Hawaii Public Radio
by CASEY HARLOW
Nearly 3,000 bills were proposed this past legislative session. But only a few hundred were passed by both the House and Senate last week. Among those that were approved, are measures that could improve the state’s broadband infrastructure.
The 2021 legislative session adjourned last week, ending a four-month period when state lawmakres considered thousands of proposals to address new and ongoing challenges in the islands. Some of the larger topics legislators had to contend with were the state budget in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, education, and economic recovery efforts.
But there were a couple of items that were approved, that could have a great impact on everyday life in the islands.
One is House Bill 1191, which could help improve internet service in the state.
It establishes the broadband and digital equity office at the department of business, economic development and tourism. This new office would be in charge of developing and implementing strategies to improve broadband service in the state — especially in rural areas that have limited or no internet connection.
The office would also oversee broadband infrastructure in schools throughout the state.
The measure also establishes a grant program to incentivize the private sector to develop the necessary infrastructure in underserved or unserved areas.
“That was quite significant,” said state broadband strategy officer, and host of HPR’s Bytemarks Cafe, Burt Lum.
“I think it’s a recognition by the legislature that it’s important to have a central clearinghouse for all things broadband and digital equity.”
Another big step the legisltaure took is approving a line item in the state budget. It allocates $10 million, in mostly federal funds, to begin work on developing facilities to house transpacific fiber optic cables.
The state depends on these underwater cables to provide internet service. But the challenge is that it takes a lot of investment to build the facilities for them to land here.
Lum says although there is still a lot of capacity on the current cables, it’s always good to have more.
“With all the new technologies that leverage digital technologies — all the applications, all the big data, all the AI machine learning — that’s going to all need more data,” he said.
“What we need to build is, not only the ability to lower the barrier to allow transpacific fiber optic cable landings here, we also need to look at how do we build diverse routes and create rings that allow redundancy and resilience.”
Lum says creating facilities to host transpacific fiber optic cables are one part of improving the state’s broadband infrastructure. He says improving internet service in the islands are just as important.
“When you are looking at building brandband infrastructure, and you want to connect the islands, it’s not just to connect the islands. It’s to continue to close the gap between rural communitites and communities of need. And we look at the interest of things like distance learning, telework, telehealth, you need to have broadband connection.”
Both the state budget and HB 1191 were passed by the state House and Senate, and are being considered by Governor David Ige for final approval.