State internet advocates are excited after Gov. David Ige announced plans this week to invest in expanding Hawaii’s broadband infrastructure.
Ige’s announcement during his State of the State address Monday listed several rural areas, including Puna and Ka‘u, that the state Department of Transportation will work to connect to broadband services.
Burt Lum, strategy officer for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Hawaii Broadband Initiative, said increasing connectivity statewide has been an oft-repeated goal for years, but was stymied by a lack of funding.
“It’s only because now we have federal funding sources,” Lum said, explaining that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed last year and a December federal bill package called the Consolidated Appropriations Act contained money for states to improve their broadband capabilities.
Thanks to that federal funding, Lum said, the DOT is working on expanding fiber-optic internet service to more areas throughout the state, while the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands received $30 million to improve connectivity for Hawaiian homesteads.
Broadband Hui, a collective of agencies and businesses working to improve connectivity in Hawaii, issued a “Digital Equity Declaration” on Monday, which stated that about 9.5% of Hawaii’s households have no internet access whatsoever, with low-income and Native Hawaiian households disproportionately affected.
State Rep. Greggor Ilagan of Puna said poor connectivity is a constant complaint among his constituents in District 4, and it has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has forced residents to retreat into their homes and conduct work or school via the internet.
“The problem is, that infrastructure is just not there for a lot of Puna,” Ilagan said.
While Broadband Hui, which Lum founded in 2020, advocated a goal of “consistent, quality internet access” available to 100% of Hawaii residents by 2030, Ilagan said state agencies should take the lead and seek solutions outside the Legislature.
“It requires funding, yes, but I think we all see the need for connectivity right now, and we should be capitalizing on the current situation,” Ilagan said. “The government can move fast when it wants to.”
Ilagan said public-private partnerships with providers such as Spectrum or Hawaiian Telcom — which Ilagan lauded for a partnership with DHHL that improved connectivity in Makuu Homesteads — could allow broadband expansion to be achieved quickly.
However, Lum said a major rollout of fiber internet is only the first phase of improving infrastructure. While the DOT plans to expand fiber-optic internet throughout rural Hawaii, Lum said it is only a “middle-mile” solution that is economically daunting and logistically necessary, but still does not connect to the end user.
“How we get that last mile, how we can distribute beyond the light pole, we’re still not sure about,” Lum said.
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Broadband-related bills introduced
Several broadband-related bills were introduced or passed first reading in the state Legislature on Monday, the same day Gov. David Ige delivered his State of the State address, during which he committed to expanding connectivity coverage throughout Hawaii.
Those bills include measures that would investigate which regions in the state have poor internet connectivity, provide grants to organizations to improve connectivity or mandate that places receiving federal funding have sufficient broadband coverage.
Relevant bills include:
• House Bill 615 and Senate Bill 909 would require the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to develop a plan ensuring that communities with schools that receive federal Title I education funds have high-speed internet access.
• House Bill 616 and Senate Bill 914 would require the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to conduct a study on the state of residential broadband access throughout the islands, to be completed before the 2022 legislative session.
• House Bill 810 and Senate Bill 917 would establish a broadband infrastructure grant program to incentivize companies to provide broadband service to unserved areas of the state.
• House Bill 809 would establish a Hawaii Broadband Office within the Hawaii Technology Development Corporation.
• House Bill 913 and Senate Bill 1067 would establish a Hawaii Broadband and Digital Equity Office within DBEDT. These bills were included in Ige’s legislative package.
• Senate Bill 850 would create a task force between DBEDT and the state Department of Transportation to provide equitable broadband coverage for historically marginalized or otherwise underserved rural communities, and apply for federal funds to do so.