The Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications led by Senator Marvin A. Blyden convened in a meeting at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Lawmakers received telecommunications update on status and future of provider operations and services, status of broadbands implementation and future of telecommunications in the territory. Additionally, an update on public transportation and road construction and repairs from the Department of Public Works was received.
In Block 1, testimony was delivered by Derek Gabriel, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works. The Department is statutorily responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of all roadways, highways, and transportation infrastructure in the territory. It is responsible for the review and approval of all excavation requests in, and or near roads. All applications must be accompanied by several due diligence documents such as design drawings and trench details, maps, traffic control plans, road repair details, and contracts. These reviews are performed by DPWÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s existing staff from local and highway engineering.
There is a major effort to underground critical infrastructure for WAPAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s distribution system and telecommunication partners. Since 2021, the department has been working with the current Liberty VI to expedite excavation permit applications to keep their project schedule. Liberty VI has proposed using micro-trenching as a minimally invasive way of accomplishing their objective. This application has been previously used in the US Virgin Islands, but with extremely limited experience. According to existing policy, applicant lines must be buried 18-24 inches below the roadway to prevent future conflicts with planned road maintenance or reconstruction. Every application must be scrutinized and considered on a case-by-case basis. The Department is also tasked with considering previous telecommunication failures. Only applications that meet a satisfactory standard will be considered. Another issue that has presented itself is accommodating future utility undergrounding plans.
Additionally, testimony was delivered by Stephan Adams, the CEO of VINGN, the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network. VINGN currently has ten active ISP partners that serve a variety of markets. Adams spoke of the need for VINGN to earn enough money to sustain itself, as well as to reinvest in technology. Since the establishment of VINGN, it has not sought additional funding from the Legislature. It has been self-sustaining, and it is nearing profitability for the first time in its history. One this is achieved, it would be able to repay the PFAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s original bond, which is now a $36 million loan on VINGNÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s balance sheet. Though progress has been made, the USVI still remains at the bottom of internet speeds and affordability in the nation. As a condition of the Federal Broadband Grant, the PFA was required to provide $29 Million in Capital and WAPA, $15 million of in-kind contributions as a math. PFA was authorized to issue up to $42 million in Gross Receipt Tax Bonds. VINGN has actively deployed free community WIFI throughout the US Virgin Islands through a $10.8 million ARPA and $582,000 Cares Act Grant. Sixty-eight free Wi-Fi hotspots with over two hundred access points and counting have been available.
Rupert Ross, the Director of the Bureau of Information Technology delivered testimony. The mission of BIT is to improve lives through innovative technology solutions and services that are secure, dependable, and efficient. Before the bureau was established, each department or agency within the government operated its own information technology systems and services. This often led to duplication of effort, inefficiencies, and disparities in technology resources across departments. The Bureau has also been charged with the operations and maintenance of the Land Mobile Radio system that provides critical communication to emergency responders and other subscribers to the network. This network operates in both districts. There are twelve tower sites that are connected using microwave backhaul and provide 86.4% coverage throughout the territory. Progress has been made to modernize technological infrastructure and improve the delivery of government services. This has included exploring the use of private cloud solutions.
Several initiatives that have been in progress include the expansion of the Public Safety Camera initiative in collaboration with VIPD and the Department of Sports Parks and Recreation. BIT is currently adding more vehicles to the public safety mobile network to ensure that first responders have reliable access to communication tools when responding to emergencies. Expansion of the Program and Service Management offices within BIT Continued focus on cybersecurity, maximizing the State and Local Cybersecurity Grant Program, which provides funding for cybersecurity projects that improve threat detection, incident response, and information sharing. The department has implemented a multi-tiered strategy for communications to ensure critical systems and networks remain operational during emergencies, This includes redundant systems for public and private cloud infrastructure, as well as backup power supplies and satellite communication. BIT also continues to work with FirstNet Authority on their commitment to meet the Virgin Islands requirements for implementation of the first responder broadband network in the territory. The implementation of FirstNet began in 2018, when the USVI joined the national network. BIT also continues to work diligently with FEMA to move projects forward to repair or replace the LMR system. This is expected to transition to a more interoperable system that will have better security and coverage.
Bala Balakrishnan, the general manager of Liberty Mobile USVI delivered testimony. According to BalakrishnanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony, Liberty has started construction of the Connect USVI program which requires that fixed broadband service be brought to all locations in the USVI with speeds of one gigabit. Eight approved excavation sites have been approved by the Department of Public Works, and an additional thirteen permit applications are still being worked on by the Department of Public Works. Designs are being worked on and this will allow Liberty to construct fiber for at least 10,00 homes in 2023. Liberty has built approximately 59.431 feet of micro duct territory wide. Liberty has submitted permit applications for over 5400 homes. The USVI has thirty-three sites which have LTE technology, while eighteen have 5G technology. Fifty-two percent have fiber backhaul, which means more than half of the sites have resilient backhaul with high bandwidth. There are a total of thirty-seven deployment projects for 2023. Liberty is in the process of recruiting more customer service agents and installation and repair technicians to expand customer service. There are plans to move the telephone customer serve from outside the territory to the Virgin Islands. Balakrishnan has stated that Liberty has faced issues with WAPA with the need for a pole attachment agreement. This agreement must be secured in order to meet federally mandated milestones for the Connect USVI programs.
