Fiber optic ring will improve internet speed, stability

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A sign warns that the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closed in Volcano on Thursday, April 30, 2020. The village of Volcano is dependent on tourists visiting the park and has been affected by the closure.

Just when COVID-19 has turned many meetings virtual and a faster, more stable communications network is needed most, a project a decade in the making is about to reach completion.

A gap in a crucial broadband backbone is expected to be filled by next month, according to county Information Technology Director Jules Ung. Ung, a member of the state Broadband Assistance Advisory Council, said the project took a little longer than anticipated because environmental assessments needed to be complete before the actual work could begin.

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“We’re building up redundancy,” Ung said Wednesday. “However, we desperately need to close that loop.”

The problem, according to a 2013 report by the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, is that the Big Island’s fiber “ring” isn’t actually a ring. Instead, it’s more like a slightly upside-down letter “C,” with a 22-mile gap from Volcano to Pahala.

That means that any break in service between Pahala and, going counterclockwise around the island to Volcano, results in internet and cell phone service disruptions down the rest of the line.

That’s happened several times over the years, including a 20-hour disruption in 2013 and a six-hour outage in 2015 that affected 25,000 phones and 5,500 West Hawaii internet users, leaving customers fuming at gas pumps, grocery counters and rental car companies.

The DCCA, relying on a federal grant, in 2010 began gathering data on the availability and speed of broadband throughout the state. The state agency in its report estimated closing the gap in the fiber-optic ring could cost $6 million.

The report recommends a collaboration of state and county government, along with private-sector providers, to complete the system with fiber-optic cabling, so the system would be easier to maintain, increase broadband speed and provide redundancy in an emergency.

In addition to providing communication security to the island, building capacity would benefit underserved communities near the gap, such as Volcano Village, Pahala, Naalehu, and the area between Keaau and Pahoa, the report says.

Hawaiian Electric Company is upgrading and relocating power lines through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a process that will allow Spectrum and Hawaiian Telcom to share space on the poles to complete the broadband loop. The National Park Service in September, 2019, completed a 90-page finding of no significant environmental impact as part of an environmental assessment.

“Two of three phases have been completed,” a HECO spokeswoman said Wednesday.

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Kailua-Kona resident Aaron Stene, a concerned technology user who has studied the island’s cable issues extensively, has been keeping tabs on the project and said it should be completed in November.

“I am very pleased that HECO has nearly completed this transmission line project. It will in turn allow Spectrum and Hawaiian Telcom to fill in the fiber-optic cable ring gap, which had resulted in several outages to our voice/data connectivity over the years,” Stene said.

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