Connecting v.i. to the world
According to Dr. Tonjia Coverdale, CEO of the Virgin Island Next Generation Network, or viNGN, the U.S. Virgin Islands is the only state or territory in the United States that has a broadband network running through its entire jurisdiction. “viNGN is a world-class, cutting edge, 100 percent fiber optic, broadband network,” she states about the public corporation which was established in 2010 as a subsidiary of the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority with a charter to provide wholesale broadband middle mile service to providers and to promote local economic growth, innovation, and global competitiveness. “We are currently operating and currently servicing the needs of the U.S. Virgin Islands and have the capability of servicing needs throughout the Caribbean and the world. We already have what the goal is for many municipalities – a very robust system.”
viGNG was primarily funded from a quartet of grants from the federal government’s Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), whose main purpose is to encourage the implementation and improvement of the broadband capacity in the United States and its territories. “The Virgin Islands applied for all four BTOP grants that were available,” reports Coverdale, “and received all four in order to establish viNGN.”
Coverdale is a former Elections System Technology Coordinator and IT professor at the University of the Virgin Islands and has been at the helm of viNGN since early this year. She admits that getting all four grants for which it applied is a fairly unique occurrence – one that was largely due to the presence of Dr. Peter Schultz, one of the co-inventors of fiber optic technology who just happens to live on St. Thomas. “He was extremely instrumental in guiding the grant writing process, and obtaining the grants for the territory,” she says. “He now serves as a member of our Board of Directors.”
The specific grants which viNGN received include the following: the State Broadband Data Development (SBDD) grant for performing mapping activities, as well as planning and evaluating the jurisdiction’s broadband needs, availability, and the quality of what is available; the Comprehensive Community Infrastructure (CCI) grant for the deployment of a high-speed fiber network to the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, creating a territory-wide, middle mile network connecting community anchor institutions with reliable high-speed Internet services, and acquiring over 3,000 miles of undersea cable to Florida and New York; the Public Computer Centers (PCC) grant program which provides free access to computers, peripherals, and contemporary software in libraries and community centers; and the Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA) grant which funds efforts to provide digital literacy and job skills training, increase broadband subscribership, and stimulate job growth within the Virgin Islands.
Now that the grants have all been awarded, and the build-out of its 100 percent, fiber optic, broadband network is complete, viNGN is open for business – providing middle-mile, broadband connectivity in the Virgin Islands. Coverdale explains: “We work hand-in-hand with all of the last-mile providers – the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who build the connectivity to each individual business and residence. They’re the retailers who actually contract with each individual user. So, we cannot go directly to people’s homes. We can send our service through people’s homes but we work with ISPs to be able to do that.”
Of course broadband access is not free, and since viNGN is the only game in town, all ISPs must connect to it if they want to offer their customers the higher speeds available with fiber optic technology. But to but to be able to afford to connect to the system, those ISPs must necessarily raise the rates of their end users. So, in order for as many households and businesses to be able to afford the extra service as possible, viNGN has worked with the ISPs to ensure what Coverdale deems “a very attractive price point.” She continues: “Our wholesale prices are really low, and it’s up to our retailers to market and maintain a level of affordability for our customers. However, we do take a major interest in ensuring that our ISPs are compliant with our goal and so we do monitor their prices and, where we can, we assist them in selecting a price point that would be profitable for them and for us, as well as ensuring the end goal of end users being able to access broadband. So, although we are the only broadband provider in terms of a 100 percent fiber optic network, we are regulated by our grant and mandated to ensuring affordability here in the Virgin Islands.”
According to Coverdale, there are 18 local ISPs and viNGN is ready to supply them with broadband speeds that range from 100 megabits to over one gigabit (1000 megabits) per second – a vast improvement over what previously existed on the Islands. “We relied on legacy telecommunication technologies such as wireless and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line – a technology for bringing high- bandwidth information to homes and small businesses over ordinary copper telephone lines),” Coverdale explains. “Even now, the average speed in the territory is between one to five megabits per second. We are an information-based economy, and we cannot effectively compete unless our residents have access to the speeds that will allow them to run businesses and attract additional businesses here.”
Attracting those businesses is key to fulfilling viNGN’s mission of leading the territory into the “Next Generation of the Virgin Islands.” Coverdale believes that by serving as a catalyst for a new technology economy that uses its network as a foundation upon which to build new, and attract relocating high-tech other IT-intense enterprises, the company can stimulate economic growth and position the U.S. Virgin Islands as the technology corridor of the region. “We see St. Croix as being the Silicon Valley of the Caribbean,” she exclaims. “We are strategically positioned – geographically and technologically – to be the crossroads of the Caribbean as that technology hub. We can provide broadband and related technologies to the entire Caribbean, South America, and Latin America. And we are working diligently to ensure that, based on our network, we are able to attract relocating, technology-intense businesses to take advantage of our high speed broadband services.”
