For Keaau Middle School social studies teacher Tiffany Edwards Hunt, running online classes during the pandemic often amounted to staring at blank screens and attempting to coax responses out of seventh-grade students she could hear, but couldn’t see.
Many of Edwards Hunt’s 100 students live in isolated areas in the sprawling Eden Roc, Hawaiian Acres and Orchidland Estates subdivisions on the Big Island, in places where there is no broadband service. Instead, many families rely on spotty satellite connections, or have no internet at all.
The shaky service didn’t properly support video conferencing for many, and on rainy days it was worse, she said. The internet connections for some of Edwards Hunt’s students would fail completely on those days, or the pictures and sound from poor connections lagged so badly that students could barely participate.
The lack of reliable broadband service in many rural Hawaii communities is no secret. In his State of the State speech earlier this year, Gov. David Ige described improvements to Hawaii’s broadband network as “a critical part of re-programming our economy.”
“During the pandemic, the importance of broadband to everything that we do was made all too real,” Ige told lawmakers. “All of us dramatically increased online activities, such as online learning, telework, telehealth, and workforce development and training.”
Ige used that speech to announce the expansion of a federally funded pilot project to create new state-managed Wi-Fi hubs in underserved neighborhoods.
He also asked the Legislature to create a new Broadband and Digital Equity Office to search out and secure more federal money, and to oversee improvements to Hawaii’s network.
Lawmakers agreed, and in the same bill they established a new program to distribute grants to encourage deployment of broadband service to unserved and underserved areas. They seeded the new program with $5 million in federal funds from the pandemic relief law known as the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Legislature also committed $10 million in federal funds this year to a trans-Pacific cable landing project designed to beef up basic broadband infrastructure.
U.S. Census data for 2015 to 2019 shows that nearly 85% of Hawaii households statewide had a broadband subscription, which was a bit higher than the national average of 83%.
But breaking that data down by county shows that only 77.5% of households in Hawaii County had a broadband subscription, which demonstrates the challenges in a larger geographic area where a smaller population is scattered over more space.
In Honolulu, 86.6% of Honolulu households subscribe to broadband, while the subscription rate for Maui County was 84%. The rate on Kauai was 84.6%.
House Democratic Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said the grant program approved by the Legislature in House Bill 1191 is a step toward addressing that.
The new program will encourage the private sector “to think about how we can invest and where we can invest potential public monies that might be coming down from the federal government,” she said. “We really are setting the stage for broader broadband access.”
At the close of the session this year, Ige said in an interview that he wants his administration to take full advantage of what is expected to be a surge in both federal formula funding and competitive grants for broadband.
“We want to make sure that we can get more than our fair share by being ready to respond and pursue it,” he said.
In fact, Ige said, he was ready to use an executive order to get the grant program moving if need be.
“It’s like the telephone was 100 years ago. Everyone needs broadband access, or else they really will be left behind,” he said.
Burt Lum, broadband strategy officer for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, has been urging local lawmakers for years to pump funding into broadband development, but it was the pandemic that finally pushed the issue to the political front lines.
For one thing, the pandemic vividly demonstrated the need for the nation to develop its digital infrastructure to be competitive.
“That has been a federal recognition that we’re going to see a windfall from,” Lum said.
He predicts Hawaii could potentially draw down hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for broadband, and opines that “with that, a fair amount could be done.”
One long-term goal is to upgrade Hawaii systems all the way from the trans-Pacific fiber cable that links us to the world, to the “middle mile” lines that extend from the cable landings to distributor hubs for service providers, and on to the “last mile” lines that finally reach people’s homes.
The state has been trying to finance new cable landings for both trans-Pacific and interisland cables, an initiative Lum expects will cost $40 million to $50 million. The hope is providing the landing infrastructure will encourage private development of new lines to create a more robust statewide system.
Two out of the three existing interisland cables are more than 25 years old and are aging out, Lum said, and a failure in one of them caused an outage on Kauai in 2019. Hawaiian Telcom is in the process of acquiring the third cable in a federal bankruptcy proceeding.
Lawmakers have earmarked $10 million for the state Department of Accounting and General Services in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for next year for the cable landing initiative.
To beef up the “middle mile” infrastructure from the cable landing to the service providers’ systems, Lum said the state plans to offer seed money to support service providers who move aggressively to apply for federal grant funding.
Lawmakers included $5 million in federal funds to finance those grants in House Bill 1191.
“I’m trying to encourage Hawaiian Telcom and Charter (Communications) as well as some of the independent ISP’s (internet service providers) to look at what routes would be beneficial to get to some of the rural communities,” Lum said.
Federal rules haven’t been released yet for some of the grant pools, “but we’re trying to encourage them to be more proactive about putting something together, because once the rules do come out, there’s probably a pretty short window to apply,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation’s Highways Division awarded a contract for up to $25 million to Hawaiian Telcom while the Legislature was still in session to help connect rural communities and also provide state-managed Wi-Fi service in some urban Honolulu areas.
The plan is to install fiber and wireless access points using state and county road infrastructure, and to provide service in settings ranging from rural Hana, Maui to the Towers at Kuhio Park, formerly known as Kuhio Park Terrace in Kalihi.
It is notable that here has been almost no state funding involved in any of this. Ige did not request any funding in his bill proposing the new Broadband and Digital Equity Office, and the Legislature provided none when it approved a measure last month to officially create the office.
Still, Lum said the community advocates for upgrades in state broadband infrastructure did reasonably well. “I advocated for as much as I could get, I got what I think gets us well on our way to establishing a beachhead, and that’s where I’m moving from,” he said.
“As much as we can provide that foundation for the building of Hawaii’s economy around the digital world around us, the better we are able to meet whatever changes are going to come our way,” Lum said.
“I mean, I don’t particularly think that we should just continue to be a service-based industry. I think tourism will always be important, but it can’t be the only thing.”
Apart from economic concerns, the struggle to educate children and youth in parts of Hawaii with poor internet service worries Edwards Hunt, who has been teaching at Keaau Middle School since 2016. She said students at her school had a “huge failure rate” during the pandemic.
“I blame it on the fact that so many of our kids are living in conditions that make it very difficult for them to learn, and also because of the satellite internet throughout Puna,” she said. In other cases, her students were babysitting their siblings, or simply found it difficult to learn online.
Edwards Hunt was also critical of efforts to lure “remote workers” to Hawaii to work from home.
“The state Legislature is promoting everyone to move here and telework, and yet we don’t have the infrastructure to even support our students, who are trying to learn in a rural setting,” she said.
State Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, who represents Puna, said broadband access there has been improving somewhat in recent years as new providers entered the market, including several new satellite providers.
The issue for many now is cost, because many of those new services charge based on data usage, she said. To try to help with that, San Buenaventura along with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Ige are promoting a new federal program to subsidize internet service and equipment to eligible families.
“The federal broadband benefit that’s starting this month, I’m hoping to get the word out so people will apply,” she said. “It will drastically help my people, that’s $50 per month for six months or as long as funds are available.”
Applications are available online — of course — at GetEmergencyBroadband.Org.
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