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Fiber Cable Undertaking by Liberty VI Faces Delays, Risks $85 Million Federal Grant

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The ambitious underground fiber cable project by Liberty VI, an integral part of the Connect USVI program, has hit significant roadblocks. Initially aimed at enhancing the region’s telecommunications infrastructure with a more disaster-resilient underground fiber system, the project now faces the peril of missing critical deadlines, potentially forfeiting nearly $85 million in federal funding.

Ravindra Maywahlall, Liberty Country Manager, during a recent Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications meeting, highlighted the Department of Public Works (DPW) as the principal obstacle. Maywahlall emphasized the urgency of meeting the project’s milestones, specifically the connection of 18,400 homes to fiber broadband by the end of 2024, equating to 40% project completion. Despite submitting 72 permit packages for over 19,000 homes, Liberty VI has received approval for only 18 packages, covering approximately 4,000 homes. Maywahlall expressed concern over the potential loss of the grant, lamenting the setback in developing infrastructure crucial for all Virgin Islanders.

The absence of a DPW representative at the meeting left a gap, as their letter presented a contrasting view. The letter highlighted the agency’s policy requiring a minimum trench depth of 24 inches for undergrounding efforts, in contrast to Liberty’s proposed micro trenching technique, which involves shallower trenches of 8 to 12 inches. This discrepancy raised concerns about Liberty’s micro trenching plans, particularly on federally funded highways.

DPW’s letter also addressed challenges in coordination and execution. Instances of unauthorized work and damage to public infrastructure were cited, alongside deficiencies in Liberty’s work, including issues with vault covers, trench filling, and inadequate stripping. The preservation of roadways during the trenching process was emphasized as a key concern of DPW, influencing their permit review process.

Senator Marise James expressed frustration at DPW’s absence, which hindered a comprehensive understanding of the issues. Meanwhile, Liberty VI maintained that DPW’s slow permit approval process was the main cause of delay. Jose Arias, Liberty’s construction director, noted that their trenching was confined to areas permitted by DPW, but clarity on micro trenching on different road types remained elusive.

As the project spans both local and federal routes, Jean Pierre Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, acknowledged the complexity of the situation. With a significant portion of the micro trenching planned for local roads, the need to navigate between different road types complicates the project further.

Senator Marvin Blyden, chair of the committee, recognizing the impasse, pledged to convene a meeting with all stakeholders. The urgency to resolve these issues is heightened by the risk of losing vital federal funding, with Blyden emphasizing the need for proactive solutions and no room for excuses moving forward.

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Urgent Need for Solutions as Virgin Islanders Risk Losing Broadband Discounts

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The imminent expiration of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in April 2024 threatens to strip approximately 5,000 households in the US Virgin Islands of crucial broadband internet subsidies. Without congressional action to allocate additional funds, these families face the prospect of losing a federally-mandated automatic discount on their internet services.

Viya’s Chief Executive Officer, Geraldine Pitt, highlighted the urgency of the situation in a recent statement to the Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications. Viya, obligated by the FCC, is preparing to notify over 3,000 ACP beneficiaries of the impending depletion of program funds, with notices set to be distributed starting January 25. The ACP, offering a $30 monthly discount, is deemed by Ms. Pitt as vital for the community, warning that its termination could lead to significant hardships for those dependent on this subsidy.

In response to this looming crisis, U.S. Senator Peter Welch has introduced legislation seeking to sustain the ACP. The proposed bill, presented on January 10, advocates for a $7 billion infusion into the Affordable Connectivity Fund. Despite this legislative effort, the bill’s progress through the Senate and potential House approval remains uncertain, leaving thousands of residents in a precarious position.

Ms. Pitt, addressing the immediate needs of Virgin Islanders, proposed an alternative solution: reallocating a portion of a $27.1 million grant from the Broadband Equity and Access Deployment (BEAD) program, awarded to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This funding, as OMB Director Jenifer O’Neal explained, is earmarked for enhancing internet access, digital transformation, community digital literacy, and workforce development. However, leveraging BEAD funds for ACP support is not straightforward, with the OMB still awaiting approval from the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) for their initial proposal.

The potential lapse in ACP support underscores a significant challenge for Virgin Islanders, with Viya projecting a loss of over $90,000 in monthly revenue. Ms. Pitt urged lawmakers to explore interim solutions to bridge the gap until more sustainable measures can be implemented, emphasizing the need to extend ACP benefits.