Geraldine Pitt, the CEO of VIYA delivered testimony. Per PittÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony, VIYA has executed initiatives. These include the deployment of fiber deeper into the network, upgrading the network, offering 1GBps internet to the majority of the territory. There has also been an increase in upload speeds, with up to 400 Mbps upload speeds. Viya is also working VINGN to deploy interisland capacity in the territory. Connectivity has been improved in public schools, with the awarding of the VI Department of EducationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s E-rate wide Area Network (WAN) leased Lit fiber contract. During the pandemic, Viya provided over 5,000 MiFi/mobile hot spot devices with the Department of Education. Viya is deploying 5g services to more than twenty-five locations in territory. A major achievement is that through an agreement with the Virgin Islands Public Services Commission that caps ViyaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s residential telephone rates, residents will not experience a price increase for the next 5 years. Viya is diversifying the customer care services. Customers can access the company in many ways, such as via retail stores on all three islands, or via websites, email, text, and social media.
Mr. Dan Leary, the Director of State Legislative Affairs delivered testimony. With the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, T-Mobile extended its operation in the territory, including its mobile network and two stores located in St. Thomas and St. Croix, and its subsidiaries, including the entity operating in the USVI. T-Mobile has been working to integrate operations into T Mobile. The T-Mobile brand was launched in the USVI in 2022. The company has expanded coverage on St. Thomas and St. John. T-Mobile has invested in excess of $585,000 to update and upgrade its retail location in 2023. Both locations are set up as Emergency Hubs and are equipped with necessary items to support personnel and customers after a catastrophic event. T-Mobile has also invested in infrastructure, expanding customer service hours to start at 6am and stay open until 12am and engaged bilingual customer service representatives to better assist customers. 100% of cell sites have battery banks and 90% have generators as redundancy in the case of a power outage.
Douglas Canton Jr, as a part of the St. Croix Government Retirees delivered testimony. Canton Jr. voiced concern over the investment that the telecommunication carriers have performed. Canton stated that there were various dead spots with service on the island of St. Croix, with call quality issues, with dropped calls. Canton also stated that 911 was an issue, stating that it may be inaccessible at certain points. Canton implored the communication companies to inform the community better of certain initiatives in the community. Rhea Hodge, also of the St. Croix Government Retirees voiced similar concerns, stating that power failures were a concern, as well as customer service issues.
In Block 2. an update on public transportation and road construction and repairs from the Department of Public Works was received. Derek Gabriel, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works delivered testimony. In GabrielÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony, through Act 8454, the Debt Service Excess Funds, between 2021 and 2022, the department received over $40 million for milling, paving, striping, and draining improvement projects in over fifty locations throughout the territory. This has been the most significant investment in road infrastructure in over 15 years when the testimony received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.
In the St. Croix District, some of these projects include the Clifton Hill Connector road project, which began in April 2022 and is about 50% complete. It is scheduled to be complete by July 2023, with a total contract amount of $9,587,505. The Melvin Evans Highway Pavement Preservation is underway. The project was divided into six segments and five of them are complete. The project is scheduled to be completed by Summer 2023 and the total contract amount is $12,865,506.41. The Clearview Apartment Emergency Road project was re-mobilized on July 25, 2022 and deemed substantially complete on August 17, 2022. The total contract amount is $1,222,741. The First Avenue Project was solicited as design build project through the department of property and Procurement. It is currently in solicitation and is expected to be awarded in May 2023. Phase 1 of the Frederiksted Road project has been completed. The total contract amount for Phase 1 was $1,483,843.76. Phase 2 is under construction. The total contract amount for Phase 2 is $987.266.10 and is also DOI-Funded.
Projects that have been completed or near completion in the St. Thomas- St. John district include the Water Island watershed project, which is about 90% complete. The total contract amount is $2,805,562. The St. Thomas Watershed Project, which includes slope stabilization and the replacement of retaining walls, is about 50% complete. The total contract amount is $2,493,575. There are thirteen sites in the St. John watershed project. The project is about 30% complete and has a total contract amount of $3,942,078. The Mount Pleasant project is currently in the final stages of design and is scheduled to be up for bid in June 2023.
The Ferry Transportation Program continues to grow with the receipt of two awards that total $6.8 million in grant funding to purchase a new three hundred passenger capacity, ADA accessible ferry vessel. The vessel will serve the St. Thomas/St. John route during passenger peak hours and is currently being solicited through the Department of Property and Procurement. The department also applied for a RAISE grant in the amount of $25million which will allow for the purchase of ferries for the St. Croix- St. Thomas route. The purchase of ten new buses and para transit vans was recently completed, and options are currently being considered for fix route buses, such as hybrid, electric, and diesel buses. VITRAN has a fleet of fifty-five fixed route buses and ADA Vans. Thirty-one are operational, five are waiting to be disposed and nineteen are nonoperational and awaiting repairs.
Senators present at todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s committee hearing included Marvin A. Blyden, Marise C. James, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Samuel CarriÃÅ’n, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr, Kenneth L. Gittens, Donna A Frett-Gregory, Ray Fonseca, and Carla J. Joseph.