By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The U.S. military is laying an undersea fiber-optic cable line to connect its Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba with Florida, and could someday extend it to the rest of Cuba, a Defense Department official testified on Friday at the war crimes tribunal.
Ronald Bechtold, chief information officer at the Pentagon, said the cable line project would be finished in about two years and vastly improve communications between the naval base and the United States.
Telephone and internet communications on the base are primitive and the signals are relayed to and from the United States by satellite, which causes delays.
Completing the undersea cable "would benefit the entire base," Bechtold told the court.
"It's going to be for the entire island in anticipation that one day they'll be able to extend it into mainland Cuba," he added.
Relations between the United States and communist-run Cuba have been frozen since soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, and Washington has maintained economic sanctions on Cuba for more than half a century.
The 45-square-mile (116-square-km) Guantanamo base was established in 1903, long before relations between the United States and Cuba soured. It is completely isolated from the rest of Cuba and is surrounded by a fence line guarded by U.S. Marines on one side and Cuban soldiers on the other.
Bechtold did not say where in Florida the undersea cable would connect and did not comment on its capacity except to say: "It'll be a gigantic bundle. It'll be a big cable."
A $40 million contract was recently put out for bids, a U.S. Southern Command spokesman said. A company would be selected by January to lay the cable and it was due to be operation in early 2016, said Lieutenant Commander Ron Flanders at Southern Command.
The cable was projected to pay for itself in seven years, replacing the expensive satellite service, he said, adding it was strictly intended for use by the U.S. military and other federal agencies at the base.
Until recently, the entire island of Cuba was dependent on satellite for excruciatingly slow internet access, but a much anticipated fiber-optic cable link to Venezuelan was activated in January, said Doug Madory of global internet analysis firm Renesys. Another cable came online in May linking the island to Jamaica, he added.
The island does not have broadband internet access and barely 20 per cent of Cubans have access to a limited, government-run intranet.
Bechtold's testimony came during a pretrial hearing for five suspected al Qaeda operatives charged in the U.S. war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo with plotting the hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States on September 11, 2001.
Defense lawyers said problems with the military computer network they use to prepare case documents had made it difficult to do their jobs and they were not confident the system was secure enough to safeguard confidential documents.
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)