As a wholly owned subsidiary of the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority, a quasi-governmental agency, viNGN also takes its social responsibilities seriously. One of its community development initiatives is its K through 16 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics) Academy, which it formed in partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands and the Virgin Islands Department of Education. According to Coverdale, the STEAM Academy will serve as a magnet school, preparing young Virgin Islanders to lead the technological advances of the next generation. “Through this program they will either receive certification that will allow them to be marketable immediately, or they will receive a university degree in one of the related fields,” she says. And while educating the Islands’ youth is a great boon in and of itself, Coverdale is not unmindful of the added economic benefits of having a program such as STEAM. “The message that we want to get to relocated firms,” she says, “is that they don’t have to bring their people; we have a trained and sustainable and very highly skilled workforce here along with our high speed.”
Another way in which viNGN is serving the local population is via its 33 public computer centers which service all three of the major islands: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. “We have begun to offer community courses in the area of communication technologies to prepare our people to be able to go from being users of technologies to creators of technologies,” Coverdale says.
Now that viNGN is five years old, Coverdale is looking ahead to it next five years. “Our number one goal is to ensure major saturation throughout our islands in terms of access to our broadband service,” she says. “Five years from now, I would like to see everybody on viNGN, whether it’s at home or at school or at business – all of the government and the schools are already on there, so we’re reaching saturation quickly, but in five years I would definitely like to see that.
“Our second major goal is the establishment of a sizable technology sector here in the Virgin Islands, and having all of the major technology firms, whether they’re large, small, or medium-size, having a presence here in St. Croix, and really having St. Croix emerge as the new place to be for up-and-coming technology companies. And the third thing that we would like to accomplish is to see a significant increase in our technology workforce here through our community and education initiatives and to create a sustainable and largely minority technology workforce not only to service our local needs but to service those needs throughout the Caribbean and the States.”
More than ever, modern economies are dependent upon reliable, high-speed access to the digital universe. In “connecting V.I. to the world” and promoting greater accessibility to that digital universe, viNGN believes that it can help transform the daily life of all Virgin Islanders and lead the territory to a new era of prosperity. The next several years will be the test for this innovative, next-generation network.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Virgin Island Next Generation Network
WHAT: A public corporation that provides high-speed, 100 percent fiber-optic broadband services to the U.S. Virgin Islands
WHERE: St. Thomas and St. Croix, U.S. V.I.
Bonneville Group Virgin Islands, Inc. – The Bonneville Group Virgin Islands, Inc. is a telephone communications services company. It is a division of Bonneville Construction – Puerto Rico, established in 1984. It provides vanguard services in the fields of construction and systems integration, including buried conduit and manhole infrastructure, utility pole installation, indoor and outdoor copper cabling, fiber optic cabling, premise connectivity and pathway hardware, and security systems installation and maintenance. It also installs and implements wireless systems for long-haul and last-mile communications as well as design, installation, and certification of electrical requirements on all of its projects. www.bonnevillepr.info
The West Indian Company Limited – The West Indian Company (WICO) began in 1912, after the opening of the Panama Canal, as coal bunkering business in St. Thomas Harbor. In 1936, it opened its first tourist shop and purchased K.C. Bay in St. John where it constructed seven buildings on seven beaches and called the development Caneel Bay. This made way for a ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John. 1941, WICO became a bauxite transshipment point. By 1962, the tourism industry had become the Islands’ main business and WICO was the agent for most of the cruise lines that came to its shores. In 1993, The West Indian Company was sold to the Government of the Virgin Islands. Today, WICO boasts of having one of the best cruise ship ports in the Caribbean. It also manages Havensight Mall, the largest commercial property in the U.S. Virgin Islands. www.wico-vi.com
Universal Business Supplies – Universal Business Supplies offers over 40,000 different products, including office and printer supplies, office furniture, office technology, and IT (information technology) needs. Products include: Binders and Accessories, Boards and Easels, Calendars and Planners, Desk Organizers, Envelopes and Forms, Filing Supplies, Labels and Labeling Systems, Paper and Pads, Storage and Organizers, Tools and Equipment, and Writing and Correction Supplies. The company also sells Breakroom Supplies, including coffee, tea, bottled water, cups, plates, drinks, snacks, and soups. Its Office Design Services provides computer assisted office design to help to lay out offices from one room to large office buildings. The company maintains distribution centers on St. Thomas and St. Croix. www.ubsupplies.com
Law office of Bennett Chan, PC – www.bclawvi.com
Winston & Strawn, LLC – www.winston.com