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The Sparsest Cut is a fundamental optimization problem that have been extensively studied. For planar inputs the problem is in P and can be solved in Õ(n 3 ) time if all vertex weights are 1. Despite a significant amount of effort, the best algorithms date back to the early 90’s and can only achieve O(log n)-approximation in Õ(n) time or 3.5-approximation in Õ(n 2 ) time [Rao, STOC92]. Our main result is an Ω(n 2−ε ) lower bound for Sparsest Cut even in planar graphs with unit vertex weights, under the (min, +)-Convolution conjecture, showing that approxima- tions are inevitable in the near-linear time regime. To complement the lower bound, we provide a 3.3-approximation in near-linear time, improving upon the 25-year old result of Rao in both time and accuracy. We also show that our lower bound is not far from optimal by observing an exact algorithm with running time Õ(n 5/2 ) improving upon the Õ(n 3 ) algorithm of Park and Phillips [STOC93]. Our lower bound accomplishes a repeatedly raised challenge by being the first fine-grained lower bound for a natural planar graph problem in P. Building on our construction we prove near-quadratic lower bounds under SETH for variants of the closest pair problem in planar graphs, and use them to show that the popular Average-Linkage procedure for Hierarchical Clustering cannot be simulated in truly subquadratic time. At the core of our constructions is a diamond-like gadget that also settles the complexity of Diameter in distributed planar networks. We prove an Ω(n/ log n) lower bound on the number of communication rounds required to compute the weighted diameter of a network in the CONGET model, even when the underlying graph is planar and all nodes are D = 4 hops away from each other. This is the first poly(n) lower bound in the planar-distributed setting, and it complements the recent poly(D, log n) upper bounds of Li and Parter [STOC 2019] for (exact) unweighted diameter and for (1 + ε) approximate weighted diameter.

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