About 1,100 miles Southeast of Florida and roughly 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, our fellow Americans live on a cluster of three main islands. The U.S. Virgin Islands – made up of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas – is also surrounded by 50 minor islands.
In 2017, Hurricanes Maria and Irma ravaged the Virgin Islands, leaving a majority of residents without power, water, or reliable communications infrastructure. Communications have been largely restored. However, four years later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still designates the area as an active disaster zone.
Daryl Wade, Chief Information Officer, for the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network (ViNGN) highlighted that “the islands were 96% back six months after the storm.” Unfortunately, he noted that while getting back online was a fairly quick process, there is still a long way to go before the islands can be confident that such a catastrophe will not reoccur. The FCC estimates that 100% of USVI residents have fixed broadband access, whereas BroadbandNow suggests that wired connections extend to only 62% of the islands.
Network resilience is a perennial concern. “We’re just as vulnerable if not more vulnerable than we were before the storm. That’s due to running emergency backup generators that were intended to last for days, for weeks or months at a time,” Wade explained.
The Virgin Islands became a U.S. territory over a hundred years ago, yet broadband connectivity gaps on the islands rarely receive the same attention or urgent redress as the digital divide on the mainland. As Wade stated, “the Virgin Islands are cut off from some kinds of support. The hurricane season starts in June or July. For three or four years, we have been in an extended state of vulnerability because support has not materialized.”
Wade captured efforts to maintain connectivity while facing constant threats of natural disaster, “Every year we are dodging a bullet.” He continued, “We have received zero funding for mitigation. The things that could be hardened would need to be done so out of pocket.”
According to Wade, approximately 60% of the network infrastructure in the Virgin Islands that can be undergrounded has been. He warned that if “hit with something similar [to the 2017 hurricanes], the only hardened structures would be the people. We have no hardened generators or infrastructure…The territory is dependent on FEMA to bail us out.”
The state of resilience in the Virgin Islands paints a bleak picture. New connectivity initiatives are overshadowed by a concern that networks may not last through a new storm season.
ViNGN is working to bring much-needed connectivity to communities across the islands that need it the most. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wade explained, ViNGN partnerships with the Department of Education and public housing authorities were critical for CARES Act funded broadband projects.
For example, one project was designed to provide public Wi-Fi for students to connect directly to their school system. He noted while they have not yet begun to build out the infrastructure. The procurement is complete, and they have identified between 40 and 60 locations within the territory that would benefit from upgraded bandwidth.
Wade described the broadband landscape in the Virgin Islands is one of precarious growth. As projects are deployed to ensure that students can participate in distance learning and residents benefit from the increase in telework and telehealth opportunities, resilience efforts critically lag.
FEMA and Federal Communications Commission programs have long promised resources to support resilience planning. However, that funding has not yet been disbursed. The Virgin Island’s have, in the meantime, set their own standard for disaster recovery and are working to ensure that anyone on the islands who needs to be connected can be.