The V.I. Next Generation Network (viNGN) moved out of the planning phase and into the first leg of construction on the government’s territory-wide broadband project Wednesday after board members approved several hardware contracts, along with resolutions that would allow for the rollout of five public computer centers by the end of next month.
To date, the government has received five federal grants for its broadband initiative, which would create a middle-mile, fiber-optic network that interconnects the territory, Puerto Rico and Miami in an effort to provide local residents with more reliable, and cheaper, internet service.
One of the critical components of the project is the construction of public computer centers (PCCs) that could provide residents with a host of multimedia services, including digital training and access to video or teleconferencing equipment.
The first of the centers were slated to be constructed by the end of June, but viNGN officials explained Wednesday that they had to make a slight change in plans after it was discovered that some of the original sites — such as the new public library on St. Thomas — would not be available in time.
Those changes were given the go-ahead last week by federal officials making a site visit to the territory, and allowed the project to get back on track, said Marion Prescod, one of the network’s managers.
Prescod said the first center should be opening at the Louis E. Brown Housing Community on St. Croix by July 30. While it was initially said that approximately 50 or 51 computer centers would be constructed by the end of the project, viNGN officials added Wednesday that, due to a tight budget, they might have to scale back the numbers so each center can be properly constructed — with the right equipment — and staffed.
Prescod also explained that there would be three different types of PCCs: a full-service center, with two training rooms and host of specialized media and training equipment; an intermediate center with one training room; and a basic, or all-purpose center, with a available computer access and digital literacy training for 2,500 interested residents, who can register for the seminars on viNGN’s website.
A flagship site, or super PCC, will also be operated by viNGN, which will also play host to business incubators for entrepreneurs, among other things, she said.
ViNGN board members approved a resolution that would allow two local construction companies — Balbo Construction, and J. Benton Construction — to begin the build-out of the initial centers, but said they would be going out for more bids on the rest, since no other firms responded to the original request for proposals.
ViNGN is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Public Finance Authority, whose board of directors recently forwarded a resolution authorizing viNGN President Julito Francis to begin negotiations with BroadMap—a New Hampshire-based firm specializing in geospatial information system (GIS) data services—to complete the second phase of the project.
The viNGN board voted Wednesday to accept the contract and authorized Francis to begin the negotiations, which Prescod also said would include work on a mapping system, a support network through the Lieutenant Governor’s Office with local street data, and a smart planning system that would interconnect with the V.I. Water and Power Authority existing network.
The contract would be in the $3 million range, and would be covered by the federal grant funds, Prescod said.
While viNGN still has to put out another round of requests for qualifications for firms that could actually build out the network, the board did give Francis the go-ahead Wednesday to begin negotiations with companies that would bring in the hardware needed to get fiber in the air and on the ground.
Francis will begin negotiations with WESCO International for the aerial pole and fiber optic hardware, along with Walcom for technical services materials.
Board members were concerned that more contracts were not going to local vendors, particularly those that submitted proposals, and decided to bid out in two stages a fourth contract for underground materials. While Francis said one of the qualified local bidders, MSI Building and Supplies, did submit a comprehensive proposal, their bid was at least $1.7 million above the others.
Board chairman John deJongh Jr., along with board members Keith O’Neale and Alfred Boschulte, however, said that it’s possible the local company did not know it would not have to incur certain fees — including gross receipts and excise taxes — that would be factored into the bids of the off-island companies.
"I truly believe at the end of the day, we should give preference to local bidders," deJongh said. "I’m trying to figure out with this kind of money, where the local impact would be, and I don’t feel comfortable cutting a check if it’s going to leave our economy.”
MSI’s bid came in at $8.9 million, while WESCO’s was $7.3 million, followed by Power and Tel with $6.2 million.
Working off a suggestion from Boschulte, board members said they would try to award the contract in two phases and allowed Francis to negotiate with WESCO for at least half of the underground supplies.
O’Neale was also adamant that future Requests for Proposals should contain as much information as possible about the various business expenses so that local companies could know right up front what they would have to pay out.
"We have to make this a level playing field," he said. "And right now, I don’t know if the bid package encompassed all the nuances of the project."
In other news, the board emerged from executive session at the end of Wednesday’s meeting and approved:
-a formal procurement policy for viNGN;
-an authorization for Francis to finalize negotiations with WAPA for $15 million worth of in-kind services (primarily pole space) for the project; and
-a resolution authorizing the nongovernment members of the board to be paid $750 a meeting, pursuant to a bill recently passed by the Senate allowing them to be paid up to $1,000 per meeting.
O’Neale was also voted as assistant board secretary.
Board members present Wednesday were Boschulte, deJongh, O’Neale and Peter Shultz, who participated by phone. Board member Hugo Hodge Jr. was absent.