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HomeNewsArchivesDeJongh Signs Broadband Bill into Law

DeJongh Signs Broadband Bill into Law

Keeping his comments to a minimum, Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed into law Thursday the heavily amended broadband financing bill passed last week by the full Senate, but noted that further ”modifications” could be needed as the project moves forward.

"I have approved Bill No. 29-0038 without delay given the rather strict time constraints that apply to this important initiative," the governor wrote in a letter sent to Senate President Ronald E. Russell along with the signed bill. "In so doing, I note that if, as we move ahead with the broadband initiative, that necessary and proper amendments are required, such will be developed in consultation with the Legislature …."

The financing bill made its debut during a full session in March, but was sent back to committee after senators said they were "uncomfortable" with some of the sections — namely, the need to float $42.5 million in bonds to help cover the local match for the project, along the structure of the entity, called the V.I. Next Generation Network, set up to oversee the build-out of the network and its operations once it’s up and running.

Amendments were added earlier in the month during a second Economic Development, Technology and Agriculture Committee meeting, and the bill was forwarded onto Rules. There, senators looked to phase management of the broadband project from viNGN to WAPA, since, according to the sponsors, the utility is already providing $15 million worth of in-kind services by donating conduit space.

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The sections were removed during last week’s session, presumably since members of the governor’s financial team have explained that the nearly $70 million in federal economic stimulus funding the government has received for the project could be put in jeopardy if the business plan or administrative structure detailed in its original grant applications were changed.

But the earlier amendments were kept, since, according to the committee’s chairman Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, it allows the Legislature to be more involved throughout the process and guarantees local providers a place at the project’s table.

Among other things, the new law:

-lowers the government’s bonding authorization from $42.5 million to $38 million (financial team members have said the plan is to go after $32.2 in short-term financing, which will be repaid through the longer-term bond issue, which hinges on the completion of the government’s audited financials for fiscal year 2009 and is backed by gross receipts tax collections);

-sets up a partnership between the Public Finance Authority and WAPA allowing for the cross-purchasing of communications and power services between the entities, and authorizes WAPA to construct, own and operate telecommunication equipment;

-mandates the PFA to submit a detailed financial report on the network’s operations every two years, beginning Oct. 1, 2012, along with: quarterly information on program income for each grant, a report on all dividends issued by viNGN and a breakdown of goals and actual accomplishments, among other things.

-bans viNGN from selling, transferring or encumbering property from the government or one of its semi-autonomous or autonomous agencies without legislative approval;

– prohibits the sale of WAPA, or any part of WAPA, and the transfer of any tenured employee or their benefits; and

-requires the government to offer free WiFi at its public computer centers, which are being built across the territory in conjunction with the project.

Other sections mandate participation of local internet service providers and other small companies, whose representatives recently testified that they did not want to be bypassed and taken out of business if the government decided to sell its bandwidth to anyone other than the wholesalers.

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