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VINGN Eyes Extending Broadband Range to Underserved Areas

Mark McGibbon, president and CEO of viNGN, announced additional hot spots on St. Croix.
Mark McGibbon, president and CEO of viNGN, announced additional hot spots on St. Croix.

Effective partnerships with local internet service providers are critical to making broadband internet available throughout the territory, especially to the unserved and underserved areas, according to V.I. Next Generation Network officials.

In his first meeting as viNGN chair, Gov. Albert Bryan, Jr. heard firsthand all the details that go into that concept, including how expensive getting fiber to homes is, what the challenges are and what funding could potentially be available. Bryan said he’s been in talks with carriers interested in investing more in the territory, potentially $30-to-$50 million, and viNGN Chief Executive Officer Mark McGibbon said he too, has had similar interactions.

The more than $100 million broadband initiative was funded primarily from National Telecommunications and Information Administration grants, along with a $32 million match from the government.

During the meeting, McGibbon explained the grants helped build viNGN’s core network with the idea that the private sector and ISP’s would connect to the network to get broadband out to the homes. Currently, viNGN’s 14 ISP’s have an interest in making that happen, but the challenge is money. It’s estimated to take $400-to-$500 million to get a “Fiber-to-the-Home” network up and running – compared to $1 trillion to do it across the continental United States – and officials said it would take a federal act, investing large sums of money into a wider broadband internet infrastructure, to make it happen quickly.

But, partnering with providers such as Viya can help, McGibbon said. Right now, viNGN is running a completely fiber optic network, while Viya’s is a hybrid of coaxial copper and fiber optic cabling. As Viya continues to build out and expand, getting fiber from viNGN could keep Viya from building where there is already infrastructure in place and increase the reach of broadband internet to those rural and untouched areas.

With new leadership in place, that looks like a possibility, McGibbon added.

As a Public Finance Authority-owned “middle mile provider,” viNGN cannot offer paid services directly to clients, instead selling bandwidth to internet service providers, or “last mile” entities such as Broadband VI and Viya.

“We can make inroads if we work together as a team, and if they can join us at any segment of our network, we would welcome that,” he said.

Bryan’s observation that it’s important for viNGN to stay competitive as it continues to look for investment also pulled the idea of 5G – a fifth-generation cellular network that provides broadband access – into the conversation. Candidly, McGibbon and other members spoke about terrain challenges and the need for high speed bandwidth, among other things.

“That’s the next thing that’s coming, though, and it’s the next thing we need to be thinking of,” McGibbon said. In follow-ups after the meeting, viNGN officials said the rough estimate to construct a 5G network is between $85-to-$100 million.

Looking at funding in follow-ups after the meeting, officials said that within Congress, a proposed 2019 Rural Broadband Act proposes $1 million for the territory, which viNGN will apply for once it becomes available.

Separately, a $497,000 grant from the U.S. Interior Department was awarded a few months ago, and will be used to buy bucket trucks, vehicles and splice trailers for both districts to assist technicians with everyday assignments.

viNGN is currently in the procurement process and anticipates completing these purchases no later than the end of 2019, according to officials.

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