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Virgin Islands Next Generation Network Pins Hopes on “Diaspora Link” Initiative

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The visionary Diaspora Link project involves laying submarine fiber optic cables from the U.S. East Coast to the US Virgin Islands, extending to Lagos, Nigeria, and Ghana, aiming to enhance telecommunications connectivity. Photo by Getty Images.

The Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (viNGN) could see its fortunes revived through the “Diaspora Link” initiative, a key project championed in draft legislation by Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett and introduced in the House Energy & Commerce Committee. According to viNGN CEO Stephan Adams, speaking to the Committee on Budget, Appropriations and Finance on Tuesday, this may be viNGN’s lifeline, as he predicted the entity could struggle to remain competitive within the next five years due to fierce competition from former customers.

Adams emphasized that without the financial capacity to rival these competitors, the future looked uncertain. Yet, the Diaspora Link offers a promising new revenue avenue and a glimmer of hope in response to the prevailing demands for reduced pricing. The initiative, conceived by Adams and his team, proposes establishing submarine fiber optic connections from the U.S. mainland’s east coast directly to the USVI, then extending to Nigeria and Ghana in Africa. The unanimously supported H.R. 3385 aims to position the USVI as a pivotal player on the global telecommunications stage.

Currently, there are no direct telecommunications links between continental Africa and the USA. Adams envisions that with Diaspora Link, including data centers and an independent power plant in the territory, it would foster considerable economic growth and sustainability for viNGN. He shared with Senator Samuel Carrion the added benefits of job creation and significant added value to the territory at no extra cost.

The successful passage of H.R. 3385 and subsequent presidential approval could initiate a year-long feasibility study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Adams, the author of the white paper that spurred the initial legislation, is poised to steward Diaspora Link in the territory. He remains optimistic about the study’s positive outcome and the subsequent congressional funding decisions.

Highlighting the initiative’s critical importance, Adams told committee members that Diaspora Link would enhance the territorial relevance to the U.S., considering the broadband market’s competitive nature. Legislators, including Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the necessity to monitor the study’s progress closely while preparing for all potential outcomes.

Senator Frett-Gregory voiced concerns about viNGN’s viability should Diaspora Link not proceed as hoped, stressing the need for robust contingency planning. She poignantly remarked on the project’s timeline: “I know, everything takes time. Sometimes I feel like time is forever,” capturing the mixture of anticipation and apprehension surrounding the initiative.

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Liberty VI Expands Investment in Territory, Launches Digital Literacy Program for Girls

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The Liberty Foundation, in collaboration with Y-Teens VI and the Society of Women Coders, is bringing the NextGen Tech Scholars Program to the U.S. Virgin Islands. This initiative aims to enhance digital literacy among female students, providing them with essential technology skills.

Y-Teens VI, a St. Thomas-based organization dedicated to the empowerment of girls and young women, has recruited students for this program. “Y-Teens VI is excited to partner with Liberty Foundation and Society of Women Coders in this worthwhile initiative,” said Donnalie Edwards-Cabey, the organization’s president and executive director. “It highlights one of our core programming areas: exposing girls and young women to technology skills, computer science, and engineering as viable career pathways in this digital age.”

The program is a 20-week online afterschool residency focused on coding and programming for female public middle and high school students aged 13 to 17. Participants will attend workshops covering task automation, data analysis, data visualization, digital literacy, website creation, and programming in Python, a language widely used in software development.

In addition to technical skills, the program includes mentoring sessions and provides access to an online community of coders. Classes will be held every Thursday, with mentoring sessions on Saturdays.

“This edition is very significant for us because this is the first time we are offering the NextGen program in the USVI,” stated Kavya Krishna, director and CEO of Society of Women Coders. “The girls taking this program are learning about digital literacy and the basics of coding, both important for developing skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. It will also be a door-opening opportunity for them to follow a career in STEM and even a first step on their education paths, like getting university scholarships.”

Liberty Foundation has committed to supporting Y-Teens VI and other nonprofit organizations in the USVI throughout 2024.

