ST. THOMAS – The 35th Legislature of the Virgin Islands’ Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications, led by Senator Marvin A. Blyden convened, Wednesday, January 24, 2024, in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Lawmakers received updates concerning network and other issues impacting the quality of cellular service and the plans to address the issues. Additionally, the status of present infrastructure projects and plans for future development, plans for improving and expanding customer service, connection speeds, and service coverage areas in the US Virgin Islands, and challenges regarding coordination between telecommunications providers and government agencies, and the affordability of internet access in general was discussed.
Senator Blyden, the Chair of the Committee, called for a hearing to investigate and find solutions to the persistent issues faced by numerous residents in the territory, stemming from inadequate cellular service. A previous hearing about this matter had been held in October 2023.
The lengthy agenda included updates on network issues affecting service quality, the status of ongoing infrastructure projects, plans for future development, improvements in customer service, connection speeds, service coverage areas, and challenges in coordination between telecommunications providers and government agencies. Testimonies were presented by key figures, addressing concerns related to infrastructure, education, broadband challenges, and regulatory matters.
Chairman Blyden stated that providing affordable high-speed internet is as crucially important as connecting rural Americans to electricity and telephone lines was generations ago. He said there was an increasing divide of life chances and opportunities between people with high-speed internet access and those who do not. Blyden lamented the fact that Virgin Islanders are regularly experiencing times where they are unable to use their mobile phones to get online, or to call for help. He called it dreadfully wrong and stated that it must be addressed.
Derek Gabriel, Commissioner of the Department of Public Works, submitted a written statement to the Committee which highlighted instances of unpermitted work by Liberty Mobile which negatively affected VINGN and VIYA infrastructure. Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, Commissioner of the Department of Education, discussed the role of telecommunications in enhancing education, with plans for surveillance cameras, crisis alert systems, and improved internet bandwidth in schools. Jenifer O’Neal, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, addressed broadband challenges in the territory and the BEAD program, which aims to provide broadband service to underserved locations.
Illean Canellas-Correa, Managing Corporate Counsel from T-Mobile VI, provided insights into T-Mobile’s operations, network expansions, and contingency plans. Sandra Setorie, Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Public Services Commission, discussed regulatory steps taken, challenges with Liberty VI cellular service, and the Connect USVI State two funding. Ravindra Maywahlall, Liberty VI Country Manager, reported on upgrades to the mobile network, FirstNet site launches, and the ongoing migration process from AT&T to Liberty.
Mr. Stephan Adams, CEO of Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (viNGN), discussed the use of FEMA funds for network restoration, mitigation, and resiliency projects. The plan includes expanding WIFI in public spaces, deploying internet hotspots, and covering critical facilities with Wi-Fi. Andrew Smith, CEO of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, emphasized WAPA’s role in providing infrastructure access to telecommunications and broadband providers.
Geraldine Pitt, CEO of Viya, outlined Viya’s transformation plans, customer service improvements, and infrastructure projects like VIFiber, FTTP, and the deployment of 5G. She also highlighted challenges faced, including power outages impacting service. The Affordable Connectivity Program’s imminent funding end was mentioned, affecting over 5,000 households in the territory and millions more around the nation. Senators Blyden and Marise James, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the committee, noted that they have written to Congress about the not to extend funding for this vitally important program, and there was discussion about the possibility of continuing the program locally with GVI funds.
Chairman Blyden voiced major concern over network reliability and speed, as it related to Liberty Mobile. Blyden gave an example of his own staff members, using cell phones on LibertyVI and competing providers, and performing speed tests on both, stating that Liberty had performed at much less than 1/4 the speed of other providers on island. Blyden expressed concern over the LibertyVI complaints and hope for prompt resolutions and vowed to organize a follow up meeting.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Marvin A. Blyden, Marise C. James, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Samuel Carriόn, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Ray Fonseca, Kenneth L. Gittens, Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.
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