Why the 9/11 Hearing in Guantanamo was Delayed by Train Derailment in Maryland

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Marco Werman: On Monday night a freight train derailment near Baltimore claimed the lives of two young college friends. They were hanging out on a railroad bridge when the accident occurred. The incident also damaged fiber optic lines serving the US military base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. That forced a one day delay in the pre-trial hearings for the five men charged in the September 11th attacks. Today, those hearings were postponed until further notice due to the approach of tropic storm Isaac. Strange how a train accident though in Maryland could have such an impact in Cuba, right? Well, it turns out all internet service into and out of Guantanamo is handled by satellite and those satellites connect to the rest of the US via downlink locations in Maine and Maryland. Tim Stronge is a market research analyst with the firm Telegeography. Tim, help us understand how it is that one severed cable could have such a big impact on Guantanamo.

Tim Stronge: Well, unfortunately we don't have a lot of details on how the US military network is run. It's a little surprising that one severed fiber optic link could so disrupt communications to Guantanamo Bay. However, one thing to keep in mind is that these fiber breaks happen all the time; we just generally don't hear about them.

Werman: Right. And we should point out that there is no US connection to Cuba communications-wise with fiber optic. It's just to Guantanamo. But as soon as I heard the story I scratched my head because didn't the Defense Department create the World Wide Web precisely with the ability to maintain seamless communications if one link of the web broke down? Now we're hearing that the Pentagon is a Verizon subscriber just like all of us. What's up with that?

Stronge: Well, the US government is a subscriber to many private enterprises. They also supply their own networks in some cases, but often it's cheaper and more efficient for the US government to spend their money leasing capacity from existing carrier networks such as Verizon.

Werman: So how much of our fiber optic system runs along rail lines like this one in Maryland? I mean you say accidents like this happen all the time, but really with internet outages?

Stronge: Fiber optic cables break a lot. Mostly the internet runs on fiber optic cables. It's great because it's cheap and it's very fast compared to satellite, but it's physically susceptible to damage, often buried only a few feet under the ground, and if a backhoe tears through a cable, which is fairly common, it will break. The reason you don't hear about it very frequently is that there are many different links that connect different cities, so generally if one link breaks, other links can be used to handle communications. What we don't know is why there is only one major link connecting the Maryland satellite earth station to the rest of the internet.

Werman: I mean Guantanamo is a small isolated segment under US control of Cuba proper, the island. What sort of internet connectivity does the rest of the island have? Could a train derailment in Baltimore wreak havoc on their email, for example?

Stronge: No, the righter citizens of Cuba do not use the US government's satellite capacity from Guantanamo. They use other satellite capacity. And there's also a submarine cable that connects [??], Venezuela to Cuba. There has been a lot of controversy about that cable, however, in the last year. It was supposedly completed one or two years ago, but the citizens of Cuba really haven't enjoyed access to it.

Werman: I'm told that there's work on a new fiber optic line to Guantanamo, but it's still in the planning stages. Would a new line solve the problems of outages entirely?

Stronge: Not necessarily. You would still need what they call "backhaul" from the cable landing station to the rest of the internet. This cable, I believe, would connect the US military base in Cuba to central Florida via an undersea fiber optic link, but from there the US government would need to build or procure capacity to the rest of the US internet.

Werman: Analyst Tim Stronge of Telegeography walking us through how a train derailment in Maryland this week impacted internet access at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Tim, thank you.

Stronge: Thanks very much, Marco.