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Monday, May 27, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsLiberty Communication Issues Have Led to Long Lines, Confusion and Frustration

Liberty Communication Issues Have Led to Long Lines, Confusion and Frustration

Devastation and downed power lines after the 2017 hurricanes. (Source photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

As former AT&T cellular phone customers experience a bevy of communications problems with their cellular phones, lines of disgruntled Virgin Islanders are forming at Viya and T-Moble offices to switch their service, as well as at Liberty offices where there can be hours-long waits to get fixes.

“People are really suffering,” said Jennifer Matarangas-King in a recent phone conversation. Matarangas-King, a longtime communications expert in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the spokesperson for Viya, the local phone company, was sympathetic to the challenges faced by the new kid on the block.

“AT&T took a bad beating from the storms,” Matarangas-King said, referring to the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes that struck the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in 2017. With 60,000 customers, AT&T had the lion’s share of the market, and Liberty ended up with them. Adding to the pressure a large percentage of Viya customers, having lost their hard-wired land lines due to the devastating storms, never went back to them, but came to rely solely on cellular phones.

On Oct. 31, 2020, Liberty Latin America inherited those customers and changes when the telecommunications company completed its acquisition of AT&T’s wireless and wireline operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. One year later Liberty acquired Broadband V.I. That acquisition came with nearly $85 million from the FCC to upgrade the system. That money also came with serious requirements and timelines that might be at risk of not being met if the company and the government don’t start to seriously work together to get past what Liberty country manager Ravinda Maywahlall called “temporary inconveniences.”

The FCC is fully within its rights, Maywahlall cautioned, to take back the money and give it to someone else.

The clock is running and pressure is building to get up to speed and meet FCC’s milestone requirements.

The Liberty executive is asking the community to be patient and the government to step up to the plate and work with them to get the new fiber underground cable laid, which will lead to reliable high-speed internet and a brighter future for generations to come. From a business perspective, he said the ultra-fast, all-fiber internet network can transform the territory into a Caribbean technology hub, which could, in turn, create jobs, improve education, expand tourism opportunities, and connect USVI with other markets around the world, while ensuring that communities that are underserved or unserved also have the opportunity to have a reliable internet connection. And with 85 percent of the fiber network underground, Virgin Islanders will be far less subject to the whims of nature and power outages; the internet connection will still work if power goes out in the V.I., as long as residents have a power source at home.

Maywahlall is in constant communication with the FCC in an effort to keep any of the agency’s misgivings at bay. But contractually, time remains of the essence.

Meanwhile, the telecommunications company has hit one roadblock after another since acquiring AT&T and Broadband V.I. In April 2023, Bala Balakrishnan, Liberty’s general manager at the time, said before a Senate hearing the company had faced serious delays due to issues with several government agencies.

That particular hearing held nearly 10 months ago, Liberty Testifies on Hurdles to Doing Business in the USVI, focused primarily on the issues with a pole agreement with the V.I. Water and Power Authority. At that time, despite FCC regulations requiring utilities to cooperate with telecommunications companies, including a 45-day response requirement from the time the communications company requests a pole agreement, Liberty had been waiting nearly nine months for a response from WAPA.

Also mentioned at the hearing were the other obstacles the company met in attempting to lay new underground fiber cable and address other structural issues.

Nearly a year later, 57 permits remain pending with the Public Works Department needed in order to upgrade. Support for these upgrades is also needed from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

A variety of issues, from lack of employees to excavating in areas where WAPA and the V.I. Waste Management Authority also plan to do work, and challenges over responsibility for covering the cost of relocation of the Liberty/Broadband V.I. underground facilities when government-owned utilities plan to construct and are in conflict are impeding progress.

“If we don’t get past the excuses,” Maywahlall said in a phone call Friday, Virgin Islanders have much to lose. “These are short-term, fixable problems,” he said.

If the FCC takes back the $85 million, the problems will become permanent.

And it’s not just about hurricane resilience, he said. The commitment Liberty made in acquiring AT&T involved the reality of what high-speed, reliable Internet will do for future generations that will, among other things, enhance everything from education to entrepreneurship.

Among the short-term fixable problems that are aggravating and draw attention away from the larger issues are those that have been brought about by the systems’ migration from AT&T to Liberty that remains ongoing.

Things started to go bad a few weeks ago when customers with older cell phones no longer had service.

That problem had to do with the new platform being established by Liberty. “The old phones could not work on the enhanced and updated platform,” said Maywahlall. “Since last year, we have been communicating directly via email and text messages with those customers that require a device change or reconfiguration and urging them to go to a Liberty store and take the necessary actions to avoid any service disruption,” Maywahlall stated in a written response to an inquiry from the Source on Thursday.

For those customers who had not acted upon the direct email and text messages and thus found themselves with no dial tone, so to speak, Liberty provided free phones. Not everyone was happy with the selection. Someone close to the situation, not authorized to speak on behalf of the company, concurred that part of the problem with people not responding to the repeated messages that indicated they would need to get a new phone was they were “attached to their old phones, to the point of even being superstitious.”

Some are also techno-challenged and do not want to learn to use a new device.

The mounting troubles seemed to explode last week when many customers who had new phones that were compatible with the updated platform simply had no cell service, including an inability to send or receive texts reliably.

It was particularly confounding because when you send a text that seems to have gone, you have no idea that the recipient never received it.

To add to the frustration and confusion, voice messages were turning up when you dialed a cell number, which mysteriously said, “The number you have dialed is not in service.”

That problem was specifically a result of the migration from the aged-out AT&T system to the new Liberty platform.

Again, Maywahlall stated customers who were to be migrated were informed via email and text they should make sure their operating system was upgraded with the latest software and take action “if we have informed them that they need to change or reconfigure the device.”

For some Liberty customers who said they had followed the directions and had updated their phones, their call and text functions were still not working.

One suggestion in Maywahlall’s statement that seemed to work for at least one customer with this particular problem is: Turn on data roaming function.

The other one which solved the issues entirely on a test case Android phone:

Go to settings;

Choose Mobile networks;

Then network operators;

Turn off ”select automatically;”

Hit “scan network;”

Choose Liberty. 

Once the system connects to the Liberty network, turn off the phone and then turn it back on.

Liberty executives, in meeting after meeting and hearing after hearing, have made numerous suggestions about how to get past the small stuff in order to move on to the permanent fixes they are committed to making to Internet service in the Virgin Islands. Links to several of those meetings are available below.

A long-time manager who’s been on the telecommunications front lines in the Virgin Islands for more than 20 years who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the company said part of the problem is the challenge of customers “updating themselves, not just their phones” in the new world of technology. He was not suggesting that any of this has been easy for the customers, but he also echoed Maywahlall’s position.

“It’s a transition period, eventually we are going to get it done.”

Maywahlall said he anticipates the migration part to be completed by the end of March. He also said in the meantime, Liberty will enhance customer service – and hopefully stem the overflow of disgruntled customers waiting in long lines in their offices –  by providing detailed instructions on Liberty’s website and elsewhere to help people get through the technological challenges faced by their customers due to the upgrades from the comfort of their own homes.

“We are 100 percent committed to the Virgin Islands,” Maywahlall said.

Related stories from oldest to most recent:

FCC Authorizes $84 Million in Connect USVI Fund Support for Broadband VI

Liberty, Broadband Execs Say Their Combination Will Enhance Technology in USVI

Liberty’s Bid to Install Speedy Network Slowed by Paperwork Delays

Speedy Networks Need WAPA Poles, DPW Permits

Liberty VI and DPW Seek Solutions for Fiber Optic Quagmire

 

 

 

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