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Committee On Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure and Telecommunications Hammers VIWMA with Subpoena

The Committee on Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure and Telecommunications, chaired by Majority Leader, Senator Marvin A. Blyden, met today to consider legislation regarding the Virgin Islands Public Transportation system and hear testimony from the V.I. Waste Management Authority (VIWMA) and the Territory’s major cellular phone providers.  Although VIWMA was invited to give updates on its operations, the agency’s Interim Executive Director Adrian W. Taylor and Board Chairman, Keith Richards failed to appear before the Committee.   Senator Blyden said that VIWMA’s absence was unacceptable.   “The Waste Management Authority is one of the most important entities of our government because the proper disposal and treatment of waste is one of the single most critical functions of a government in safeguarding the health, well-being, and cleanliness of a community and its people,” the Senator stated. “And I’m sorry to say that it is a task at which, for a variety of reasons, we have failed miserably,” the Senator said.  The Senator continued to share his displeasure with VIWMA.   “I am truly disappointed with Waste Management. We know that there are numerous issues plaguing the agency and it has not given this Committee the opportunity to receive necessary updates. This morning, I followed up with the Office of the Inspector General (IG) and I am pleased that the IG’s office has already started its investigation of the Authority. As a leader and legislator, I am going to hold this agency accountable to the people of the Virgin Islands.”  These sentiments were reiterated by Senator Alicia V. Barnes who also shared her dissatisfaction. Her comments were followed by a motion by Senator Myron D. Jackson to subpoena VIWMA – its Interim Director, Board, and management – to appear before the Committee on Thursday, August 29 at 5:00 p.m. on St. Croix. The motion was voted on favorably by all senators present.   The Committee then heard testimony on Bill No. 33-0107, an Act authorizing the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works to permit advertisements to be placed on VITRAN buses, proposed by Senator Dwayne M. DeGraff. In addition to on-bus advertisements, the Committee was concerned with a number of issues affecting VITRAN, including accurate bus scheduling, the need for transfer stations, and website updates. The Bill was unanimously forwarded to the Committee of Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.   After hearing Bill No. 33-0107, the Committee heard testimony from Viya, AT&T, and Sprint.  
“Hurricane season is already upon us. We live in a time when an increasing number of people rely on cellular phones as their only means of not just communicating with friends, family and business associates, but of getting and sending the information necessary to conduct affairs in today’s world,” Senator Blyden said. “As such, we simply cannot have a repeat of the events after Hurricanes Irma and Maria where tens of thousands of residents were utterly cut off from outside communications as a result of non-functioning cellular networks.”  In its testimony, VIYA shared that in response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it has rebuilt and improved its “core” wireline network, as well as relaunched its wireless products. In particular, it continues to add additional cell sites for extended coverage areas and will continue to do so throughout 2020. Cell sites are currently being converted from wooden poles to monopoles as monopoles are more resilient and can withstand wind speeds of over 200 miles per hour.   AT&T, according to its Testimony, is currently working towards having a buried fiber backhaul network to its wireless cell sites, adding resiliency and reliability while also increasing redundancy via microwave links.   Sprint, like Viya and AT&T, testified that it has also improved since two Category 5 hurricanes ravished the Territory. It has begun to perform battery backup replacement in some cell sites, thus ensuring longer service availability in the event of a prolonged power outage. The carrier also testified that it is increasing its 4G LTE capacity on all sites by adding a second 1900 MHz carrier or channel, allowing less congestion during peak traffic hours and providing a better internet browsing experience.   While acknowledging the carriers’ improvements, many Committee members were not shy to underline inadequacies in service provided. Many highlighted the dire need for AT&T, specifically, to have local V.I. representatives rather than fall under Puerto Rico’s purview. Others reiterated their frustration with the alarming amount of traffic congestion, overall subpar service, and inadequate community outreach. The biggest takeaway was that the national carriers had much work to do in increasing its cultural sensitivity, allowing the Virgin Islands to be separate and apart from Puerto Rico, thus increasing the quality of service and strengthening the relationship between the carriers and the local community. 
Committee members, Senate Vice-President Myron D. Jackson, Senate Secretary Alicia V. Barnes, and Senators Allison DeGazon, Stedmann Hodge Jr. and Javan E. James Sr. were joined by non-Committee members, Senate President Novelle E. Francis Jr. and Senators Oakland Benta, Dwyane M. DeGraff and Athneil “Bobby” Thomas.   The Committee recessed until August 29 where it will hear from VIWMA which was subpoenaed in today’s hearing.