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Hawaii program demonstrates BEAD’s ability to directly impact our nation’s most vulnerable populations

A confluence of agencies working together led to free digital literacy classes and internet access in common spaces in Mayor Wright Homes. Why these classes should be funded permanently under the BEAD program.

Honolulu, Hawaii (March 18, 2022) - In a sea of less-than-encouraging news stories related to the pandemic, there is a bright spot from the broadband realm in the Aloha State. A collection of state agencies worked together to conduct free digital literacy classes in Mayor Wright Homes, a public housing residence in the Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu. But despite decisive action on the part of state agencies, it’s unclear if the funding behind this bright spot will be sustained.

Mayor Wright Homes has not always been associated with feel-good stories. In 2011, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the state on behalf of Mayor Wright residents, citing “unsafe and unsanitary conditions.” A settlement was reached in 2015, paying out $350,000 to residents and directing $4.5 million in renovations to be completed to improve the facilities.

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Tablet and computer training courtesy of Hawaii Literacy

Things have been trending upward in Mayor Wright in recent years, however, and not just with regard to basic living conditions. A year-long pilot of digital literacy classes was offered at Mayor Wright beginning in 2021. Spurred by the pandemic, Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) Executive Director Hakim Ouansafi found funding to procure business class internet service from Spectrum for a one-year pilot, providing 200 Mbps access for the common area. 

The broadband access was coupled with Chromebooks and devices from multiple partners – the State of Hawaii Library System, the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, and T-Mobile – and was coordinated by staff from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development from the Honolulu Field Office. Finally, the curriculum and design for the classes were provided by nonprofit Hawaii Literacy.  

Classes typically would take place in the Family Literacy Library at Mayor Wright, a computer lab operated by Hawaii Literacy, but due to the pandemic, they were held at the Kukui Center which is located a couple of blocks from Mayor Wright Homes and where the Hawaii Literacy office is housed.

Hawaii Literacy’s Jill Takasaki Canfield said that in the first three months of the program, nine adult learners completed the training. Program organizers hope to grow the program in the future.

The classes couldn’t come at a better time. Despite digital literacy being more important than ever due to the pandemic, OECD data reveals that one-third of U.S. workers lack digital skills, with 13 percent having no digital skills and 18 percent having, at best, limited digital skills. A Pew study conducted in 2021 had similar findings, suggesting 30 percent of adults in the U.S. had “lower tech readiness.” In a world where nearly all job applications must be done online, these data show yet again that individuals on the wrong side of the digital divide will struggle to keep up.

Affordability as a systemic problem

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Tablet and computer training courtesy of Hawaii Literacy

But what happens after the one-year pilot expires? Ben Park from HPHA replied, “I hope we’ll find some budget,” but also emphasized there are many competing factors that demand attention from a public housing authority, with inadequate money to go around. 

However, with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, there is hope that programs like these can be made permanent. The Act established six broadband programs to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the largest of which being the $42.5 billion Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. The NTIA requested public comment for input on how the rules should be implemented and received 785 public submissions, indicating a strong level of public engagement.

Providing free internet access for public housing units would go a long way to ensure programs like the one for residents at Mayor Wright Homes would be here to stay, not to mention give their residents the baseline connectivity to participate in the digital age. Data demonstrate a dire need for this. National nonprofit EducationSuperHighway estimates 61,795 households, or 69 percent of Hawaii’s digital divide, has infrastructure available but cannot afford to connect. 

This statistic is truly telling of the situation in Hawaii: nearly 7 in 10 Hawaiians who are on the wrong side of the digital divide cannot afford broadband service. This is even higher than the national number. Nationally, 64 percent of unconnected U.S. households have broadband service available but cannot afford to connect. Hawaii demonstrates the need for some part of the upcoming wave of broadband funding to cover connectivity for public housing units. 

State agencies in Hawaii have demonstrated exemplary coordination and effort in doing the legwork to establish these classes. Hopefully, NTIA will use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to complement that state infrastructure with permanent funding. 

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About the author: Jenny Miller is the Vice President, State & Industry Relations, for Connected Nation. In that role, she is responsible for leading Connected Nation’s advocacy and business development activities at the state level, focusing on the formation and execution of strategies that result in increased government and private sector support for better broadband connectivity and technology adoption.