FCC Eligibility Rules Cast Shadow Over Idyllic Virgin Islands

FCC Eligibility Rules Cast Shadow Over Idyllic Virgin Islands


Slow data transfer speeds and high prices are taking their toll on access to broadband in the United States Virgin Islands. While they may be living in paradise offline, online is more like a cyber wasteland.

Virgin Islanders are known for their laid back style, when it comes to Internet access, particularly access to broadband, the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands demand just as much speed as their mainland brethren. Unfortunately, as many of other unserved and under-served US communities can look forward to progress with regards to broadband deployment, such is not the case in the Virgin Islands.

Geographical challenges, local mismanagement of government funds and now the FCC have all had a hand in the looming digital fate of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It’s no shock that hurricane season and hilly terrain have hampered efforts to improve upon broadband structure; and it’s now old news that the Feds had to be brought in to sort the muddled mess made of a $117.5 million broadband initiative in which local officials, also referred to as ‘the pirates of the caribbean’, violated several U.S. Department of Commerce codes of conduct.

Now, the FCC is denying the territory an opportunity to improve upon its wireless broadband opportunities.

The FCC is auctioning spectrum through its Mobility Fund Phase I Auction in September 2012. Via the auction, the FCC hopes to take the first step in preventing an inevitable spectrum crisis. The idea is to put to use unused and underutilized broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband.

Eligible telecommunications carriers, having met specified criteria for receiving subsidies, may bid on spectrum in eligible census blocks, including unserved census blocks that fall into certain road mile categories. Eligible telecommunications carriers are required to review a potential list of eligible census blocks to determine which blocks or aggregated groups of census blocks they would like to bid on.

Problem is: no census blocks for the U.S. Virgin Islands are on the FCC’s list of eligible census blocks. According to the FCC, the U.S. Virgin Islands has no census blocks that have road miles falling within the categories specified by the auction’s instructions. On the other hand, no census blocks in the U.S. Virgin Islands were identified that did not have 3G or 4G services, according to the FCC.

Even if the road miles in the U.S. Virgin Islands did not fall within the categories the FCC specified, couldn’t room for exceptions be made? The rugged terrain of St.Thomas demands more towers than presently available on the island. The demand for more towers means a demand for more spectrum licenses.

The FCC, wireless carriers, and policymakers have to be mindful of the challenges facing this market and not just abandon it.

Tourism, the territory’s primary industry is driving the demand for spectrum. Imagine a busy Wednesday with six cruise ships making a port call and all those tourists, numbering in the thousands driving up the demand for spectrum. That increased demand may result in spottier service because of the increased chance for dropped calls in downtown Charlotte Amalie, the territory’s capital.

And what of a digital economy?  The number of civilians employed in the U.S. Virgin Islands shrunk by 2.4% between December 2010 and December 2011. Unemployment in the territory was above the national average at 9.1% in December 2011. The recently announced closing of the HOVENSA oil refinery on the island of St. Croix will only fuel the unemployment fire as more Virgin Islanders lose their jobs with the winding down of the refinery. HOVENSA is the territory’s largest private employer.

And it’s not like residents in search of better opportunities can drive over to the next state. The options  a broadband based  economy can bring becomes critically important.

There may be an equity issue here. Should the American Paradise be left out of the opportunity for carriers to bid on spectrum for the territory because of FCC eligibility rules and its terrain challenges?