The Digital Divide: Millions from Underserved Communities Lack Access to Broadband, But in Hawai’i Things Are Changing

RiSE, Technology

“… for today’s economy to work for everyone, Internet access is just as important as electricity was, or water, or other basic services… High-speed internet isn’t a luxury anymore; it has become an absolute necessity.”

– President Joe Biden in an announcement on Broadband Investments.

When the global pandemic hit in 2020, it triggered an unprecedented shift to digital living practically overnight, as stay-at-home, and work-from-home mandates took effect. Education, public spaces, and many workplaces abruptly closed, prompting a rapid digital shift across industries as businesses and organizations struggled to continue providing their services and connecting people remotely. This rapid shift exposed how broadband accessibility in Hawai’i and many other areas across the U.S. still has a long way to go to connect all. The disparity in digital access has come to be called the digital divide.

The term “digital divide” refers to the gap between those with broadband access and those without—either because broadband is unavailable in an area or because the cost is prohibitive for a group or region. Bridging the digital divide by expanding broadband access to all has the potential to drive significant innovation and economic growth.

To discuss the digital realm and its benefits, it’s imperative to understand broadband. The cornerstone of modern communication, broadband has become an essential part of daily life. It enables high-speed data transmission using a range of frequencies, or in simpler terms, provides high-speed internet via Wi-Fi, DSLs, fiber, and satellites, facilitating online activities and networking.

Broadband connectivity transcends geographical barriers and provides access to information, vital services such as online learning tools, government resources, telehealth, remote work and job opportunities, and communication tools to connect with individuals around the globe. Yet, despite its significance, nearly one in ten households in Hawai’i lack broadband connectivity, perpetuating inequality and hindering economic progress.

Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have declared broadband service expansion and adoption in America as a critical issue for this generation. Ensuring that the internet remains a driving force for ongoing innovation and economic growth is paramount.

In Hawai’i, roughly 44,198 households do not have internet access, and the lack of high-speed broadband disproportionately affects rural areas, marginalized communities, low-income individuals, and those with limited educational opportunities. Households earning less than $75,000 annually and individuals with lower levels of education are far less likely to have broadband internet subscriptions. Native Hawaiians, in particular, face significant challenges, with more than 1 in 3 (34% of Native Hawaiians) reporting insufficient access to digital services.

The disparity in broadband access creates a perpetuating cycle of disadvantage, further limiting the economic opportunities that broadband connectivity can provide. Individuals without broadband face difficulties in accessing high-paying jobs, as most postings and applications are completed online. This leads to lower average incomes, making it difficult for households to afford internet subscriptions. For students, the lack of access to online learning may be detrimental to their success, as studies have shown that access to broadband correlates with higher grades and homework completion.

The complete shift to remote learning during the pandemic also amplified the disparities in educational outcomes, with disadvantaged students falling behind their peers by up to 2 academic years due to the lack of online resources.

To address the digital divide, the state of Hawai’i has launched ‘Connect Kakou,’ a comprehensive initiative aimed at ensuring all Hawai’i’s residents can have reliable and affordable high-speed internet access. With an investment of over $320 million over the next five years, Hawai’i is launching a massive effort to build critical broadband infrastructure statewide. Hawai’i’s initiative is boosted and supported by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by the Biden administration, where $65 Billion will be invested to provide every American the opportunity to have broadband. This investment will not only expand access to high-speed internet but also stimulate economic growth, innovation, and equality across the state.

Oceanit is working with Hawai’i’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) and the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) to expand broadband access to all residents across Hawaii’s islands. In collaboration with many State and Federal entities, Oceanit’s focus will be to bring high-speed internet infrastructure to Native Hawaiian communities residing on Hawaiian Home Lands – who are among the most disadvantaged in the state.

Hawaiian Home Lands are public lands designated for individuals of at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian ancestry, established through the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA) of 1920. DHHL is responsible for administering and managing 192,500 acres of land trust intended for Native Hawaiian housing, farming, and ranching. However, much of the land still lacks essential modern infrastructure such as roads, waterlines, and broadband connectivity. In addition, limited existing broadband services for the nearly 10,000 homesteads have also faced reliability issues.

Oceanit will work with DHHL to improve the quality of life for both current and future Native Hawaiian residents on Hawaiian Home Lands by expanding and improving reliable broadband reach and providing digital literacy training through Community Anchor Institutions. Oceanit’s DHHL partnership commenced in March 2024.

The journey to universal broadband will directly benefit people and businesses in Hawai’i. Many stakeholders will be involved in the deployment of new and far-reaching broadband infrastructure, including groups focused on materials, manufacturing, construction, engineering, service providers, and more.

Reliable broadband infrastructure will facilitate innovation and entrepreneurship in the Islands, driving economic diversification beyond the current tourism-reliant economy. Tourism is Hawai’i’s largest single revenue source; however, the sector is slowly declining as our state GDP lags well behind the national average. By increasing broadband connectivity, Hawai’i can unlock new opportunities for remote working, attract high-wage jobs like tech jobs, and revitalize rural communities.

According to the World Bank, a 10% increase in broadband penetration can lead to a 1.2% boost in GDP growth in developed economies, highlighting the transformative potential of broadband expansion for Hawai’i’s future prosperity.

Ensuring broadband equality is essential for fostering innovation, equality, and economic growth in Hawai’i. By investing in broadband infrastructure and expanding access to high-speed internet, Hawai’i can create a more inclusive and prosperous future for all residents.