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Bridging the digital divide: Kimball promotes broadband infrastructure

A resolution urging the county get on the broadband-wagon will be considered Wednesday by the County Council as the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates to state and local officials how important digital connectivity is when face-to-face just isn’t possible.

Resolution 43, which asks for certain actions from the council and administration, is nonbinding, but Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball sees it as a unifying show of support on a critical issue. It’s the freshman councilwoman’s first major piece of legislation.

“I think there is going to be broad support for this within the administration,” Kimball said. “I’ve heard from people in my district. It’s an important issue for my constituents and hopefully that will be true across the county.”

Several county administration officials are part of a statewide broadband hui that’s advocating increased inter-connectivity.

Doug Adams, director of the county Department of Research and Development, said the county is “very excited” about the possibility of federal funding to install broadband infrastructure along state roadways.

“It’s hugely important, it’s hugely important not just for the COVID recovery but our post-COVID economic recovery,” Adams said. “We’re looking for any opportunities that we can find to bring broadband access to our communities that don’t have it.”

The resolution requests that the county adopt the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s broadband strategic plan and create an implementation plan that advances public and private initiatives to ensure equitable access to internet services. It also urges the county to sign on to the digital equity declaration drafted by the broadband hui and to support certain bills in the state Legislature that, among other actions, create a state grant program to help pay for infrastructure and push for broadband access in schools and public housing.

Aaron Stene, a Kona resident who closely follows digital issues, was pleased with the resolution, and he pointed to the bills named within it that establish a state grant.

“I believe that’s a good step forward to fill in the gaps that the federal programs don’t cover,” Stene said. “I think this is an excellent step forward.”

Digital inequity, often called the “digital divide,” hits home for the Big Island, which has the greatest disparity of households in the state without internet access. In some census blocks, as many as two-thirds of households have no internet access, the resolution states.

Digital equity is not just about geographic barriers, but also economic barriers, Kimball said.

“It’s a social justice issue as well as an economic justice issue,” she said.

Gov. David Ige made broadband connectivity a crucial component of his economic revitalization plan discussed in his Jan. 27 State of the State address. He said he’s directed the state Department of Transportation to accelerate a pilot project to connect rural communities to broadband service.

Big Island communities on the state’s priority list are Ka‘u and Puna.

“A critical part of re-programming our economy is the creation of a healthy statewide broadband network,” Ige said in a statement. “During the pandemic, the importance of broadband to everything that we do was made all too real. All of us dramatically increased online activities, such as online learning, telework, telehealth, and workforce training.”

Commercial communications providers are also getting into the act. Charter Communications, better known under its brand name Spectrum, is working to close a gap in the island’s broadband loop that’s sometimes interfered with reliable service. Installation of the final 10 miles of fiber-optic cable through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was to have begun Feb. 1 and continue through May. Hawaiian Telcom, a Cincinnati Bell subsidiary, recently announced it’s been awarded $24 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity fund to bring fiber broadband to more than 8,000 by the end of 2027. The company, established in Honolulu in 1883, has invested more than $500 million in expanding its statewide fiber network since 2010, the company said in a press release.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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