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Venezuela, Cuba launch undersea cable project

A specialized ship began laying an undersea fiber-optic cable Saturday between Venezuela and Cuba, a connection that will dramatically improve Cuba's telephone and Internet services.

Officials of the two countries launched the project in a ceremony at Venezuela's Camuri beach near the port of La Guaira, where the cable was suspended from buoys behind the French-flagged ship that will run the cable along the sea floor to Cuba.

Alcatel-Lucent SA of Paris is carrying out the project for the two countries' state telecommunications companies. Cuban officials have said it is expected to cost about $70 million.

The ship is scheduled to reach Cuba about Feb. 8, and the cable will be functional in late June or early July, said Jose Ignacio Quintero, a manager for Alcatel-Lucent.

The cable will span about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the Caribbean Sea to Siboney in eastern Cuba. A second segment of about 150 miles (245 kilometers) will extend from Cuba to nearby Jamaica.

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.

The cable is one of many joint projects promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Cuba's communist government. It is dubbed "ALBA-1," after the Bolivarian Alternative bloc that includes Venezuela, Cuba and other left-leaning allies.

Cuban Ambassador Rogelio Polanco praised Chavez's government for what he called a historic connection that is "breaking the United States' criminal blockade against our country" in telecommunications.

President Barack Obama's administration loosened some embargo restrictions in 2009, opening possibilities for cooperation with Cuba in telecommunications.

Yet one proposal by Florida company TeleCuba Communications Inc. to lay a fiber-optic cable a much shorter distance — from Key West to Cuba — has been held up because U.S. regulators have balked at the Cuban government's demand that companies connecting calls to the island pay the Cuban phone company 84 cents per minute.

The U.S. government has approved a maximum of 60 cents per minute. TeleCuba has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to pay Cuba 84 cents per minute, saying that would improve call quality and reduce current prices since calls are now routed through other countries at higher cost.