In an era where digital connectivity is the lifeblood of education, healthcare and communication, the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (viNGN) is on a mission to close the digital divide in the territory. At the helm of this effort is Jaughna Nielsen-Bobbit, its new director of Digital Equity and Inclusion, whose passion for making her hometown a digital powerhouse is palpable.
ViNGN, which previously played a pivotal role in enhancing high-speed internet access in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is now embracing its next challenge — ensuring that every resident enjoys the full spectrum of digital benefits. Nielsen-Bobbit asserts that, in today’s world, no one should be left behind in the digital realm. She points out that a decade ago, the Virgin Islands wisely leveraged federal funds to create a high-speed middle-mile network aimed at bolstering local internet service providers. Now, it’s time to take the next leap.
“Some communities have more resources than others,” Nielsen-Bobbit emphasized. “In these communities, cutting-edge technology empowers children’s learning, individuals with disabilities have access to vital assistive devices, and medical professionals can better serve their patients.”
Yet, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, residents often have to seek digital opportunities elsewhere, a reality that Nielsen-Bobbit is determined to change. “We deserve to be included in our digital world,” she affirms.
Bridging the Digital Divide
In her new role, Nielsen-Bobbit is charting a course toward digital equity based on community input and data-driven strategies. She eagerly anticipates feedback from residents about their digital needs and how viNGN, in collaboration with local and federal resources, can have the most significant impact.
“The concept of digital inclusion is not new, but it has gained momentum over the past three years,” she noted. “The internet is now at the heart of not only work and education but also our daily lives. Having just ‘some’ internet on your phone is no longer sufficient — the standard has evolved. It’s now about ensuring equal access to affordable high-speed internet, enabling us to create and consume content and develop digital skills necessary for a fulfilling life.”
A series of town hall meetings held in the past six months has given Nielsen-Bobbit valuable insights into diverse needs, ranging from the demand for faster internet speeds to systems that can better connect businesses with their customers. She is eager to tackle these challenges, acknowledging that it will require a concerted effort involving financial investment, community engagement, and collective commitment. ViNGN is actively managing several federal grants aimed at bridging the digital gap in the territory, she added.
Among them, an $8 million Digital Equity and Learning Grant (DEAL) presents a unique federal funding opportunity. Funded through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, it seeks to empower Virgin Islanders to expand their knowledge and skills using technology and the Internet, but its release depends on direct feedback from the community.
Nielsen-Bobbit emphasized that 2023 is a dedicated planning phase. During this period, viNGN is reaching out to a range of stakeholders, from churches and government agencies to community organizations, to better understand the community’s technological needs. Following this, a digital equity plan will be developed, and the public will have 30 days to offer input. Should the National Telecommunications and Information Administration release the funds, viNGN can then distribute subgrants to local organizations to enhance digital skills and literacy throughout the territory.
“ViNGN is fully aware of its role in bridging the digital divide,” Nielsen-Bobbit stated. “One of our goals is to reduce the cost of internet in the territory through these federal grants and to elevate our communities to a level where we are all active participants in the digital world.”
“ViNGN is actively working to ensure that the digital future of the Virgin Islands is brighter and more inclusive than ever before,” Nielsen-Bobbit said.