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Federal grant will pave way for rural internet

Nearly $5.6 million in federal funding is designed to provide the first phase of high-speed internet access to “unserved and underserved” communities such as Native Hawaiian homesteads, Lanai and Molokai to create an “internet for all,” Gov. David Ige announced Wednesday.

“Every family deserves access to high-speed internet,” Ige said.

The funding comes from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program that was created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden. It will bring at least $2.8 billion to Hawaii for infrastructure improvements, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz announced.

The bulk of the initial money — $5 million — will go to build out the Hawaii Broadband Office, employee training, technical assistance, as well as identifying which communities should receive high-speed internet first — and when, Ige said.

But Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and administrator for the national telecommunications and information administration, said that an announcement is likely to be made in January regarding Native Hawaiian communities, but he did not specify on which islands.

Davidson repeatedly emphasized that the initial grant to Hawaii is just a “first installment,” part of the wider national effort to provide high-speed internet to unserved and underserved parts of America.

He compared high-speed internet for everyone with previous massive U.S. efforts, such as the creation of America’s highway system that led to an economic and demographic revolution.

“This is our generation’s infrastructure moment,” Davidson said.

On Molokai, the demand is high for computer literacy and internet access across all age groups and differing occupations, said Rosie Davis, executive director of Maui County Area Health Education Center on Molokai.

Better digital training and internet access can lead to more jobs on Molokai, she said.

Ka‘ala Souza, a digital literacy trainer and advocate for digital equity, estimated that 30% of Hawaii’s workforce lacks basic computer skills.

He provides training in rural communities across the islands that includes rudimentary skills such as how to open a laptop, log on and save passwords.

Even trainees who are provided refurbished laptops do not have high-speed access to take advantage of online capabilities, he said.

He returned to Oahu and saw a neighbor island trainee who was pushing his mother in a wheelchair to get to a medical exam.

When Souza asked why the son didn’t take advantage of telemedicine, the trainee said lack of an internet connection meant that he and his mother had to instead spend a total of $500 in round-trip air fares to get her checkup in person.

Souza said that in the 1800s Hawaii had the world’s highest literacy rate at 91%.

He then set a new goal of making modern-day Hawaii the state with the highest digital literacy rate in the country.