An SRO audience of top state officials, academics, telecom executives and Internet whizzes packed a UH Manoa classroom Tuesday to hear Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s high-tech vision for the future.

The governor said all of Hawaii citizens will have access to ultra-high-speed gigabit broadband services at affordable prices by the year 2018.

“It’s an unprecedented step forward,” the governor said, predicting that world-class broadband would create jobs and improve quality of life in education, health care and even civic exchange.

Left largely unanswered, however, was who, exactly, would pay for the Internet upgrade.

Another Big Media Event

The administration is increasingly utilizing grand media events to further its agenda.

Just last week it held two — a status report on his New Day plans and an update on his 90-day homeless initiative.

Both events included invite lists and attracted plenty of media, and both produced some news.

But, both were also missing important details — e.g., how the governor would find the money to confront the state’s impending financial storms, and how the 90 days of moving homeless people into housing compared with the previous three months.

That was the case Wednesday, too. The governor was surrounded by a lot of important people in announcing his broadband initiative, and his communications team offered up a dozen state officials and telecom representatives to field questions about broadband following the press conference.

But during the press conference, the governor was vague in answering an Associated Press reporter’s question on how the state would pay for increased broadband.

“I won’t speak for the Legislature, but we have $33 million that we are taking advantage of in (federal stimulus funds),” he said, although he acknowledged that that money was allocated under a previous Congress not under the thumb of the Tea Party.

Looking at state Reps. Jimmy Tokioka and Kyle Yamashita, who were sitting in the front row of the UH classroom, Abercrombie said the state would work with the Legislature on “putting funds forward, depending on the project at any given point. … We intend to work and to leverage this with the private sector and foundations across the board.”

Richard Lim, who runs the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — one of two agencies tasked with implementing the broadband initiative (the other is the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs) — said the costs would be “significant” but added, “This is not a question of if we should build this, but when we should build it.”

Representatives of the companies that could most facilitate the plan — AT&T, Hawaiian Tel, Oceanic Cable and Sandwich Isle Communications — were on hand for the media event. But it was unclear what their incentive would be to help the governor.

“It’s a good plan, and participation at all levels is welcome,” said Sonny Perreira, network operations manager with Sandwich Isles. “We can only do so much ourselves.”

How about DBEDT’s and DCCA’s plan to overhaul the regulating and permitting structure? Would that attract telecom companies?

“I can only hope,” said Perreira.

Silicon Valley in Hawaii?

Few would disagree with the notion that Hawaii lags far behind other locales when it comes to Internet access, and that access is key to economic growth

Henk Rogers, the entrepreneur and founder of the Blue Planet Foundation, told the UH audience that Japan, South Korea and Finland were light years ahead of the United States in terms of speed, and that Hawaii ranked 31st in the U.S.

“I mean, we invented this stuff,” said Rogers, expressing his disappointment at the nation’s situation.

Rogers also warned that the state would not “break barriers” in agriculture, tourism, construction and the military.

“These are industries are not poised to grow,” he said. “The only industry we have that can really grow is Internet-based industry speed in the nation, and if we have the highest broadband speed in the nation, we will be the next Silicon Valley — right here in Hawaii. And we will be the ones who have made it happen.”

Rogers views on the future of agriculture, the military and construction may have surprised administration officials that have praised each, let alone the visitor industry.

As for his views of a Silicon Vally in Hawaii — well, Rogers has a vision, just like the governor.

The governor noted that technology is changing so fast that future generations may view the use of Skype as nostalgically as he talked about a Dick Tracy wristband radio when he was young.

“That’s probably the way we are going, and we need to be thinking about that,” he said.

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