Sept. 14, 2002 – The Public Services Commission spent about two hours on Thursday listening to arguments concerning the Legislature's bid to get live cable television coverage of its St. Croix sessions, just as it has for the St. Thomas proceedings. In the end, the parties involved could not reach a decision but agreed to get back to the PSC within two months.
Innovative Communication Corp. owns both of the territory's cable TV companies. The V.I. government has been allocated a channel, which is operated on behalf of the administration by the Education Department.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan, chair of the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee, has been aggressively prodding both the administration and ICC for years to agree to provide the same live coverage of St. Croix Senate proceedings that cable viewers get of the St. Thomas sessions.
Bryan did not attend Thursday's session. Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd was there to represent the Legislature.
At a Senate committee hearing last November, James O'Bryan, the governor's public affairs assistant, told lawmakers that the Turnbull administration was not about to share its cable TV government-access channel, but that it was willing to assist the Legislature in getting its own channel on both the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix cable systems.
The Senate would like the PSC to designate the cable companies' "public access" channel as the legislative-coverage channel, but that involves legal authority. Public access channels are widely known to carry a mishmash of programming — literally anything "the public" wants to air. Commission chair Desmond Maynard called the channels "an embarrassment."
A decision in the matter has been dumped on the PSC, which is still awaiting input from the key players. J'Ada Finch-Sheen, Innovated Communication Corp. vice president for legal affairs, made it clear that ICC would cooperate, although it is "under no regulation to do so."
After arguing for more than an hour about the definition of "production costs" and legal matters on Thursday, Liburd, Innovative Telephone President Samuel Ebbesen and Innovative Communication Corp. lawyers were instructed by Maynard to leave the meeting room and return with some solution to providing a TV channel for the Legislature to air its St. Croix meetings. This proved impossible and agreement was reached that the parties would get back to the PSC within the next two months.
In other action, the PSC agreed to send a letter to the Federal Communications Commission certifying that Innovative Telephone is using a $33 million annual federal subsidy in a manner that is in keeping with FCC regulations.
Across the nation, telephone companies assess customers a monthly fee that goes into a Universal Service Fund; the money is redistributed to jurisdictions under the U.S. flag that have demonstrated a need for funds in order to provide affordable telephone service. Innovative itself collects $1 a month from subscribers that goes into the fund. Innovative officers said on Thursday that the Virgin Islands as a whole benefits from the multimillion-dollar USF subsidy the phone company receives, because otherwise the company would have to raise phone rates.
The FCC requires that the utility regulatory agency for each USF beneficiary certify on an annual basis that the telephone company in question is utilizing the money it receives properly.
PSC member Jerris Browne asked Innovative Telephone President Samuel Ebbesen, "How are we sure the money gets back to us?" Ebbesen said the company's goal is to serve everyone, based on how much it costs for a single line.
Ebbesen said a single line costs Innovative $63.70 per month, and the company bills its customers $18.55. Therefore, he said, the company has a shortfall of $685,000 a month to cover, which is what the subsidy funds are used for. (See "Local phone bills differ from mainland".)
Responding to a query from PSC member Verne David, Innovative officers said the company's Economic Development Commission (formerly Industrial Development Commission) tax benefits are not taken into consideration in calculating rates.
Also during the day's proceedings, Innovative Telephone rate investigation hearing examiner Frederick Watts said he would probably submit his report on Friday of the phone company investigation undertaken with AUS Consultants. He subsequently did present the 55-page report on Friday.
The PSC meeting began at 10 a.m. and then went into executive session for an hour, leaving clearly disgruntled personnel present to testify on matters on the agenda, as well as news media representatives, standing outside the meeting room.
No reason was given for the closed session, and commissioner members would not disclose what transpired. There was speculation that it is was to discuss Maynard's recent hiring of Georgetown Consulting Group, which was done without a public commission vote. Maynard made clear on Thursday that the PSC still has AUS Consultants under contract for Innovative Telephone matters. Georgetown has been hired to conduct Water and Power Authority investigations, he said.
In 1998, the PSC terminated a prior relationship of many years standing with Georgetown and hired AUS to conduct rate investigations of WAPA and Innovative Telephone.
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