As an unfunded initiative, the Hawaii Broadband Initiative stopped and started numerous times since its inception twelve years ago. Burt Lum started in his role as Strategic Officer in 2018, and hopes to implement lasting change. 

When Lum joined the Hawaii Broadband Initiative, one of his main objectives was to get funding appropriated from the state legislature for a carrier-neutral cable landing, which was identified as a key piece of infrastructure. After spending a fair amount of time to get Hawaii lawmakers to support the appropriation, the legislative proposal was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the exercise sparked new and immediate interest in improving connectivity for Hawaii residents. 

Like most cities across the country saw firsthand, the week of March 23, 2020, changed everything. 

With schools and businesses shut down, the importance of reliable, high-speed Internet and digital skills training moved to the forefront. The same week that Hawaii’s lockdown began, Lum pulled together the Broadband Hui, named after the Hawaiian word for bringing people together. 

For the Hawaii Broadband Initiative, as Lum states, “2020 was a building year. The Broadband Hui is a grassroots community gathering of broadband stakeholders.”

On March 25th, Lum convened the first meeting to begin addressing emerging needs. Following through on its commitment to meet weekly, the group recently celebrated its first anniversary last week. 

The first connectivity challenge focused on students engaged in distance learning. As their numbers grew from 25 to over 300, they expanded their focus to also include telehealth and remote work. Now, between 60 and 70 participants attend each weekly call. 

In the wake of the pandemic, telecommunications providers offered discounted service offerings through the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. The Broadband Hui met with providers in Hawaii to ensure that everyone on the same page in terms of offerings. In Lum’s words, they “level set what was out there.” 

As the first few months passed, it became clear and obvious that the need for equitable broadband tools and services resonated with the community. While the call is open, they seek engagement from those who have some interest in bringing their skills and expertise to the table, asking “what people can do to help move the needle” toward equitable broadband policy in Hawaii. In just one year, the Broadband Hui has made notable progress by mobilizing their collaborations toward a common goal. 

One of their crowning achievements was identifying what they wanted to achieve, setting the group’s “guiding star”. It naturally coalesced around digital literacy and adoption. Recognizing that infrastructure access and digital literacy are both key components of their work, they developed a digital equity lens, setting a goal of Broadband for A.L.L.—Access, Literacy, and Livelihood—which became their motto.

The Broadband Hui’s Digital Equity Declaration defines the three pillars of digital equity as:

Access: Affordable, quality broadband for all;

Literacy: A baseline of digital competence for all; and

Livelihood: Societal systems effectively leveraging digital opportunities to improve lives.

As a result of the attention Broadband Hui raised around digital equity and collaborations it fostered, state legislators introduced legislation reflecting the group’s sentiments. House Resolution 137 and House Concurrent Resolution 161 codify Broadband Hui’s Digital Equity Declaration as goals for all of Hawaii. 

Since Hawaii’s current state broadband effort is an unfunded initiative, Broadband Hui elevated the need for a state broadband office with resources dedicated to connecting residents. One of the legislative proposals that emerged would establish a Broadband and Digital Equity Office  (Senate Bill 947). In addition to making funding available for the office, the legislation would make Hawaii one of the first states to prioritize digital equity, which is in line with recent recommendations from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. 

Another measure would designate the week of October 4-8, 2021 as Digital Inclusion Week (Senate Concurrent Resolution 67 and Senate Resolution 49). The Broadband Hui inspired county-led efforts as well as statewide policies, leading Hawaii and Maui Counties to pass resolutions on digital equity.

The Potential Impact of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program on Digital Equity in Hawaii

As the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) ramps up, local and state governments will play an important role in ensuring that people who are eligible for the program have the information and tools they need to enroll. The EBBP could bring connectivity within reach for the 55,000 households in Hawaii that do not have an internet subscription, improving quality of life for low-income residents. 

Lum explained what the program means for Hawaii:

There is no funding or local support for rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Without a local approach, Hawaii residents could lose out on millions of dollars. A quick calculation reveals that 200,000-300,000 households could qualify for the program. If they could have that benefit for a month, that equates to a $40 million benefit to Hawaii. 

Even without support for local outreach, the importance of the EBBP supports the urgent need to increase adoption. Broadband Hui came through once again, “putting a fair amount of pressure and recognition of which Internet service providers will participate.” Of the two major providers in Hawaii—Hawaiian Telcom and Charter Communications—only Hawaiian Telcom has announced that they will participate, it remains unclear if Charter will. 

Provider participation alone is not enough to ensure that Hawaii residents have the information they need to enroll in the program. Even if providers do reach out to those who qualify, residents may not trust information that comes from someone who is also selling service.

Lum noted that, “even though national guys say they will participate, there is no guarantee that they have a plan to get people enrolled. Many residents may not be able to get information from providers or the Federal Communications Commission. Broadband Hui will be a trusted source of information and will leverage nonprofit relationships to help share information about the program.”

Looking forward to 2021

In 2021, Lum will continue to support indigenous connectivity initiatives which may be eligible for new funding sources. According to ACS data cited in Broadband Hui’s Digital Equity Declaration, “8.7% of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (NHPIs) are without an internet subscription (compared to 4.6% for Hawai‘i’s total population). 8.2% of NHPIs have no computer in their household (compared to 4% for Hawai‘i’s total population).” 

Lum is incredibly proud of the partnership that connected Indigenous Hawaiians with Gigabit service through Hawaii’s first community network at the end of 2019. While there was no state funding available to maintain the project, the Internet Society donated and the Indigenous Connectivity Summit helped set up the network. The community network was able to bring equitable service to the entire community, for whom connectivity was an obvious obstacle. 

2020 also demonstrated the need for alternative business models for adoption outside of classic carriers. Another issue that surfaced for Broadband Hui, “could Hawaii come up with opportunities where communities could benefit from a community network?” 

Since then, the Internet Society has committed to supporting another community network. In addition to building a fiber network, the project will also support skills training and technical support. 

Reflecting on future plans for American Recovery Plan funding, Lum said that they are looking into constructing cable landings on each of the four islands if there is money available to support the project. This type of digital infrastructure would lower the cost of fiber deployment in Hawaii and enable more resilient and reliable networks for residents. 

Resources: 

Hawaii Broadband Initiative

Digital Equity Declaration 

2020 Hawaii Broadband Strategic Plan

Transform Hawaii: Technology-related bills in Hawaii