Public Computer Centers Next Up for Broadband Push

Facing tight deadlines for work and spending, V.I. Next Generation Network (viNGN) board members Friday discussed building five public computer centers by the end of June, one of the critical next steps for the government’s territory-wide broadband initiative.

In 2010, the territory was awarded four major grants through the federal economic stimulus program – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – totaling approximately $70 million to implement a core fiber ring network on all four islands, the renovation or construction of public computer centers (PCC’s), and the training of V.I. residents for educational and economic development.

At Friday’s meeting on St. Thomas, viNGN President Julito Francis said that while construction has been progressing with various stakeholder meetings and reviews of the network’s conceptual plan, there will be at least a two-month lag in getting the first of the PCC’s up and running. Francis said he had hoped the work would begin sooner, but the government is still waiting for the all-clear from the federal government on an environmental assessment report that will determine whether the layout of the network is going to disturb any environmental, historically or culturally significant areas.

Meanwhile, the first set of PCC’s will be up before the actual network is constructed, which means the government will have to initially subcontract with a local provider, Francis said later. The PCC’s will be set up in libraries, recreational facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs and senior centers, among others, and can be used for everything from research to economic development training hubs.

"I think it needs to be an experience that’s welcoming," Francis said when asked what he envisioned the terminals would look like. "An experience that’s conducive to learning, from the equipment we have, the furniture, the painting on the walls."

All in all, there will be 51 centers by the time this part of the project wraps in June 2013. Francis said 70 percent of the centers have to be up by June 2012.

Colorado-based NEOfiber has been subcontracted through Atlantic Engineering Group — the firm tasked with providing viNGN with planning, engineering and consulting services on the broadband project — to implement the PCC’s and help with training and community awareness.

Francis said viNGN also has to spend $150,000 — $100,000 of which is ARRA funding, while the remaining $50,000 is part of a local match — by the end of March on equipment and construction or build-out of the centers.

Another $2 million has to be spent by the end of March on the network, or comprehensive community infrastructure (CCI) that Francis said would link the territory to Puerto Rico, Miami and back. The fiber ring network will be interconnected with submarine cables and is meant to reduce Internet connectivity costs and increase end users’ internet access speeds.

Francis said viNGN is trying, once approval of the environmental assessment report comes in, to prioritize the first phase of construction, which he said would begin simultaneously on St. Thomas and St. Croix.

On St. Croix, the fiber will run from Frederiksted to the Legislature building and go back to the Global Crossing site, where it will tie in with existing V.I. Water and Power Authority conduits. On St. Thomas, the fiber runs from the West Indian Co. Ltd. down to the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency building. From there, new fiber will run down to the University of the Virgin Islands, Francis said.

Construction should begin May 1, but if not, it has to start by June 1, or viNGN will "be in jeopardy of being behind," Francis said after the meeting.

The CCI has to be 67 percent complete by June 2012, Francis said, adding that viNGN hopes to have a prototype network in place by the end of the year. Rounds of meetings have already been held with the proposed submarine cable owners, which will eventually have to sign onto interconnection agreements with the government.

In a marathon executive session held during the meeting, board members discussed:
various broadband connectivity issues, including to connect the new "middle-mile" network to the outside;
ways to accelerate the build out of the CCI in an effort to stay ahead of the timelines set by the federal granting authorities;
Francis’ new contract, which has not yet been executed; and
the role of viNGN’s new broadband coalition committee, which will serve as a liaison between the network’s end users and service providers.

Coming out of executive session, board members passed a resolution authorizing Francis to work with AEG on accelerating the CCI timeline, and allowing him to release a "construction and materials request for proposals" in an effort to get the work done faster.

Board members present Friday were Alfred Boschulte, Gov. John deJongh Jr., Hugo Hodge Jr., Keith O’Neale Jr. and Peter Schultz.

Related Link: Internet Providers to Play Key Role in Broadband Initiative https://stthomassource.com/content/news/local-news/2011/02/02/internet-providers-play-key-role-broadband-initiative

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