Senator Marise James, co-chair of the committee, echoed these concerns, stressing the detrimental impact a disruption in ACP could have on the territory’s residents. She pointed out the risk of debt accumulation and service loss for affected families, criticizing the lack of urgency in addressing the needs of the less fortunate. Senator James’s remarks underline a growing divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” highlighting the importance of ensuring equitable access to essential services like broadband internet.

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Liberty VI’s New Manager Faces Legislative Scrutiny Over Network Migration Challenges

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Ravindra Maywahlall, the newly appointed country manager for Liberty VI, found himself at the center of a rigorous inquiry by the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications this Wednesday. He was called upon to address the persistent service disruptions that have been a source of frustration for many customers, including several lawmakers.

Sandra Setorie, Executive Director of the Public Services Commission, had previously informed senators in Tuesday’s Committee on Government Operations meeting about frequent complaints regarding Liberty VI’s services. Issues raised included dropped calls, delayed text messages, spotty coverage, billing discrepancies, system updates, and group text messaging problems.

In his Wednesday testimony, Mr. Maywahlall cited the ongoing transition from AT&T to Liberty VI’s network infrastructure, initiated last June, as the root cause of these challenges. He stated, “While the migration process presented hurdles, our estimates show that over 95% of customers encountered no difficulties during their transition.”

However, this assertion was met with strong opposition from the lawmakers. Senator Franklin Johnson described the service as “the worst ever experienced in this territory,” openly challenging Mr. Maywahlall’s claim. Senators Donna Frett-Gregory, Marvin Blyden, and others raised concerns about prevalent “SOS” issues on customer phones, attributed by Liberty to migration snags or low-coverage areas.

Liberty VI has committed to diligently completing the migration process, aiming for completion in the first half of this year. Mr. Maywahlall expressed optimism, stating, “Post-migration, we look forward to offering USVI-centric products to our customers.” The company is currently working on migrating approximately 29,000 customers.

Despite these assurances, the 14 legislators present at Wednesday’s meeting were not appeased. Calls for customer credits were voiced, notably by Senator Samuel Carrion, who shared his own lengthy waits at Liberty retail outlets for customer service. He urged the company to enhance its service, highlighting the growing trend of customers leaving Liberty due to dissatisfaction.

Senator Carrion emphasized the significant impact of the migration on the territory’s quality of life and business operations, urging Liberty VI to reevaluate and improve its operations to meet the Virgin Islanders’ needs.

Another point of contention was the perceived inadequacy of Liberty’s communication about the migration process. Despite Mr. Maywahllal’s explanation of outreach efforts to customers, legislators like Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger remained skeptical, especially regarding the company’s failure to inform customers about maintaining service continuity when traveling to the mainland.

In response to these challenges, Liberty VI has increased its customer service staff and remains positive about the future post-migration. Mr. Maywahllal confidently stated, “We have developed a world-class telecom infrastructure with a strong focus on the USVI market, keeping our customers’ best interests at heart.”

Overall, Liberty VI remains committed to enhancing its service quality and completing the migration process efficiently, ensuring a better experience for the Virgin Islands community.

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Virgin Islands Lottery Reopens Today Following Cybersecurity Incident

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The Virgin Islands Lottery is set to resume operations today, January 24, after a brief hiatus caused by a cybersecurity breach. The interruption in service, which necessitated the closure of the Lottery’s offices, has been addressed, paving the way for a return to normalcy.

Executive Director Raymond J. Williams conveyed both relief and satisfaction as he announced the resumption of the Lottery’s services. “Our team has diligently worked to bring our systems back to full functionality, and I am pleased to announce that we will be welcoming our dealers and customers back at 8:00 a.m. today,” Williams remarked.

This reopening signals the restart of ticket sales for draw number 1025. Initially planned for January 18, the sales have now been extended until Thursday, with the draw rescheduled for Friday, January 26. Moreover, the Lottery is preparing for its next draw, number 1026, with ticket sales commencing on Friday, January 26. This subsequent draw is slated for Thursday, February 15.

Williams took the opportunity to express his gratitude to the community for their unwavering support and understanding during the recent challenges. “Your patience and understanding have been invaluable as we worked towards returning to our standard operations,” he commented.

This announcement marks a pivotal moment in the recovery of the Virgin Islands Lottery, a cornerstone institution in the community known for its contribution to both recreational and economic spheres.

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