WASHINGTON — Hawaii last year launched a broadband initiative with the stated goal of providing ultra-high-speed Internet access to every citizen by 2018.

Ambitious, but not a technological panacea. That’s because much of the data being moved around today is moving not through wires but through the airwaves. The breadth of the wireless spectrum could limit any economic benefits Hawaii hopes to realize from the broadband initiative, slowing the waterfall to a trickle for those who access the web from their smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.

The problem isn’t unique to Hawaii, but it could have an outsize effect in the islands. So local advocates — small business owners, a state lawmaker and an Army sergeant stationed in Honolulu — have joined a national push to raise awareness about the impending problem known as the “spectrum crunch.” And they’re enlisting the help of Hawaii’s powerful senior U.S. senator, Daniel K. Inouye.

What Is Spectrum Crunch?

The Federal Communications Commission explains the stakes:

The growth of wireless broadband represents a significant economic opportunity for the nation – but it also presents a challenge, as increased usage strains the capacity of the airwaves.

Detailed analysis by Commission staff and industry experts reveals that, despite significant investment in networks and advances in wireless efficiency, demand for mobile broadband service is likely to outstrip spectrum capacity in the near-term. Without action to address this spectrum crunch, service quality is likely to suffer and prices are likely to rise.

A group called Mobile Future is among those asking the federal government to widen the spectrum. Late last month, the organization released an infographic detailing the recent history, current state of affairs and gloomy future with the “loading bar of doom.”

The government has long been aware of the issue and has said it intends to expand the broadband spectrum in coming years. The continuing resolution deal floated this week to fund the federal government for another six months would expand from $85 million to $98.7 million the amount of money the FCC is allowed to take in from its auctioning of spectrum bandwidth.

Letters to the Senator

At the same time Mobile Future was ramping up its awareness campaign, some Hawaii residents were reaching out to Inouye to express their concerns.

Civil Beat obtained five letters to Inouye, a member of the Senate’s Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee, from a range of citizens. Here are some excerpts and links to the full correspondences.

If our local companies do not have access to reliable mobile connections, they could lose the chance to reach new investors and customers, and potentially lose revenue. We both know that a company without reliable mobile connectivity in the digital age will not last long.

Wireless connectivity is revolutionizing the way that soldiers communicate with each other and their loved ones back home. This technology is very important to me and the people I care about, but it is also vital for our nation’s economy.

The advancement in the last couple years, and those that are continuing to be built everyday make it possible for us to have a business, employ people, and bring our unique products to a broader market. It is incredible to have the ability to reach people all over the world, even those who have not heard of our sauce.

Inouye, in a statement emailed by his office, acknowledged the problems created by dropped calls and reduced data speeds when mobile phone companies run out of spectrum space. In the past, Inouye has argued that a “digital divide” means native populations are at a disadvantage when it comes to Internet access and technology.

“The U.S. Congress and two key federal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), are working to address this industry-wide problem,” Inouye said Tuesday.

He pointed to the recently passed “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012,” which he said “authorized the FCC to auction unused and underutilized government spectrum and to auction spectrum voluntarily relinquished to the federal government by commercial broadcasters through a new incentive auction program.”

Inouye also said the FCC and the NTIA are looking into ways for the government and commercial users to share spectrum, which could increase capacity and efficiency. There are other ideas on the table, too.

“Spectrum swaps, repackaging of spectrum, and flexible use of spectrum are additional tools that could help utilize spectrum more efficiently and support innovation,” he said. “I will continue to closely monitor efforts to encourage innovation and meet consumer demand for mobile services.”

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