Sandwich Isles Communications had already buried miles of lines and is in position to extend service to other companies.

The utter collapse in communications during the deadly wildfire in Lahaina points to an urgent need to protect miles-long runs of above-ground fiber optic lines that form the backbone of Hawaii’s cellular phone and broadband networks.

That won’t be an easy task, but Lahaina may have a huge head start as it begins to rebuild. More than a decade ago, Sandwich Isles Communications Inc. installed underground fiber lines and conduit that extends all the way from Ka’anapali through Lahaina to Puunene.

Much attention has been focused on the fact that warning sirens never sounded to alert residents to the wildfire danger on Aug. 8, but Lahaina residents and visitors also reported being cut off from the 911 emergency system and losing cellular service as the disaster unfolded.

That happened largely because fiber lines strung on power poles were extensively damaged. It’s unclear when that damage might be repaired.

A fire engine drives past buildings destroyed by wildfire in the historic town of Lahania Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, on Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A fire engine passes buildings in Lahaina destroyed by the wildfire. Communications were knocked out early in the emergency as fired burned fiber lines on power poles, but underground fiber cabling remained intact. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

So far authorities have confirmed 111 deaths from the fire that raged through Lahaina that day, trapping people in their homes, on the street or in their cars as they tried too late to escape. Lahaina, a town of about 13,000 people, was almost entirely burned.

Hawaiian Electric Co. President and CEO Shelee Kimura told reporters Monday that some 400 of HECO’s 750 power poles in West Maui were damaged or destroyed by fire or the winds generated by Hurricane Dora, damage that affects communications as well as power.

Fiber connections are essential to cellphone systems because it is mostly fiber lines that connect cellphone towers, with their limited range, to switching centers and from there to the rest of the world. That allows the towers to function.

Hawaiian Telcom’s central office building in Lahaina was left mostly intact by the fire, and the company was able to run new connections from that office to fiber that survived the fire, said Jeannine Souki, senior manager for government and regulatory affairs.

That is allowing the company to work with cellular phone providers to restore cell service to some areas, and Souki said in an online briefing Wednesday that her understanding is cell service is generally available now in the Lahaina area.

But that service is only available because the cellphone companies have installed satellite connections to their cellphone towers, a temporary fix that provides only limited capacity.

Corey Shaffer, network operations manager for Verizon Wireless, said Wednesday his company has no fiber connections for its towers in the wake of the fires. On Tuesday the company restored coverage in West Maui by using satellite equipment to link its cellphone sites to the outside world.

Other companies including AT&T are also using satellite links to cell towers, which Shaffer said “is the only real, viable option until fiber is restored.”

“Data services won’t really be restored until we get fiber from our partners,” he said. “The data needs a bigger pipe.”

Hawaiian Telcom is asking Maui residents to “keep the non-essential calls to a minimum” to ensure lines are available for emergency use, Souki said. Use of text messages instead of calls is encouraged.

Meanwhile, telecommunications entrepreneur Al Hee said in an interview Wednesday evening that SIC controls four strands of underground fiber that survived the fire, and is making that fiber available to cellular companies that want a quicker fix to restore better service to the Lahaina area.

Albert Hee, the founder of Sandwich Isles Communications, offered unused fiber capacity in Lahaina to cellular companies. SIC installed underground fiber cable and empty conduit from Lahaina to Puunene, an asset that may be important to Lahaina’s recovery. (Hawaii News Now/Screenshot)

That fiber was installed by Sandwich Isles, a company Hee founded and used to deliver broadband and phone service to Hawaiian Home Lands. Hee said the underground fiber SIC controls in Lahaina has the potential “to light up all of West Maui” but is now used by only a few dozen homesteaders.

“I made it available to AT&T and to others, but they all want to go through Hawaiian Tel,” he said, adding that cell companies could link up to that fiber at a site a half a mile from Lahaina Civic Center.

He added: “The people are suffering, but the business is getting in the way.”

“It’s not a matter of technicality, it’s a matter of will. Do you really want to do something to help the people who are suffering, or do you want to just keep appearing on national news and say ‘Oh woe is us, we don’t know what to do?'” Hee said.

Hee’s companies drew down hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding years ago to install buried fiber to wire up Hawaiian homeland properties, but Hee became a controversial figure after he was convicted in 2015 on federal tax charges. He was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison, served his time and was released.

