Hawaii historically has not had access to gobs of money to expand access to broadband or upgrade service, so the volume of federal pandemic funding now headed into the state for broadband projects is nothing short of astounding.

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands alone is expecting about $90 million in federal funds to deliver more and better broadband access to Hawaiians, and more than double that amount is earmarked for the rest of the state.

To put that in context, the only program to award broadband funding grants today was created by the Legislature just this year, and the appropriation for that federally funded initiative was only $5 million. Gov. David Ige has not yet released the funding for that effort.

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands Chair William Aila.
Hawaiian Homes Commission Chair William Aila aims to use $90 million in federal funds for broadband projects to provide homesteaders with service “equal or better” than the services available in other communities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

University of Hawaii Chief Information Officer Garett Yoshimi said the sudden new influx of federal broadband subsidies is “literally the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it’s enough to make a huge difference.”

And Burt Lum, broadband strategy officer for the state’s Hawaii Broadband and Digital Equity Office, agreed that this kind of abrupt injection of money for broadband has never happened before.

But the needs of Hawaii’s information systems are vast, and the projects that will be funded could involve everything from developing new landing sites for undersea data cables to stringing fiber optic lines on utility poles to extend service into isolated parts of the neighbor islands.

No Detailed Roadmap

The state has no detailed roadmap as it launches its massive broadband improvement program, and there will be pressure to move quickly to meet federal deadlines to develop an effective plan of action, and to use some or all of the money.

If there was ever any doubt, the pandemic made it quite clear that reasonably fast broadband service is becoming essential to fully participate in the modern world in every realm from entertainment to education and health care.

Outages and other problems have demonstrated Hawaii’s broadband network needs work, including better infrastructure and subsidies to deliver better service to low-income and rural parts of the state.

The bulk of the new funding is made up of $115 million from the pandemic relief bill known as the  American Rescue Plan Act, and another $100 million from the new infrastructure package President Joe Biden signed into law last month.

DHHL is in line for additional funding including $60 million for broadband from the federal infrastructure bill, and $30 million from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The department intends to use much of the $30 million to subsidize service and equipment for Hawaiians across the state, including Hawaiian charter schools.

Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William Aila Jr. said the larger goal is to provide infrastructure to connect the homesteads so they “can have equal or better service to all of our beneficiaries in this new world that broadband is going to be so important to — staying at home, teleworking, telehealth — all of that.”

Yoshimi said more federal funding may become available to the state in the years ahead through competitive grants or other programs funded by the pandemic and infrastructure legislation. “Whenever it shows up, we have to be ready,” he said.

Exactly how all of that money will be applied to specific broadband projects isn’t clear yet.

“Broadband is going to be so important to staying at home, teleworking, telehealth — all of that.” — William Aila Jr.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism last spring issued a request for proposals to develop a broadband infrastructure master plan to prepare for an anticipated surge in federal funding, but the Ige administration never released funding for that effort.

Yoshimi said Hawaii’s major internet carriers — Hawaiian Telcom and Charter Communications, which does business in Hawaii as Spectrum — have detailed plans for making improvements to their own networks, but those plans are considered proprietary and are not public.

In any event, the priorities of the two major carriers may not match the state’s larger objectives. The list of broadband improvements that make the most business sense to the profit-making utilities may not be the projects the general public most urgently needs or wants, he said.

‘Middle-Mile’ Infrastructure

Ige has instructed the university to lead the “coordination and orchestration” of all state broadband initiatives, and in late October the university issued a request for broadband project proposals and other ideas.

That solicitation leaves open what kinds of projects will be funded, but it does offer clues about the direction the state intends to take as it steers the new federal funding to projects.

The university’s request-for-information solicitation raises particular concerns about what is known as “middle-mile” infrastructure, the expensive and high-capacity connections that are the foundation of broadband service. In Hawaii, that includes the aging undersea cables between the islands.

“Lack of strategic investment in Hawai‘i’s middle mile infrastructure and monopoly-based practice of restricted investment has resulted in thin and aging assets which statewide broadband networks must depend on to deliver service to consumers,” according to the solicitation.

It continues: “Hawaii must take control of its future and pay attention to its own middle mile, in concert with the range of commercial infrastructure owners, to ensure that future broadband services are built and delivered on robust, resilient and reliable middle-mile assets.”

University of Hawaii’s Chief Information Officer Garret Yoshimi calls the influx of federal broadband subsidies a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

Yoshimi offered the example of the submarine cables that connect the islands. “Those systems that are in the water, the two main ones are actually at or near the end of their lifetime, which for these systems is typically 25 years,” he said.

The cables can continue to be used, but maintenance costs may increase and the systems are increasingly likely to fail as they age.

Those cables are critical parts of the state infrastructure, “and are places that need attention,” Yoshimi said. The idea would be to both modernize the cable network, and to reduce the cost of moving data between the islands to try to reduce user costs.

Developing new cable landings on the islands could encourage investment in new cables including trans-Pacific cables, which Yoshimi said may be an effective way to use the federal money to leverage or encourage private investment.

In fact, DBEDT has been planning for a new cable landing station for years, and currently has an active request for proposals on the street seeking a private partner for that project. Yoshimi said he would be interested in using some of the new federal funding to help develop a trans-Pacific cable landing.

“Where I would like to be, and this is probably several years down the road because this stuff takes time … is to have at least some new submarine cables touch each of the islands in one or two places,” he said.

That would allow for both increased capacity and some degree of redundancy in case a line is cut.

Despite the apparent focus on large-scale, middle-mile infrastructure projects, Yoshimi said other initiatives to connect rural Hawaii communities with poor service or no broadband at all are also “absolutely part of the investment that has to happen.”

Upgrading Rural Service

Upgrading rural service is one of the specific uses set out in the legislation that provides the new federal funding, “but the biggest fear is that if we invest only in last mile, if we invest only in the rural gaps that currently exist, the middle mile at some point will get pretty crumbly, and once it breaks, it takes a long time to fix,” he said, “so, the idea is that we have to do both.”

How that balance is struck between expanding the system and beefing up the backbone infrastructure is important because it will largely dictate which projects are funded, and who sees improvements in service.

When asked if the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on which projects should be funded, Yoshimi replied that the plans will be publicized with lawmakers and the public as they are developed.

“We think that it’s to everybody’s benefit that the plans themselves be pretty transparent and pretty viewable from the outside,” he said.

The state needs to deliver a grant plan and project list to the U.S. Department of the Treasury by next September for the $115 million in ARPA funding, and Yoshimi said the goal is to produce that list by next summer. That plan is required before the money will be released.

Federal guidance on allowable uses for the $100 million in the newer infrastructure bill is expected in May, which will trigger a similar process to generate a list of projects for that money.

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