St. John Tradewinds News

Thirty Years, One Trip Around the Barn

Once a telecommunications powerhouse, the phone company gets a new name and they say, a new outlook.

For more than thirty years, a strange dance has played out in Virgin Islands telecommunications. The partners in this dance first stepped out as one, then they fought, then they parted.

Then they faced each other as opponents; one lost, one won. That brings us to today.

What was once the Virgin Islands Telephone Company turned into VITELCO. In the 1970s through the early 1990s, VITELCO was king. Businessmen Neil Pryor and Jeffrey Prosser held open talks about undersea networks of phone lines and making this U.S. territory a worldwide telecommunications hub.

The phone company was making money and became a popular pinata in political circles. Elected leaders wanted to know why phone bills were so high, how was the money being spent and on what.

Then came the monsters. Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. Along with them came damaged infrastructure and costly restoration. By then Pryor and Prosser began moving in separate directions.

Prosser formed a new company, Innovative Communications Corp., which rose as a corporate power at the turn of the 21st Century. ICC, as it was known, acquired VITELCO, cable companies on St. Thomas and outside the territory on St. Martin. They formed a business systems group. They bought the Virgin Islands Daily News and formed a new cable-tv station, TV2. They built a spiffy corporate campus on St. Croix.

All with the help of a half billion dollar loan from a rural bank in Nebraska. Things were looking good and Prosser’s people were using their newfound influence to let the powers that be know they were in the game.

But by the mid-2000s, trouble. The tax man came knocking. Questions popped up about corporate money moving through accounts held by Prosser’s wife and son. It got harder and harder for ICC to pay the rural bank.

ICC started shedding subsidiaries. Finally, bankruptcy.

Former Senator Donald Cole was there to see it all. He began as an ex-officio member of the Public Services Commission as a freshman lawmaker in 1999. Now in a new capacity as the PSC’s executive director, Cole was in attendance at the rebranding of Innovative Telephone on April 19.

At that rebranding, the Virgin Islands phone company got a new name — Viya.

It took years to unravel ICC through the courts and free the phone company, he said. It cost tens of millions for Innovative to be acquired as part of a merger with telecommunications rival Choice Communications.

There was another, more signifcant cost in terms of customer confidence. The bankruptcy and merger left little in the bank to provide the kind of service customers expected, the PSC director said.

Choice Communications, a wireless phone and Internet provider owned by Neil Pryor. “We’ve come full circle,” he said.

This at a time when the consumer choice has expanded way past the land line telephones that was all there was when VITELCO was king.

Since the telecommunications dance began between Pryor, Prosser and the Virgin Islands Telephone Company, a new generation has come into the world that has never picked up a handset on a corded phone and said, “Hello … Hello?”

At the rebanding event held at Tutu Park Mall, Viya Chief Executive Officer Alvaro Pilar promised more. Better customer service, custom product delivery and entertainment options never seen before.

All this while Viya wrestles with a device that became a hold over symbol of customer dissatisfaction, the EVO.