Ownership of SIC was transferred to Hee’s family, and Hee said he is now a consultant to the company.

When asked if he expects to be paid for the use of the fiber, Hee replied that “you don’t do things for compensation first. You do things because it’s the right thing to do.” He said he has used the SIC network in emergencies before, including cases where undersea cables were cut.

Hee said he installed the fiber lines for the SIC system underground in West Maui in 2009 at a cost of about $50 million because “historically, West Maui burns … West Maui burns all the time, and all those overhead lines burn.”

Experts say it is routine across the country for telecommunications companies to string fiber lines on above-ground power or telephone poles, but the practice looks increasingly risky in the era of climate change with increasing threats from fire and storms.

Cliff Miyake, former vice president and general manager of the Honolulu office for tw Telecom/Level3, said protecting Hawaii’s fiber lines by burying them underground would be ideal, but “very, very difficult financially” for HECO, Charter Communications or Hawaiian Telcom to do.

“Optimally, for survivability, burying the cables are the best route. However, the cost to convert right now, I don’t think it’s feasible,” he said.

“Going forward into the future, we should try to put it into conduit, but I don’t know how,” he said. “It’s always that fine economic line of cost-benefit, right? We know the benefit is definitely the best, however, the cost is just sometimes too tremendous to do right now. Nobody has the financial depth to do it, I think.”

A MECO warning tag marks a utility pole in the area mauka of the Lahaina Bypass where a wildfire burned near a power station Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina. A large fire consumed areas of West Maui last week. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A warning tag marks a charred utility pole mauka of the Lahaina Bypass Road. Burying fiber helps protect critical communications systems in emergencies such as fires and storms, but it is costly. Lahaina already has buried fiber and buried conduit, which may help with the recovery. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

However, Wayne Hirasa, who has decades of experience as an engineer and account executive for Hawaiian Tel and SIC, said Lahaina has an extraordinary advantage because of the undergrounding already done by SIC.

Hirasa said the fiber through Lahaina that SIC installed underground was purchased by Hawaiian Telcom out of bankruptcy, along with empty underground conduit from Kaanapali through Lahaina and all the way to Puunene. (Hee contends the issue of ownership of the fiber line is pending in court).

Installing underground fiber on the Big Island cost SIC nearly $1 million per mile more than 15 years ago, which is why utilities don’t want to go underground, he said.

But Hirasa said 90% of that cost is installing conduit underground, which has already been done in West Maui. In the event of a fire or a hurricane, “that’s the best place to be,” he said.

“Lahaina is a wake-up call for climate change,” Hirasa said.

Hawaiian Telcom did not reply to questions Wednesday or Thursday about Hee’s proposal for the underground fiber that SIC controls, or Hawaiian Telcom’s long-term plans for the underground fiber and conduit.

Hawaiian Telcom spokeswoman Ann Nishida said in a written statement Thursday that “the situation on Maui is still evolving. The fires are not 100% out yet. We are continuing to survey the full extent of the damage the fires caused to our network and continue to focus on restoring critical communication services to the impacted communities on Maui.”

“Our teams are working as quickly as possible and prioritizing the safety of our valued employees who  are working in the affected areas,” she wrote.

Souki said Wednesday that Hawaiian Telcom has already restored coverage to most of its customers in Upcountry Maui, although there were still pockets of outages. Hawaiian Telcom has been coordinating that work with the Hawaiian Electric to repair communications as electrical service is restored, she said.

Hawaiian Telcom is allowing residents to forward their land lines to other numbers free of charge, and is waiving billing and equipment charges for customers affected by the fires, according to Souki.

The company has also been working with the county to set up free Wi-Fi and phone service in the Red Cross Shelters on Maui, she said.

Felipe Monroig, Charter Communications’ senior director of government affairs for the western region, said all of Charter’s Wi-Fi hotspots in Hawaii have been unlocked to allow free access to the public. The company is also suspending billing charges for people affected by the fires.

AT&T is waiving overage charges through Sept. 7, according to Elizabeth Songvilay, director of external affairs Hawaii for AT&T. The company is also offering free pre-paid phones, and is shipping “loaner phones” to Maui to help people who lost their devices.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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