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Rules Committee OKs Broadband Bill After Putting WAPA In Charge

The Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee approved the government’s bill to build a government-owned fiber optic network after adding amendments giving the V.I. Water and Power Authority long-term management of the network, headquartering it on St. Croix and other changes.

A final vote is scheduled for Wednesday’s full Senate session.

The government has pulled in nearly $70 million in federal economic stimulus grant funding to pay for the various components of the territory-wide broadband project. The bill authorizes up to $38 million* in gross receipts tax bonds to cover required local matching funds (*See editor’s note at story’s end).

The V.I. Government has created an entity within the V.I. Public Finance Authority called the V.I. Next Generation Network (viNGN). The bill establishes a partnership between viNGN and WAPA, allowing cross-purchases of communications and power services between the two independent government agencies.

The bill will enable viNGN to use WAPA conduits, utility poles and easement space in facilities as critical infrastructure and in-kind services for $15.5 million of the roughly $30 million in matching funds needed.

An amendment offered by Senate President Ronald Russell and Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly requires the joint partnership of viNGN and WAPA to develop a plan for WAPA to assume control after local matching funds and in-kind contributions are in place.

It also gives the V.I. Public Services Commission regulatory oversight over the planned new broadband utility and requires any "surplus revenues" it generates be used to reduce the fuel portion of utility bills, or Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause surcharge.

Russell said it was "logical" for WAPA to manage the network because it already performs similar functions, is a similar government-owned semi-autonomous agency as the viNGN, and is already partnering with it and sharing conduit space and so forth.

One amendment from Russell and Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone would require local businesses be given priority "as may be practicable" on every phase of the project.

O’Reilly also offered amendments requiring the network’s headquarters be on St. Croix and requiring all conduits and fiber optic lines be buried wherever feasible.

Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe submitted an amendment appropriating $50,000 in 2014 from any dividends issued to the PFA for territorial scholarships to study telecommunications technology.

Another amendment appropriates $300,000 from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund to promote the St. Croix Jazz and Country Music Festival, reducing another appropriation by the same amount.

The Rules and Judiciary committee approved all the amendments, adding to those approved April 15 in committee limiting viNGN board compensation and clarifying that any dividends paid by the agency to the PFA may only be spent as appropriated by the Legislature.

Other amendments added Friday bar viNGN or WAPA from selling or encumbering any part of themselves without legislative approval and require the government to offer free WiFi at its public computer centers, which are being built across the territory in conjunction with the project.

Voting yea on the bill were: Dowe, Russell, Sanes, Sens. Celestino White, Usie Richards and Alicia "Chucky" Hansen.

Sen. Patrick Sprauve was absent. The bill is scheduled for a final vote Wednesday before the full Senate.

Editor’s Note: The Source originally reported in this story that up to $42.5 million had been authorized. However, that figure had been amended in committee to $38 million. The story has now been corrected.

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