Out of several broadband-related bills introduced this legislative session, only one has made it to Gov. David Ige’s desk.
House Bill 1191, which establishes Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program to incentivize the expansion of high-speed internet into rural areas, successfully passed through the Legislature last week.
Along with the grant program, the bill also would establish a Broadband and Digital Equity Office within the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which would develop plans to “aggressively increase broadband affordability, penetration, and competitive availability in the state.”
DBEDT strategy officer Burt Lum said the bill is a conglomeration of many of Ige’s goals from earlier in the session. During his State of the State address in January, Ige named broadband expansion as a critical issue for the state, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced students to connect to their classes remotely via often-shoddy internet connections.
Should Ige sign the bill — he has until June 21 to announce what bills he will veto — Lum said DBEDT will begin the process of finding appropriate telecommunications providers to expand their services into underserved areas in the state.
“What the (broadband) office does is provide focus,” Lum said. “What really is going to make things happen is funding.”
The bill does not set limits on how much money would be disbursed through the grant program, although it does set up a Broadband Infrastructure Special Fund to bankroll the program and allocates $5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act into that fund.
The bill also requires that grant beneficiaries commit to paying at least 60% of any grant-funded project’s total costs. An earlier version of the bill would have required recipients to pay at least 80%.
Lum said he is pleased with the steps the state has taken to expand broadband access this year, adding that lawmakers have fought for similar programs for years.
The bill has been wildly popular among testifiers throughout the session, receiving only written comments in support over five committee hearings. Organizations including the state Department of Health and the Hawaii Primary Care Association endorsed the program because of its potential to expand telehealth services throughout the state.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.