecom industry to improve Internet and communications on the island.

Schwegman said the cable will ultimately be available to everyone on the base, including guests at the Navy Lodge, a hotel; suburban-style family housing for sailors and civilian contractors; as well as the $50-a-night Officers Guest Quarters and the Morale, Welfare and Recreation program that provides open-air WiFi and Internet cafes to enlisted troops.

But Schwegman said “there are no discussions to offer benefits of the cable to Cuba.”

A Jan. 28, 2015 environmental impact study obtained by the Herald showed the military settled on a Dania Beach landing spot near the Naval Surface Warfare Center on the south side of Port Everglades as the landing spot. It will link to a Department of Defense leased “commercial dark fiber” to the Network Access Point of the Americas, run by Verizon Terremark, in Miami.

“Other than petroleum-based fuel and lubricants onboard vessels engaged in the installation,” the 341-page study found, “there are no hazardous materials associated with the proposed installation and as such, would have an insignificant and negligible effect.”

It also concluded: “The proposed installation poses no risk to public health or safety.” It noted specifically that, “The proposed installation does not pose any threat or loss of park usage for the adjacent John U. Lloyd State Park.”

The preferred route, according to the survey, extended north and east of the Bahamian Islands of Andros and Nassau and east of Great Exuma before heading south through the Windward Passage to loop around to southeast Cuba.

The fiber-optics won’t at the start be used to provide cable TV to the base, said Schwegman, “but they are looking at Internet protocol television for the future.”

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter