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World fiber network faces steep hurdles

An ambitious project to drape the globe in fiber optic cable may bring half the world into the high-speed future and change the way bandwidth is sold worldwide.

An ambitious project to drape the globe in $10 billion worth of fiber optic cable could simultaneously bring half the world into the high-speed future and change the way bandwidth is sold worldwide.

But there is a growing string of red-letter ifs in the plans for Project Oxygen, which was conceived last year by New Jersey entrepreneur Neil Tagare.

Recent announcements from other telecommunications companies portend a huge increase in the amount of bandwidth available in high-demand areas like Europe and the U.S. Meanwhile, instability in world financial markets has prompted investors to think twice about speculative projects.

"This is a very, very high risk venture," said Abhi Chaki, a telecommunications analyst with Jupiter Communications. "But with those high risks come very high rewards."

Fanning the digital flames?
The project's leader has experience in stretching wire across ocean beds. Early in the 1990s, Tagare helped head up a Nynex-led project that laid more than 15,000 miles of cable around the world, taking the lead in negotiating agreements with carriers and counties where the cable came ashore.

But his new venture, under the banner of his New Jersey-based CTR Group, is far more ambitious. Expected to cost $10 billion by the time the project is completed, Oxygen is slated to link 78 points around the world with more than 168,000 kilometers of fiber optic cable. If completed as planned, the project will link locales as disparate as San Francisco, Qatar, Lebanon, Peru, India and Djibouti.

In a year of public statements, Tagare has painted his project in Promethean terms, saying that the lines will give the underdeveloped countries in the world the same access to broadband information flows enjoyed by the developed world. This is critical if the world is to avoid widening chasms between the technological haves and have nots, he says.

But if successful as planned, the project also could spark a turnaround in the way bandwidth is bought and sold internationally, analysts say.

Today, most international lines are owned by big telecommunications companies, who lease capacity on a point to point basis. If a company wants to send traffic from the U.S. to Europe, it must contact one of these companies and lock itself into a lease on that route--often for a period of time as long as 25 years.

Project Oxygen will work more like the flat-rate fee model familiar to Internet users. Companies will be able to lease a certain amount of capacity, and send it anywhere on the Oxygen network at any time.

"Because this is a network, not a pipe, this is different," Chaki said. "If it succeeds, it is going to fundamentally change the nature of the bandwidth market."

Too much oxygen, not enough breathing?
But while Tagare and his team scramble for funding, a host of competitors already are building out fiber project across the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where the greatest amount of international demand will lie in the near future.

Qwest announced a $700 million joint venture with Dutch firm KPN to roll out a European fiber network linked to Qwest's U.S. facilities. AT&T and BT are collaborating to send traffic over the Atlantic, and a host of European telcos and smaller startups are rolling out data networks on that continent.

The sharp growth in bandwidth has some analysts worried about a glut in capacity--even in the high-demand markets. In the worst case, this could sharply undermine Oxygen's ambitious plans.

"In one place you've got oversupply pushing the price down, because you're going to have to compete on price," said David Eiswert, a telecommunications analyst with the Strategis Group. "Meanwhile you're taking out a big sunk cost by laying fiber in places like India that just don't have the customer base." That cost equation could be dangerous, analysts say.

But the wild card is the amount of demand for international bandwidth--and even conservative analysts say it is unwise to lowball this figure.

"Data traffic is becoming such a key part of the relationship between companies, and even between countries," Eiswert said. Even in regions like Latin America, which is far behind the U.S. and Europe in its use of Internet technologies, demand is outstripping capacity, he added. "They can't build these networks fast enough."

"The lesson to be learned from the Internet is that [the growth] is more than you imagine," Eiswert added. "A lot of investors are thinking about it that way, and have decided to go ahead and just build these things."

Oxygen hasn't nailed down the $3 billion it needs to fund the first phase of its project, but officials say they hope to close a package of equity investments and loans by the end of the year.