The Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (viNGN, Inc.) is embarking on a Wireless Network Expansion partnership with the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE), Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA), Department of Planning & Natural Resources/Division of Libraries, Archives & Museums (DPNR/DLAM) and its local Internet Service Provider (ISP) partners to help bridge the Digital Divide affecting students in low-income housing areas across the territory.
During the grant phase of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) in the United States Virgin Islands (2010-2015), over 300 Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) were designated by Federal representatives according to guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). All three of the Territory’s hospitals and other medical facilities, public and private schools, the University of the Virgin Islands, USVI public libraries and government agencies, including VIDE, VIHA and DPNR/DLAM were prepared to take advantage of the 100% fiber optic network via the local ISP of their choosing.
The local telecommunications landscape is fertile for the Wi-Fi Expansion project. In cooperation with the agencies involved, viNGN will install numerous Wi-Fi hotspots at public housing, community centers, and public areas. The goal is to guarantee that all students in these communities have high speed Internet access to educational portals within a short distance of their homes.
USVI Community Anchor Institutions
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) “are defined by the Order to include such entities as schools, libraries, hospitals and other medical providers, public safety entities, institutions of higher education, and community support organizations that facilitate greater use of broadband by vulnerable populations, including low-income, the unemployed, and the aged.”
The sweeping telecommunications overhaul of the BTOP project would prepare CAIs in a number of ways, including providing better services to the community through self-help portals and more secure and speedy data sharing among departments; supporting telemedicine & the Internet of Things (IoT); allowing distance learning for K-12 and higher education students; and positioning Information Technology (IT) teams to meet Federal security and risk assessment compliance standards. CAIs deal direct with the ISPs of their choosing.
In 2017, the U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated by the one-two punch of historic Category 5 storms within the space of just two weeks. Hurricanes Irma and Maria (Sept. 6 and 20, respectively) dealt lasting devastation to the power grid, telecommunications, homes and businesses in the USVI, and there were five deaths directly related to the storms.
The island of St. John was summarily cut off from the rest of the world with neither power nor a way to communicate. Before the storms, viNGN’s IT leadership was formulating plans to meet future needs, including free public Wi-Fi; the storms merely pressed the already received equipment into fast service. With ferry transportation down except for official travel, it would be viNGN’s subsea fiber optic cable to the Fiber Access Point (FAP) in Cruz Bay that brought about the ability to reach loved ones, file for insurance and disaster aid and conduct business for residents of the tiny island.
Thanks to a majority of the viNGN fiber-optic network being underground and the ingenuity of its network and field teams, viNGN ISP partners were able to bring their residential and business customers back online at an impressive pace. viNGN went on to launch more hot spots in well-traveled public spaces on St. Croix and St. Thomas. Today, a total of 15 free, super-fast public Wi-Fi hot spots remain in constant use by local residents and visitors.
Repairs took precedence over the next two years. Since our recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017), viNGN operations have been focused on three key areas to support a robust telecommunications profile: Hardening the network, advanced Mitigation strategies, and maintaining Resilience to factors that cause network interruptions.
USVI Public Computer Centers
viNGN originally equipped 33 Public Computer Centers (PCCs): 14 on St. Croix, 17 on St. Thomas, and 2 on St. John. Each PCC contains computers and a wireless access point, which makes Wi-Fi available within the range of the equipment to patrons of the center. The centers were established to facilitate community access of computers and Internet as well as to allow host organizations to run programming sponsored by grants, public/private partnerships or the hosts themselves. Public Computer Centers deal direct with the ISPs of their choosing. viNGN’s operational role in the PCCs was greatly diminished once the BTOP grants closed.
USVI PCCs were used by the public towards 2,595 Basic Cyberlearning Digital Literacy Certificates, which enabled the activation of 2,168 Advanced Training Licenses covering topics such as programming, Microsoft, business communications and entrepreneurial skills offered by the National Education Foundation. 240 laptop computers were distributed evenly between St. Croix & St. Thomas/St. John districts for participation in this program through a random drawing (149), PCC Site Administrators and volunteers/”Train the Trainer” program (66), and the Essay Contest “How will high speed internet affect my life on a daily basis?” for 9-12th graders (25).
viNGN has been a part of more than 70 digital literacy training events at Public Computer Centers. Groups like FEMA, Women of AT&T, Dept. of Labor, Port Authority, YWCA USVI, VI Housing Authority, University of the Virgin Islands, Department of Education, DPNR/Division of Libraries, Archives & Museums, Code Like a Girl, and VI Bureau of Internal Revenue have invited viNGN to participate in over 50 more activities covering Digital Literacy, Family Internet Safety, cybersecurity, new user training, coding & programming, and career exploration of Fiber Optics.
The Site Administrators of the Public Computer Centers set hours of availability as well as special programs. PCCs decommissioned or still struggling to rebound from Hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic has further widened what was already a noticeable Digital Divide.
viNGN Infrastructure Benefits Local ISPs
The viNGN mission included interconnecting the US Virgin Islands and connecting the VI to the World. This closed network supports “Peering” – interisland Internet traffic stays “local” as communications bound for the continental United States and the world take the “expressway” out of the territory via fiber optic subsea cables. All traffic moves more swiftly and efficiently, while enabling a more secured environment for local government agencies and businesses.
viNGN ISP Partners are: ADM, Broadband VI, First Phase Datacomm, High Tide Solutions, LAN Communications, OmniSystems, One Stop Wireless, and SmartNet. Local ISPs integrate viNGN’s 100% fiber optics into their own networks or deliver fiber direct to their customers, at a greater value for the dollar. viNGN does not sell to the public. Since the completion of the viNGN network, USVI consumer costs for 1 megabit/second (Mbps) have come down from over $100 to under $10. A $99/month package would have barely purchased 1 Mbps and today can buy up to 50 Mbps.
The Wireless Expansion initiative is part of viNGN’s ongoing modernization plans for the territory. Technology is ever-changing, and the evolution of Internet use centers more and more on the use of wireless devices such as laptop computers, tablets, and even smart phones. We have an ongoing need for more spaces conducive to learning for vulnerable communities, made only more pressing as the community copes with changes brought about by COVID-19. The project is expected to be completed in the near future.