TUTU PARK MALL — The head of the newly branded phone company says restoring service to St. John is tricky. VIYA Chief Executive Officer Alvaro Pilar held a press briefing last week to declare his intent to stage a bold comeback from the ravages of the mighty Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The two Category 5 storms left the Virgin Islands’ utility infrastructure in shambles on St. John, St. Thomas, St. Croix and Water Island. Pilar said as a private company owner he wants to take on the challenge and the expense of building back communications better than ever.
He pointed to the progress made on St. Thomas since the passage of Irma on Sept. 6.
Since then, hundreds of consumers have taken the company up on its offer of free technology upgrades, connecting them by cell or Internet.
Pilar also pointed to high-speed data restorations at St. Thomas banks, supermarkets and some pharmacies. Those steps helped move financial transactions, insurance checks on prescription drugs and credit card transactions.
And, he said, half of St. John has seen restoration as well. But the reality on the ground has been different.
Like its counterparts at Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, VIYA has public hot spots on St. John. One near the phone company trailer in Cruz Bay. One near a VIYA service trailer a mile and a half east of Cruz Bay, near the turn at Pastory. And, for a time, one at the Marketplace in Contant-Enighed.
The reliability of those hot spots comes nowhere near those on St. Thomas, like the one at the Havensight Shopping Center. Some days on St. John, the hot spots are up; some days they’re down. For weeks, ViNGN technicians have been seen marching in and out of a second-floor office above Connections with federal partners from the Disaster Assistance In Recovery Team (DIRT), troubleshooting connectivity problems.
Communications in Coral Bay have, since Irma, been non-existent. Crowds gathered near the Coral Bay Fire Station two days afterward, waiting for a chance to use a satellite cell phone to call relatives and friends.
Between Irma and Maria, towards sunset, technicians could be seen on the roof of the Coral Bay Fire Station installing an antenna. Emergency managers said the beachball-like device with a metal box on top is meant to enhance the relay capabilities between police, fire and the territorial emergency management agency.
Drive by the fire truck bay, and a handful of hopefuls sit on the concrete floor, phones set to their cheeks. The image evokes a more pressing question: If anyone living in these areas had their generator catch fire, how could they call for help?
“They can call 911,” said St. John Administrator Camille Paris, Jr., “as long as there’s a signal.”
Pilar said he knows about the difficulties of St. John service restoration. “It’s going to be a long project. The antenna’s not even there and the rest are just on the floor. We have to just go over there and rebuild,” he said.
Aiding in that effort are 400 phone company workers, including the St. John line crew that’s been out along Cruz Bay road daily, working side by side with the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority.
Part of the approach will be to diversify. Instead of putting phone wires back on poles and stopping there, Pilar said microwave communications may be used in some places. In other places — like between the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic and Cruz Bay — fiberoptic cables may go underground.
The main cell phone tower stationed at Bordeaux Mountain vanished after Irma and could not be found after a company hired helicopter surveyed the tower site.
“You go to St. John, the antenna’s not even there,” he said. The road to the tower site is littered with debris and is, for the moment, impassable. Which makes it hard for the fix to come in. Two mobile cell sites, called COWs, are on island.”
The trick, Pilar said, is to put them in place.
“You cannot drive to get up the hill and put them there,” he said. The work could be done by chopper, but all available cargo helicopters are in use, full time, restoring other parts of the Virgin Islands and hard-hit Puerto Rico.
“So right now, we have those cellular on wheels. Those two, over there, waiting to get up there, and get service.”
The phone company chief expressed confidence that phone service to St. John and Water Island would be restored by Christmas.
On Oct. 13, VITEMA’s St. John emergency response coordinator said time estimates were improving. At the day’s emergency response meeting, VIYA representatives said they would try to have partial service restored by the weekend, provided they could keep fallen phone lines intact.