Two days after Hurricane Irma, Daryl Wade, chief information officer at the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, or viNGN, went home to St. John and began scrounging for WiFi hotspot equipment.
The storm had just destroyed 21 of viNGN’s 33 public computer centers, and with much of the islands in post-disaster chaos, Wade needed to fill the void in connectivity fast.
With the help of a friend, he set up a WiFi hotspot at one of viNGN’s still-operational hubs on the island and pointed the equipment at the V.I. Police Department station in Cruz Bay.
“We just pointed it through this little crack in the neighborhood that made it to the police station,” Wade recalled. “We went to the police station and said,’Can you try this and let me know if this works for you.’ And we just saw them light up.”
That first effort proved to be “a hit,” he said, and events unfolded that led to viNGN ensuring the free public hotspots are there for the long haul. Former work colleagues on the mainland and in other parts of the world offered to help expand the service, sending commercial-grade equipment to the territory. Wade said this allowed viNGN to select strategic locations around the territory after the storms, taking into account that blocked roads may prevent residents from accessing certain parts of the islands.
“So we found crucial spots around the territory to put up hotspots where people could convene to meet safely in areas that were comfortable to use,” Wade said.
Public use of the hotspots soared in the weeks after the storm, but instead of petering out as hurricane recovery progressed, Wade said more and more users were taking advantage of the WiFi system. viNGN, a Public Finance Authority-owned “middle mile provider,” cannot offer paid services directly to clients, instead selling bandwidth to internet service providers, or “last mile” entities such as Broadband VI and Viya. The post-storm hotspots evolved as completely free services bridging the digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots, according to Wade.
“We saw the trends were rising. We’re like, ‘What’s causing this?’ We realized that people just need this service around the clock,” Wade said.
Now, roughly 20 months after the 2017 hurricanes, viNGN has 15 free hotspots around the territory, each with up to one gigabyte of shared bandwidth. Each hotspot serves users in the thousands daily, and the tens of thousands in a week, according to Wade.
The hotspots are spread out across the territory in places users naturally congregate. On St. Thomas, seven hotspots serve the downtown Blyden Marine Terminal, the Fredericks Marine Terminal in Red Hook, the Seaborne Airlines Terminal, Emancipation Garden, Port of Sale Mall and Havensight. On St. Croix, another seven hotspots serve the Ann E. Abramson Pier in Frederiksted, the Frederiksted Health Clinic, the Grove Place Fire Station, the Midre Cummings Park, Sunny Isle Mall, the Williams Public Library and the Seaborne Airlines Terminal.
On St. John, a lone hotspot serves travelers using the Boynes Terminal in Cruz Bay.
According to Wade, part of the drive to continue the free public hotspot service is the reality that not everybody has a computer at home. Many residents still use the internet on small devices such as smartphones and tablets, he said, performing basic daily activities like communicating with friends and family, using Facebook, or streaming movies.
When it comes to securing users’ data, Wade said viNGN uses layers of encryption, encrypting data once it gets to viNGN to protect data to some extent. Wade still urges users, however, to be vigilant when using open-access Wi-Fi services like viNGN. He urges users to get virtual private networks, or VPNs, or to avoid performing tasks that involve sending and receiving sensitive information online.
“We don’t encourage people to do banking on these hotspots or anything that’s ultra-crucial or critical in that nature,” Wade said. “We encourage everybody to use it except for permanent business purposes and things of that nature.”
Reimagining Public Computer Centers
There are 12 public computer centers, or PCCs, still operating in the territory, providing computer and internet access to residents, as well as basic computing and coding classes at no cost. Unlike the hotspots, PCCs provide a physical space and basic equipment for users to perform basic computing tasks. Wade said viNGN’s vision for the PCCs may have to evolve, especially now that roughly one-third of the original centers are left standing.
“Some of those locations are completely devastated by the storm,” Wade said. “The equipment was small compared to everything else that was lost but we saw that this posed another threat to the accessibility for users around the territory.”
On St. Croix, residents can still use the PCCs at the Department of Labor, the Florence Williams Public Library, St. Patrick’s School, Seventh Day Adventist Central, the Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and the Mon Bijou Community Center.
On St. Thomas, PCCs are still online at the Department of Labor, Lucinda Millin, Strive Senior Citizen Center, Boys and Girls Club, Winston Raymo Recreation Center and the Charles Turnbull Regional Library, which is one of the busiest in the territory. On St. John, only the Elaine Sprauve Public Library PCC remains operational.
According to Wade, since the 2017 storms the life cycle of the equipment and rapidly evolving technology has caused them to take a second look at how they approach the PCCs. The agency is now testing out more modern, effective ways to build the PCCs, he said,with elements like cloud-based services to reduce the amount of onsite service, or a Wi-Fi-based PCC that would provide hardware for typing and printing, but would require users to bring their own personal devices.
“We’ve learned what works as things evolve. We’re trying to adapt to that,” he said.
When asked if there are plans to restore the lost PCCs or bring them back to their original number, Wade responded, “I think the plan is to definitely grow on both ends. We are probably going to take the strategy of whatever the end result that would generally just provide the coverage that we need.”
That plan might manifest itself in the form of more PCCs, Wade said, or a system that overlaps hotspots with PCCs to provide more overall coverage, not just to replace the PCCs that were lost in the storms.
“I guess the end goal would be to ensure that our reach meets or exceeds what it was prior to the storm in the way that’s best for the public to use,” Wade said. “And ultimately our main issue here is to bridge the digital divide, and make sure that anybody who lives out east or anybody who lives out west, has the same access regardless of where their house is positioned or where their income levels are.”
More information on viNGN, including hotspot locations, PCCs, and bandwidth sales, is available on its website.