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Internet access study to bring digital equity to Hawaiʻi's rural communities

University of Hawaii

A statewide broadband mapping initiative is underway in rural communities, aiming to produce a snapshot of internet connectivity in the islands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a new emphasis on the need for internet access for school, work, and health care. But there are still households across the state who lack access.

At the height of the pandemic, Native Hawaiian educator Brad Bennett joined other educators on the Big Island in bridging the digital divide and providing refurbished computers to students in need. But he soon realized...

"It wasn't just an issue of hardware, it was an issue of access and equity. We were distributing computers in areas where some families did not have broadband activity," Bennett said.

When Bennett went looking for a map to help him figure out which communities may need the group’s help, he found little help.

"We realized that the maps that existed were not accurate to the point of being able to tell what neighborhoods, what streets had access, what streets didn’t. We needed a little more accurate data, boots-on-the-ground data to go out and see where the internet is and where it isn’t and how we can map that," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

So Bennett founded the ‘Auamo Collaborative, a Big Island nonprofit that has taken on the task of mapping broadband connectivity and internet quality in Hawaiʻi’s rural communities.

The group is currently hiring community liaisons to conduct speed tests out in the field and go door to door to talk to families about their internet needs.

Bennett says a recent survey by Marzano Research found 34% of Native Hawaiians and 35% of non-Hawaiians experienced insufficient access to digital devices and internet connectivity.

"So our survey kind of wants to look at that and drill down as to what the reasons are for that. Because there are many reasons for the lack of connectivity. It can be infrastructure. Service providers just haven't put things out there. It can also be economic, you know some people cannot afford connectivity," Bennett said.

If they can afford connectivity, maybe they can’t afford the devices. Bennett says the pandemic helped revive the conversation around digital equity and why Hawaiʻi families need internet access.

"There’s education. There’s also access to the digital economy, there’s entrepreneurship. There’s access to government services," he said. "A really important thing especially for our kupuna population is telehealth services. So we’re trying to figure out which areas have what needs and how we can best create solutions to help them achieve what we’re calling digital equity."

The survey is available online at auamocollaborative.org.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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