Gaps in broadband service in Hawaii are screamingly obvious to the people who have to cope with them, but proving where the problems lie is another matter. There are no publicly available, accurate maps that show what speeds and service are available in rural areas or in each neighborhood.
That wonky-sounding issue is actually a national problem that can complicate efforts to secure funding to improve and expand broadband networks in Hawaii and elsewhere, even when money is offered to pay for the upgrades.
Sean McLaughlin, a longtime community media and broadband access advocate, contends the lack of information about where broadband is offered and at what speeds “has been used, really, to prevent a solution.”
“It’s crazy. This has been a terrible problem for a very long time,” he said.
Now a Hilo-based nonprofit called the Auamo Collaborative is hiring crews to begin to resolve that issue by fanning out to run independent tests of internet speeds on the neighbor islands, and to poll residents about their service levels and internet use.
One of the most urgent lessons of the pandemic has been the value of the broadband internet service that Hawaii families and businesses relied on for school, work and medical services as the state sheltered or locked down.
Thousands of residents stayed connected with broadband, but others had inferior service or none at all. That underscored the need to improve and expand fiber networks and other infrastructure that support the system.
But there is a missing piece in that high-tech broadband puzzle. Hawaii’s major internet service providers, Hawaiian Telcom and Charter Communications Inc., consider the details of the levels of service they provide in each part of the state to be confidential, proprietary information. Charter does business in Hawaii as Spectrum.
And that missing information may become increasingly important with the $1 trillion federal infrastructure package under consideration in Congress.
President Joe Biden and the Congress have advanced a plan that could deliver $160 million to Hawaii to expand or upgrade broadband, which would be an enormous local investment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promises to put that infrastructure package to a House vote by Sept. 27.
But as federal money becomes available to upgrade service in rural and underserved areas, the entities that apply for those subsidies need to identify which areas need help, and also demonstrate the extent of the problem.
To do that, they need data that shows specifically which areas are underserved, said Burt Lum, broadband strategy officer for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
In some cases, the big players in the Hawaii market will help, with conditions. For example, last month Lum helped assemble a partnership that included Charter and Hawaiian Telcom to apply for a competitive grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Charter and Hawaiian Telcom identified census blocks where they see a need to provide or upgrade service on Maui and in other parts of the state, but have not yet provided details about the levels of service they provide in those areas today.
Any information they do provide on that score later during the application process will be deemed confidential, Lum said.
As more federal money becomes available, there will be more requests for projects to improve service, but the major carriers “don’t want to give data that becomes public that shows where, perhaps, they are poorly covered,” Lum said.
When asked why the carriers withhold that data, a spokesman for Charter said in a written statement that “Charter has long worked alongside federal and state authorities on broadband mapping to help locate and identify unserved areas.”
The spokesman also cited the NTIA grant application that was submitted for funding last month for underserved areas of Hawaii, but did not mention the data submitted in connection with that application will be considered confidential.
A spokeswoman for Hawaiian Telcom said that the company makes information available on the speeds it offers through a web site that customers can access by typing in their addresses.
However, Lum said the house-by-house data that can be gleaned from that site does not help much because it is extremely difficult to translate the data into a high-level map format to document what levels of service are available in each area of each island.
Broadband service providers traditionally have used two lines of argument for withholding that data. One is that publicly releasing information about areas that are served and where other equipment is located presents security issues, McLaughlin said.
The other argument has been that information about service areas is proprietary, and that releasing that information would give competitors an advantage. “If we’re the phone company, we don’t want the cable company to know where we’re building now or where we have capacity,” he said.
McLaughlin contends that across the nation, major players in the markets use the lack of data on service levels to block competition from community-based networks.
For example, a community may want to form a hui to provide better service in a given area, but it is difficult for such a group to tap into federal broadband subsidies unless they can demonstrate there is unmet need.
Another wrinkle has been the unit of measurement used by the FCC, which is generally the U.S. Census block. If a provider can say it serves a single household at one edge of that Census block, the entire block may qualify as “served,” McLaughlin said.
“A competitor can’t come in to get a subsidy to serve the rest of that Census block,” he said. “As a practical matter, (large industry players) are blocking subsidies to competitors, and are preventing community networks from being built.”
The Federal Communications Commission has developed maps from information it collected from carriers, but much of that information is outdated or inaccurate, Lum said. The FCC maps are “not as good as I think, a local, ground ‘truthing’ or ground sourcing of data could be,” he said.
“The carriers aren’t going to give you data … so you have to figure out ways to crowd-source the data,” Lum said.
The idea of the mapping project is to have crews fan out to use equipment to measure the available internet speeds, and also to have rural residents fill out questionnaires, Lum said.
Brad Kaleo Bennett, executive director of the Auamo Collaborative, said he and his partners became interested in the mapping issue while trying to provide computers and stand up wireless service for students during the pandemic shutdown.
In order to figure out where the organization should establish new community broadband networks, free WiFi hubs and other infrastructure, “we have to know where the service providers aren’t, and where people are having difficulty connecting,” Bennett said.
For example, parts of Kohala, Naalehu, South Point and Hawaiian Ocean View Estates have spotty internet service, or none at all.
“We have kids who live in these areas who can’t access their education, so that’s a huge problem for me,” said Bennett, who is a former Hilo complex area superintendent for the state Department of Education. “We need to know where the holes are, basically.”
The collaborative’s teams will begin running tests in rural areas of the neighbor islands to measure broadband service availability, and start reporting data for the mapping project in early October. Bennett said he expects to hire about 40 temporary workers for the project.
The data from the project will be publicly available for non-profits to use to assist them in writing grants to launch service in areas that need it, and will also be available for lawmakers to consider as they fund infrastructure projects.
“If we’re going out here to build a highway, for example, let’s include fiber conduits so later on companies can go in there and add fiber without having to dig up the road,” he said. The service providers hopefully will also study the data to determine where they should make upgrades, he said.
“Until we know where the internet doesn’t exist, until we know where the problems are, we can’t fix it,” he said. “We hope that this is the first in a series of mapping efforts.”
The project is being funded by Kamehameha Schools, the Internet Society and Papa Ola Lokahi, who together have provided $200,000 for the mapping work.
While the mapping work will be done in rural areas of the neighbor islands, the collaborative is encouraging residents anywhere in the state to take the survey.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.