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Taxicab Commission Sees Potential for Harmony Between Ride-Hailing Apps and Taxi Operators in USVI

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With the introduction of a new ride-sharing service in the territory, concerns have been raised regarding its ability to coexist with established taxi operators. Despite these concerns, the Taxicab Commission has expressed optimism that a robust regulatory framework can ensure both services operate harmoniously.

During a recent online presentation, Digicab was officially introduced by its founder, Patrick Farrell. Farrell acknowledged the potential for “a fallout between Digicab and many taxi drivers.” However, he also pointed out that local taxi drivers have admitted their inability to fully meet the local transportation demand.

In the days following the introduction, stakeholders from the territory’s taxi industry gathered before the Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs, and Consumer Protection to discuss relevant issues. Senator Javan James raised the first query about the potential coexistence of the two entities after learning about Digicab’s plans from the Consortium.

Elizabeth Hansen-Watley, vice chair of the Taxi Cab Commission’s board, initially hesitated to respond, stating she needed more details about Digicab’s operations. Drawing from mainland practices, she eventually acknowledged, “I do believe ride-sharing is possible.” For a successful integration, Hansen-Watley suggested the territory should emulate the mainland’s approach, where “everybody’s lane is quite clear on who operates what and where the regulation lies.”

Hansen-Watley implied that this clarity is currently lacking in the USVI. She emphasized the necessity for legislative action, suggesting amendments and new laws to clearly define regulations before moving forward.

Currently, operators like Digicab fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, rather than the Taxicab Commission.

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Carrion Proposes Digital Overhaul of Government Services with New Legislation

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Senator Samuel Carrion has introduced a new bill aimed at accelerating the digitization of government services, with the goal of making them more accessible and responsive to citizens’ needs.

Presented on Monday to the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs, and Consumer Protection, Bill 35-026 proposes amendments to Title 3 of the Virgin Islands Code, adding Chapter 33A to establish the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA). Senator Carrion criticized the current practice of government agencies individually contracting for website design at significant expense. He noted that these websites are often disconnected and incompatible, which hampers business efficiency.

Carrion emphasized the drawbacks of relying on outside contractors, who have sometimes withheld government websites due to disputes. He advocated for uniform platforms and unfettered access across all government agencies. He suggested leveraging existing government IT personnel for these services and providing them with additional training to effectively implement IDEA. Carrion described the bill as a crucial step towards modernizing government processes.

The proposed legislation assigns the Bureau of Information Technology (BIT) the responsibility for setting standards to guide the digital consolidation of government agencies and directing agency heads on website compatibility. BIT Director Rupert Ross highlighted the need for adequate resources to support the bill’s implementation, including modernization efforts, recruitment, training, and support services. He also called for a governance mechanism to ensure smooth implementation, warning that without these measures, challenges are likely to arise.

Initially, the bill set a timeframe of 180 days to one year for BIT to implement IDEA. However, Senator Carrion has pledged to adjust this deadline based on the project’s complexity and scope. BIT has requested more time for comprehensive assessments and stakeholder engagement to facilitate a seamless transition.

Stephan Adams, CEO of the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (viNGN), testified in favor of the bill, addressing funding concerns by pointing to the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which provides $27 million in federal funds managed by the Office of Management and Budget. Adams suggested that these funds could support the bill’s requirements under the umbrella of workforce development.

Adams also recommended amending the bill to enable the government to operate a centralized portal for all agencies. He argued that a unified GVI website would allow residents to navigate between agencies more easily and reduce the need for each agency to recode their websites.

The bill also mandates that all government websites be ADA-compliant, ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities. GVI’s ADA Coordinator Julien Henley reminded lawmakers that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires local governments to provide equal access to programs, services, and activities, along with effective communication comparable to those without disabilities.

Although the bill did not come to a vote during Monday’s committee meeting, it received strong support from lawmakers. Senator Milton Potter called the bill “forward thinking,” while Committee Chair Senator Carla Joseph endorsed it, citing the transformative potential of technology to enhance government efficiency and productivity.

Bill 35-0236 is expected to reduce costs by improving efficiency and creating a more uniform digital presence for government services, as envisioned by Senator Carrion.

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