To improve internet services in the Cayman Islands, government is largely focusing on improving local fixed-line networks, with Premier Alden McLaughlin announcing earlier this month that his administration intends to install its own fiber-optic cables in the under-served eastern districts.
But according to the territory’s telecommunications companies, local fiber networks in Cayman are only a part of the equation of improving internet services here. Just as important are the subsea cables that deliver trillions of bits between the territory and the wider world, telecoms executives say.
Practically speaking, all of the data sent or received off-island – whether it’s by mobile phone or computer, over copper wires or fiber – ends up traveling via one of Cayman’s two undersea cables.
With broadband requirements doubling about every year due to the exploding popularity of products like Netflix, YouTube and WhatsApp, the importance of subsea cables is continuously growing. Local telecom companies are now looking for ways to directly buy off-island bandwidth instead of relying on Flow, which has historically had a corner on this wholesale market.
Flow’s parent company, Cable & Wireless, has been the dominant provider of subsea cable access since 1972, when it first completed the construction of a submarine cable link from Cayman to the Prospect Pen Earth Station at St. Thomas, Jamaica.
That cable replaced a UHF radio link with Jamaica that had been in existence since 1967, and which had a capacity of four telephone, two telegraph, and two telex circuits, according to an article in the March 1972 edition of The Northwester, later known as The Nor’wester. The new cable had the capacity to be expanded to carry 120 simultaneous telephone circuits, The Northwester article stated.
Operating that cable was eventual (now former) Cable & Wireless CEO Tim Adam’s first job at the company, he said.
“It enabled us to use these rudimentary methods of transmission,” Mr. Adam recalled. “Instead of transmitting it over radio, we shoved it down the cable.”
The cable would last more than 20 years, until Cable & Wireless replaced it with fiber in 1996 – a US$28 million dollar project.
Cayman would be hooked up to more fiber in December 2000 when Cable & Wireless connected to the Maya 1 cable, which runs from Southern Florida to various points in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
While Cable & Wireless lost its monopoly on providing telecommunications services to consumers in Cayman after the market liberalized in 2003 and 2004, the company continued to be the dominant player in providing subsea cable services, selling off-island broadband to the other providers.
However, that could change soon.
C3 owner Randy Merren said it is his company’s intention to join Cable & Wireless in connecting straight to the Maya 1, which is owned by a consortium of more than 30 telecoms companies.
“Right now, if we want to buy capacity, we have to negotiate it through [Cable & Wireless],” Mr. Merren said. “We want to get into the Maya 1 cable to cross-connect into our cable system.”
Another option for telecommunications companies could be the planned “Deep Blue Cable,” an ambitious plan by billionaire Digicel founder Denis O’Brien to lay a new, 7,456-mile subsea cable that will connect to 12 markets, including Cayman, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The Deep Blue Cable’s website states that the company hopes to begin manufacturing and installing the cable in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
That is good news for Flow’s competitors.
“It will revolutionize the market because you’ll be getting additional capacity, and there will be competition,” said Digicel CEO Raul Nicholson-Coe.
“When you boil it down, we’re in the business of buying and selling megabits,” said C3’s Mr. Merren. “The more choice we have to buy those, it will ultimately bring down costs of internet access in Cayman.”
Even Flow officials said they see the potential to benefit from having another subsea connection.
“If the Deep Blue does come, we would probably be interested in buying capacity from them, too, just to build resiliency and redundancy,” said Flow Technology Operations Manager Jonathan Martin.