Broadband debate continues: Bills aimed at improving connectivity are running out of time in Legislature

  • SAN BUENAVENTURA

  • IGE

Although a spate of broadband-related bills have been introduced in the state Legislature, only a few have gained traction.

Gov. David Ige last month said that the creation of a healthy statewide broadband network is a critical component in reforming Hawaii’s economy.

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During his State of the State address in January, Ige listed several rural areas, including Puna and Ka‘u, that the state Department of Transportation will work to connect to broadband services.

While efforts to increase connectivity statewide have been stymied by a lack of funding, federal coronavirus relief funding included money for states to improve their broadband capabilities.

House Bill 913, introduced at the governor’s request, would establish a broadband and digital equity office within the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

According to the legislation, the office would work to develop and implement strategies and plans to “aggressively” increase broadband affordability, penetration and competitive availability in the state; actively seek federal, private and public funding; and administer grant programs in support of broadband infrastructure innovation and the digital economy, among other efforts.

The House Higher Education and Technology Committee recommended the measure be passed with amendments, and the amended bill passed second reading within the chamber.

State Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, a Puna Democrat, said the legislation shows the governor’s commitment to improve broadband connectivity.

“Having this office, it elevates the discussion and allows for separate funding so that Burt Lum can do more with what he has. I’m pleased with that.”

A phone call to Lum, strategy officer for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Hawaii Broadband Initiative, was not returned by press time.

The bill was referred to the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee on Feb. 9, but no hearing before that committee was scheduled as of Wednesday.

The Legislature, however, will be recessed from Friday through March 3, and the deadline for bills to emerge from their committees, or first decking, is March 5.

A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1067, was referred to several committees, but no hearings have been scheduled.

The state Senate Ways and Means Committee, however, on Friday will decide the fate of Senate Bill 850, after the legislation passed second reading Feb. 16.

The measure — introduced by state Sen. Dru Kanuha, who represents Kona and Ka‘u, and co-introduced by San Buenaventura, who represents Puna and East Ka‘u — would create a task force jointly convened by the state Department of Transportation and Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, to provide equitable broadband access for historically marginalized and underserved rural communities.

The legislation also will require the task force to seek federal funding for broadband access and departmental reports to include task force findings.

San Buenaventura said the legislation would ensure the task force determines whether the state could use some federal coronavirus relief money for broadband implementation.

She’s hopeful the legislation will pass.

“I’ve always been a proponent of proponent of broadband in lower Puna as an economic driver, but it is now more important than ever as shown by the pandemic because people are … using it for telehealth, remote learning and remote work,” San Buenaventura said. “Especially in offices where they cannot socially distance, remote work is the only way a lot of people are able to work right now.”

A second bill introduced by Kanuha, Senate Bill 851, aims to clarify that certain small wireless facilities with modified or replaced utility poles subject to height limits will be classified as permitted uses and not subject to zoning review or zoning approval if they’re deployed in any underserved or unserved area.

The legislation also would specify that “underserved area” means an area of the state served by fewer than two wireless providers offering broadband service, and “unserved area” means that 20% or more of a census block does not have access to broadband service.

That measure has passed second reading and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but no committee hearing has been set.

Another piece of legislation introduced by San Buenaventura, Senate Bill 1296, sought to establish a broadband infrastructure grant program, to be administered by DBEDT, to help provide broadband service to unserved and underserved areas of the state.

That measure has not had any committee hearing scheduled, but San Buenaventura said she hopes to “revive it.”

Stakeholders involved believe they can get matching funds to supplement state funding, she said.

Another bill, HB 809, which would establish a Hawaii Broadband Office within the Hawaii Technology Development Corporation, has passed second reading and has been referred to the House Finance Committee. A hearing before that committee has not yet been scheduled.

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A number of other broadband-related measures have not been heard by the committees to which they were referred, or have been deferred.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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