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Fate of remaining broadband-related bills to be decided by conference committee

  • ONISHI

Only two bills seeking to improve broadband coverage in Hawaii remain alive in the state Legislature, despite increased awareness of the issue during the pandemic.

With COVID-19 forcing schools nationwide to conduct classes remotely, Gov. David Ige deemed broadband expansion a critical issue for Hawaii during his State of the State address in January. However, only one broadband-related bill has survived in the Legislature since then, and an unrelated bill had broadband-related language inserted into it earlier this month.

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The first bill, House Bill 1191, would use general obligation bonds to establish a grant program that would incentivize the deployment of broadband infrastructure in underserved areas of the state. Under to the current version of the bill, the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism would be authorized to award grants for broadband projects in areas without significant broadband access.

The other bill, Senate Bill 246, originally concerned only a “state government realignment commission” that would review the state executive branch’s actions and submit recommendations to the Legislature. However, earlier this month the House Finance Committee added a section to the bill that would appropriate a nonspecific amount of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for diverse broadband projects in underserved areas for the 2021-22 fiscal year.

All other broadband bills, including some introduced as part of Ige’s legislative package, died during the current legislative session. Those bills included measures that would conduct studies on statewide residential broadband access, establish a Hawaii Broadband and Digital Equity Office, require schools that receive Title I education funds to have high-speed internet access and more.

Hilo state Rep. Richard Onishi, one of several co-introducers of HB 1191, said some of the other broadband bills this session might have been redundant to other ongoing DBEDT efforts to expand broadband access in the state. However, he also said some bills likely were not economically feasible.

“The fact of the matter is, we’ve got to fit into our current financial picture, and our current financial picture is very tight,” Onishi said, referencing the state’s approximately $1.4 billion budget shortfall.

Onishi said HB 1191 has survived this long likely because it uses general obligation bonds — which promise to repay bondholders with funds raised through taxation — instead of general funds directly. Similarly, he said, the bill is far from a “free lunch” for private internet companies: To be eligible for a grant, companies must pay for at least 80% of the project, with the grant only covering the other 20% at most.

Onishi’s district includes several communities with limited broadband access — such as Mountain View, Pahala and Kurtistown — which has thrown the issue into sharp relief during the past year, he said. Not only are schoolchildren at a disadvantage when they cannot reliably access online distance learning courses, but some businesses struggling during the pandemic are unable to shift to online sales to accommodate health guidelines.

HB 1191 and SB 246 are scheduled for a conference committee hearing Wednesday, where Senate and House conferees will discuss disagreements over the various iterations of the bills. Onishi said he is confident the conferees can come to an agreement on the former bill, as its contested points are fairly minor.

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However, if the conferees fail to come to an agreement Wednesday, those bills are likely dead because the Legislature adjourns April 29.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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