Cell Operators Want Help Getting Government Land Leases to Expand Coverage

Geraldine Pitt, Steven Adams, Bala Balakrishnan, and Naji Khoury appear before the Legislature on March 11. (Photo courtesy of the V.I. Legislature)

Senators complained about Liberty Mobile service and Liberty officials asked for help getting leases to expand coverage and improve service, during Monday’s Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications hearing. Officials from Liberty Mobile, the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, and Viya were there to share challenges and updates on operations in the territory.

“I have some pet peeves as it relates to Liberty basically taking over the mobile services here in the Virgin Islands. I’ve found that the services has significantly changed as far as the quality of the service,” said Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory.

She inquired about issues with cell phone use such as outgoing calls going directly to voicemails, phones ringing once and cutting out, and calls dropping.

“We’re looking to add more capacity,” said USVI Liberty general manager Bala Balakrishnan. “There’s a new spectrum that’s available called AWS Spectrum … We’re adding more radio capacity to utilize this AWS spectrum. That will improve capacity and the drop calls you are talking about.”

One of the biggest issues Balakrishnan said Liberty has is getting leases to expand coverage. He said Liberty is looking to expand coverage in the territory in Donoe on St. Thomas, in Coral Bay on St. John, and in Sion Farm, Clairmont, Green Cay, East End, West End, and Sally’s Fancy on St. Croix.

“Unfortunately, it has been very difficult and complex to work with the different government and public authorities to lease the necessary location to erect cell sites needed to address the coverage and capacity issues. For example, Coral Bay, Fortuna and East End. We are ready to invest in the territory but we need your support in deploying the network and getting a speedier way to get these leases, and agreements approved and signed,” said Balakrishnan.

Frett-Gregory said that more specificity is needed and that timelines should be provided to the body, as well as the occurring challenges, so that Liberty can get assistance.

“In terms of pricing and the speed of service, we are still far behind the United States to include some of the Caribbean Islands. And we are still paying more on average for slower service,” said committee chair Sen. Marvin Blyden.

In addition. the company is trying to phase out 3G technology.

“Nowadays, the 3G network carries less than one percent of the total traffic and its spectrum will better serve our broader base, our 4G and 5G customers,” said Balakrishnan.

Senators shared concerns about digging of roads for underground fiberoptic networks and some wanted to know if it was possible for the companies to share connections to those networks.

Steven Adams, chief executive officer of viNGN, told senators, “The intention was that viNGN’s network would be the primary network that other ISPs would leverage.” However, according to Adams, Viya and Liberty have their own networks. “I think that viNGN’s responsibility here is to be able to support both networks so there’s less digging, less network deployment of the others, and that we can provide more of a centralized network.”

Adams also shared upcoming projects for viNGN. As a result of installing free Wi-Fi in the courtyards of all public housing locations, Adams said viNGN secured $10.1 million to install 95 free Wi-Fi hotspots at public locations throughout the territory. In addition, two other projects viNGN is implementing are the IO Academy and viTechHub. The IO Academy is anticipated to have 1,000 students participate from seven public schools, which Adams said will “close thee digital divide and to prepare them for higher education and job opportunities of the future.” The viTechHub is a $20 million project that will “capitalize on the explosive growth of the digital economy” and include the building of a 10-megawatt solar power plant, according to Adams.

Additionally, Geraldine Pitt, chief executive officer for Viya shared that there is the Affordable Connectivity Program that grants $30 per month federal subsidy towards broadband service that recipients of federal aid, such as SNAP, Medicaid, WIC, or Lifeline services can receive that counts towards their broadband service.

“It gives a $30 credit that individuals who qualify can now use to take to their provider to see if they qualify for the subsidy of $30,” said Pitt. “We really do need to encourage the over 26,000 homes, or individua’s who qualify for those programs to take advantage of those programs.”

T-Mobile was also invited to the hearing but did not attend the meeting.

Sens. Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, Genevieve Whitaker, Kurt Vialet, Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, and Novelle Francis were present.