Broadband expansion programs advance

  • LUM

Several programs aimed at improving broadband access statewide are steadily taking shape, a state official said Monday.

Burt Lum, broadband strategy officer for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said work is underway on a federal grant program expanding broadband access in the state, and a House bill establishing a separate grant program for broadband expansion and a new broadband office within DBEDT has de facto become law.

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“All the stuff we’re working on now is getting these programs up and running,” Lum said.

Last week, DBEDT issued a “request for interest” for broadband service providers to partner with the state for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Infrastructure Program. Lum said about half a dozen entities, covering every county in the state, have applied for the program and must submit grant proposals by July 16.

The program will disburse $288 million in grant funds to broadband providers around the nation in order to provide broadband service to rural areas. Grant recipients may receive anywhere from $5 million to $30 million, Lum said.

The NTIA program is separate from the Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program established by House Bill 1191, which awaits Gov. David Ige’s signature. That program allocates $5 million in funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for grants that cover up to 40% of funding for projects expanding telecommunication services to underserved areas in the state.

The NTIA program is expected to award grants to applicants by November of this year.

Lum said he is still working on specific guidelines for the Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program — which he tentatively called “BIG P” — and likely will continue to do so until next year.

Other programs already have had some success in the state. The Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program — which allows certain low-income households to receive up to $50 to pay for broadband service — was enacted in early May, with 7,240 residents in the state taking advantage of it so far, Lum said.

“It’s not bad, but I wish we were closer to 100,000 participants, especially since that’s closer to how many households are eligible,” Lum said.

A budget bill that Ige signed last week also included a $10 million line item for broadband expansion projects, and DBEDT has made requests for contractors to develop a statewide infrastructure master plan including broadband development, Lum said.

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“Pieces of the puzzle are falling into place,” Lum said. “Right now, we’re in the process of procuring the stuff we need.”

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

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