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Internet Access Central to Hawaii Digital Equity Plan

The state’s new Digital Equity Plan highlights goals and strategies to provide IT capabilities to all individuals and communities. It’s now being reviewed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

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(TNS) — A plan aiming to ensure universal Internet access and reduce the “digital divide” in Hawaii is now undergoing federal review by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which would provide funding to the state for community programs and projects dedicated to improving digital equity.

The 293-page Digital Equity Plan, developed by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and the Hawaii Broadband and Digital Equity Office (HBDEO), outlines goals and strategies the state can take toward delivering information technology capabilities to all individuals and communities statewide, in order to grant them economic mobility and access to essential services.

Chung Chang, HBDEO’s strategic broadband coordinator, said he saw the digital divide firsthand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when daily life transitioned to a virtual format, with remote work and virtual learning.

Chang said that while he worked in a hybrid telework schedule, his then-high school-aged children attended school remotely.

“My kids were lucky enough where they each had their computer and their desk, and we had pretty decent broadband access, but they had stories of their peers that didn’t,” he said. “I started hearing about these stories about kids having to borrow devices and having to go down to McDonald’s for Internet access.”

Chang said the newly published plan will focus on “covered populations,” a term that refers to populations that face a digital disadvantage, such as those living in rural areas or low-income households, aging populations, or those with disabilities.

“We want those kids and those residents to have access just like we typically need to be normal participants in this digital world that we live in,” Chang said.

The Digital Equity Plan serves as a “navigational tool” for the state to begin implementing community-specific programs. Different communities require different projects, such as kupuna who want basic access to email or Internet browsing, versus office workers who need Internet access for teleworking.

“We’re going to work with the communities to identify what really is needed for the community, and then help shape that program or project and see if we can find a way to fund those projects,” Chang said. “There’ll be a little bit of that kind of identifying or matchmaking of skills with the appropriate covered population. Our goal is to try to help identify that, and come up with a plan to address those needs.”

In the plan, Chang is prioritizing three “low-hanging fruits” over the next three or four years : providing digital devices to those in need, expanding the capability of telehealth services in rural areas, and working with hubs that already service neighborhoods, such as food distribution centers and social organizations, to expand digital services into their communities.

“If we can’t address (digital equity ) individually, we can address it at a community level where we will have a wider reach,” he said. “These three things, I want to see happen within the next three to four years. They’re pretty aggressive, but I want to see these things happen. That's my goal.”

Created under a bill signed into law by Gov. David Ige in 2021, HBDEO’s mission is to support the deployment of high speed Internet access in Hawaii and work toward statewide digital equity.

HBDEO began work on the Digital Equity Plan in April 2023. It published an initial draft of its plan at the end of September 2023 after data collection, as well as public outreach efforts to gather input on expanding Internet access to underserved communities. Over 480 participants in 39 focus groups and 59 interviews statewide gave feedback to HBDEO’s first draft.

“What this plan does is it formalizes and brings structure to what we're doing,” Chang said. “It allows us to prioritize what we should work on, and by identifying what the communities around the state need, it really does bring focus to our work.”

The plan’s creation is part of a nationwide initiative to implement digital equity plans in every U.S. state and territory, with NTIA allocating federal funding to each state.

If approved, HBDEO will receive the federal funding—about $13 million—around September, which will be used on projects outlined in the newly published plan over the next five to seven years.

While it hasn’t been decided how exactly the money will be allocated, Chang said part of the funding will go toward purchasing devices for covered populations, as well as paying for actual programs being implemented directly into various communities statewide.

“I’m super excited. My team here is super excited about the work that’s ahead of us,” Chang said. “This is the next five to seven years of work that we can do. Some of it’s foundational, it could be innovative. It's wide-reaching and has a high impact for the communities.”

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