Recognizing the need; State addresses ‘digital divide’ in Hawaii Broadband Strategic Plan 2020

  • SAN BUENAVENTURA

  • TARNAS

The so-called “digital divide” driven home during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and the need for improved broadband internet connectivity for education, health and economic prosperity are the subjects of a report released Wednesday by the state.

The 45-page Hawaii Broadband Strategic Plan 2020 provides information and a framework for the creation of policies and programs to address challenges in meeting the state’s broadband goals.

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The plan’s stated goals are to: “Ensure robust broadband infrastructure to all Hawaii residents”; “expand digital inclusion and adoption to achieve digital equity”; “enable Hawaii to thrive through a digital economy”; and “strengthen community resiliency through broadband.”

The plan is an outgrowth of the Hawaii Broadband Initiative, which was launched in 2011 with the unmet goal of one-gigabit-per-second internet connectivity throughout Hawaii by 2018, and the purpose of ensuring all Hawaii citizens have access to affordable high-speed broadband.

Burt Lum, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s broadband strategy officer, said, “All of Hawaii’s residents need to benefit from broadband in order for the state to thrive in the 21st century. This plan seeks to outline the steps to achieve digital equity throughout the state of Hawaii.”

According to the plan, the Big Island, which has about 14% of the state’s population, boasted 86% of its households with a computer between 2014 and 2018 and about 75% with a broadband internet subscription.

Challenges to providing broadband connectivity islandwide include mountainous terrain, volcanic eruptions and frequent earthquakes, plus low population density in rural areas.

“The bulk of the island’s infrastructure must be placed ‘in the air’ on utility poles,” the report states. “This places the infrastructure at risk with vehicular accidents and during catastrophes such as hurricanes, thus creating the strong need for … network redundancy.

“Currently, however, the inability to traverse the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park prevents a true fiber ring around the island. There are two off-island cable landing paths near Kawaihae Harbor in West Hawaii.

“This is of concern because a natural catastrophe affecting that area, such as a hurricane or tsunami, would place the island’s off-island connectivity at risk, and thus may impact advanced broadband service offerings.”

Newly elected Sen. Joy San Buenaventura of Puna, whose district is among the most underserved in the state in terms of broadband connectivity, said the plan — an update of a 2012 document — makes her “hopeful.”

“I’m glad there’s a plan, so we can always point to the plan in the event there’s any money available. Because any kind of economic recovery, and we’re going to need it, requires broadband connectivity,” San Buenaventura said.

Rep. David Tarnas, who represents part of North Kona plus North and South Kohala, told state Superintendent of Education Christina Kishimoto during a House committee meeting Tuesday that poor connectivity in his largely rural district is an issue affecting public school students receiving online instruction during the pandemic.

“We have some communities in my district that are not well served with internet connection, and some of those have to do with lack of infrastructure,” Tarnas said Wednesday. “And others have to do with problems Hawaiian Home Lands is experiencing with its sole provider of communications, Sandwich Isles Communications, who’s going through bankruptcy right now. And so that is causing trouble for a lot of folks in the homesteads.”

Albert Hee, Sandwich Isles founder and CEO, was sentenced by a federal jury in 2016 to 49 months in prison for interfering with the Internal Revenue Service and six counts of filing a false tax return. Prosecutors said Hee used more than $4 million in business funds from Sandwich Isle’s parent company, Waimana Enterprises, for personal expenses — and that ledgers were altered to disguise purchases as business expenses.

“A large section of Puna is Makuu Hawaiian Homesteads, and they have never had connectivity … because there was an exclusivity agreement with Sandwich Isles and (Department of Hawaiian Home Lands) that they would be the sole provider of internet connectivity,” San Buenaventura said. “… Makuu is the largest section that Sandwich Isles never provided internet connectivity to.”

San Buenaventura said Hawaiian Telcom had made “good progress” installing fiber optic cables in upper Puna and parts of lower Puna until the 2018 lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea volcano halted that progress.

According to San Buenaventura, the plan is “good in the sense that they took into account the need for the rural areas, as well as the problems, and the need to have connectivity in the entire state.”

“What they haven’t taken into account — and they mentioned interisland cables — is Sandwich Isles controlling one of those cables … ,” she added. “So there’s a huge question as to how one of the three cables is going to be maintained.”

Tarnas acknowledged the digital divide is “not an easy thing to solve.”

“Technology is changing rapidly,” he said. “And how we are going to meet these needs, and appropriately, is a challenge. It’s an infrastructure issue, right? Just like roads. So should we consider broadband like road infrastructure?

“We’ve got a lot of aspirational goals, and that’s one of them, to provide broadband access to our rural communities. But what’s the implementation plan? What’s the operational plan? And that’s where I need to focus and I need to ask the administration to focus on, is coming up with our implementation plan, to make this a real thing, not just an aspirational goal.”

San Buenaventura said she doesn’t expect the state to have the money in the 2021 session to seriously address the issues brought up in the report but hopes it will be there in 2022.

“But the good thing about the report is that it recognizes the need,” she said.

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The plan is available online at https://broadband.hawaii.gov/about/.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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