AT&T Leaves STJ Without Internet, Creates $100,000 Mistake

AT&T Legal Counsel Tom Bolt testifies before Wednesday’s committee. (Photo by Chaunte Herbert for the V.I. Legislature)
AT&T Legal Counsel Tom Bolt testifies before Wednesday’s committee. (Photo by Chaunte Herbert for the V.I. Legislature)

The “Call Before You Dig” bill, which was adopted by the Legislature in September 2015, did not stop AT&T from unintentionally cutting Virgin Islands Next Generation Network’s backbone fiber line on St. Thomas on Feb. 4. The mistake left St. John without internet access for four hours and viNGN says it will cost them over $100,000 to fix and months to complete.

Stephens Adams, the chief executive officer for viNGN, said the costly mistake occurred after AT&T disregarded a work-stop order, which had been issued earlier that day by the Department of Public Works.

This was not the only problem territorial communication companies have had with AT&T.

During Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications, Viya Chief Technology Officer Morris Reid said recently AT&T did not inform Viya they were digging, making it impossible for the telecommunication company to mark the locations of its underground cables.

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“As a result, Viya’s cable in Frederiksted was cut, affecting more than 1,000 customers,” Reid said.

AT&T Legal Counsel Tom Bolt refuted the notion that both Viya and viNGN were not contacted. Bolt said, “he thinks” plans were given to both companies and, “as far as I understand it BLDM [Bermudez, Longo Diaz-Masso, an AT&T contractor] has informed those who were in charge.”

Additionally, Bolt denied that construction didn’t halt after the work-stop order was issued that day.

Bolt said, “We have never fully implemented ‘call before you dig,’” and said, “we will never achieve ‘one dig’ as technology is always evolving and … there will always be a need to improve.”

He added that currently a geographical map of all existing underground facilities does not even exist in the territory.

According to viNGN officials, AT&T shouldn’t dig anywhere that overlaps with existing infrastructure, according to Adams, who said, “On St. Thomas the overlap is greater than 70 percent and on St. Croix it more than 80 percent.”

“viNGN has offered to lease conduit, dark fiber and undersea fiber to AT&T. There is no reason AT&T should duplicate existing infrastructure that was paid for by taxpayers, while our roads incur permanent damage from unnecessary digging,” Adams said.

Adams reminded both AT&T legal counsel and the senators that viNGN had received a federal grant to build its network so that additional providers could use it as well.

“We were funded to provide middle mile infrastructure that is open-access and nondiscriminatory for all internet service providers,” Adams said.

Right now, there is enough fiber underground “to connect Pluto and Mars” said Sen. Janelle Sarauw.

She added that two different companies have come to testify with the same story, saying that the additional fiber AT&T was putting down is not needed.

“We cannot continue to allow our roads to be dug like this. You have overlapping routes … why not sit with them now and buy or lease the fiber from them? I cannot agree with this entire discussion this morning.”

Sen. Allison DeGazon said, “across the board government has an issue with the lack of communication” and because of this the territory is going to see the same problems trickle into the private sector.

Bolt said she was correct and that it would be prudent of the stakeholders to call a meeting within the next 30 days to talk about the establishment of a notification center which would be composed of operators who receive and transmit advance warning of excavations.

After Bolt discussed this need, Sen. Marvin Blyden said a stakeholders meeting would be in order and is currently being scheduled. All senators were invited to attend.

There was no vote, as the hearing was to receive an update from affiliated entities about the implementation of the “call before you dig” bill.

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