Friday the 13th turned out to be a lucky day for St. John residents and businesses who have relied on Love City Community Network to provide internet service since Hurricane Irma tore through the islands on Sept. 6.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, Viya, the territory’s major provider of telephone, internet, and cable TV services, announced a partnership with Love City Community Network (LCCN) allowing the community network to continue operations.
“We’re very proud to provide Love City Community Network with internet,” said Alvaro Pilar, CEO of Viya. Pilar said his company reached out to LCCN as soon as it heard that LCCN was in need of bandwidth.
The IT experts and volunteers who formed the non-profit LCCN over the course of several months had previously depended on bandwidth provided by the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (viNGN) to provide connectivity to underserved areas following the storm.
But on April 1 viNGN abruptly cut off service, stating viNGN had not agreed on a contract with LCCN. After extensive protest from the community, ViNGN temporarily restored LCCN’s bandwidth on April 6. LCCN’s clients were given a one-month grace period to find another internet service provider. (See related links, below.)
Ivan Jacobs, LCCN’s outreach and development director, said the community group was “happy to be back” and thanked Viya for its quick response.
“It was very generous of Viya to work with us so very quickly. Within 24 hours of signing the agreement, we were up and running. Their local technician, Travis Rogers, made a Herculean effort.”
Jacobs said LCCN can now refocus on its mission – delivery of a resilient communications network for St. John that can function in the wake of the next disaster.
“We will soon get Coral Bay and the East End of St. John connected in the way they should be. We’re also working on getting service to that last little chunk of Fish Bay.”
LCCN clients should see no difference in the quality of their connection, according to Jacobs.
“If anything, it should be better because our new Viya network connection is technically superior to what we had before,” Jacobs said.
Although Viya and LCCN both provide homes and businesses with internet service, Pilar said he doesn’t see them as competitors.
“We want everyone to provide service. Our network is sturdy, but it’s not ready to serve our customers. We have to rebuild our wires.”
Although the entire territory suffered extensive damage from hurricanes Irma and Maria, St. John was unique because of the large number of utility poles that were knocked down, according to Jennifer Matarangas-King, vice president of public relations and governmental affairs for Viya.
“Our plant was decimated,” she said. “LCCN is more nimble. They’re able to provide immediate solutions.”
St. John residents have been frustrated by the slow pace of recovery among communications providers.
“It has been stunning how little is understood about the devastating and ongoing impact of Hurricane Irma on communications in parts of St. John,” said Sharon Coldren, president of the Coral Bay Community Council, writing on behalf of LCCN.
“In Coral Bay, East End, Fish Bay, Southside – anywhere without direct line of sight to St. Thomas – we lost every form of ordinary communication in Hurricane Irma: No landline telephone, no TV, no cell phone, no internet. And absolutely NONE of those commercial vendors recovered their systems AT ALL until mid-December and January,” she wrote.
LCCN, which began as a “little, scrappy volunteer group,” in Jacobs’ words, was able to make use of innovative technology that used solar or generator power to provide basic internet, and in some cases, phone service.
Viya still only provides landline, internet, cell phone, and cable TV service to a limited area around Cruz Bay, but the company has brought in additional resources to rebuild the network, according to Matarangas-King.
Viya employs 480 contractors working throughout the territory; 32 are based on St. John, according to Pilar, and 70 percent work for Island Wiring, a local company. Others come from off island.
Viya’s system is considered a hybrid, said Pilar, combining fiber-optic and co-axial technology. The off-island contractors typically work on stringing fiber-optic cable along the main roadways of the island from distribution points, known as nodes, because they’re familiar with this kind of work, according to Pilar. Viya’s regular crews generally work to connect the fiber-optic cable to co-axial cables leading to individual residences and businesses.
Pilar said rebuilding the network is more complicated in some ways than rebuilding an electrical distribution system, such as WAPA’s.
“Electrical equipment has a ‘brain’ that knows how much electricity to draw. A water pump draws this much; a hairdryer draws that much,” he said. Once WAPA turns on the power, the customer’s equipment determines how much service is required, and that amount continually fluctuates.
But Viya provides a range of services which have to be individually programmed for each customer from a central office, he explained.
“Some customers may want internet access at three megabytes per second; others want 25 megabytes. Some want basic cable, and others want premium channels,” he said.
Pilar said all the wireless service companies on St. John, including Viya, ATT and Sprint, have shared a common problem: the limitations of a temporary cell tower that is only 80 feet tall.
“We need a tower that’s 180 feet tall,” he said.
Pilar said most Viya customers on St. John can expect to be reconnected to a full range of services starting in May.
In the meantime, LCCN is up and running, providing service that varies in speed and reliability, but has been a lifeline for more than 400 businesses and residents on St. John.
Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.
Editor’s Note: ViNGN temporarily restored LCCN’s bandwidth on April 6. This story originally had April 7 as the restoration date. It has been corrected.