CubaNews / June 1995
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- More than a year after WilTel International signed an agreement with the Cuban government's EmtelCuba to string a 100-mile fiberoptic cable between the Florida Keys and Havana, the project is still on hold, awaiting U.S. Treasury approval.
Cubus-1, as the cable is known, would be the first fiberoptic link ever established between the United States and Cuba.
WilTel spokeswoman Linda Laughlin said the holdup is in Washington, where the company's application for construction of the cable has been on file since March 1994. Meanwhile, the company -- now a wholly owned subsidiary of LDDS Communications of Jackson, Miss. -- has received permission to offer direct long-distance service to Cuba via satellite, and traffic is said to be very high.
Once WilTel gets the go-ahead for its cable, construction would begin immediately, and the undersea cable will carry traffic within one year.
"We want to build Cubus-1. We think it will be needed in the area," Laughlin said from company headquarters in Tulsa, Okla. "The way it has been designed, it would accommodate traffic of other carriers, as well as volume for future growth. Since WilTel is known as a carrier's carrier, this certainly is line with our stategy."
In the late 1980s, WilTel built a national digital fiberoptic network by pioneering a technique to pull fiberoptic cable through decommissioned oil and gas pipelines. Today, the company's entire 30,000-mile network is fiberoptic, except for a 3,000-mile stretch between Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City, Utah.
WilTel's long-distance agreement with EmtelCuba, approved by the FCC last November, is similar to those in effect between EmtelCuba and other phone companies such as AT&T, Sprint and MCI. All the agreements allow EmtelCuba a $1 surcharge per collect call.
Roy Wilkens, WilTel's president and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement that "our relationship with EmtelCuba will be an important one for both companies, positioning each of us to pursue additional joint opportunities if and when current trade restrictions are eased."
The $20 million cost of the project is being split between WilTel and EmtelCuba, though, as Laughlin said, "there won't be any financing until we actually build the cable."
Thomas Herzfeld, whose Miami-based Cuba Fund seeks investments in Cuba-related ventures, said he had spoken with LDDS officials in the past about financing the fiberoptic cable. But the company's board of directors eventually concluded against making any direct investment in Cuba.
"We don't think this is the right time," Herzfeld said. "It's a very emotionally charged issue, and we don't want to offend any of our Miami shareholders."