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Better connectivity needed in remote Maui County

Broadband, computer training, work-from-home options part of state push to plug in residents

Standing about 5 feet to the left of a coconut tree fronting a health center in Kaunakakai helps Ka’ala Souza receive better smartphone service.

And at his home on Molokai “we have connectivity,” but “then at the gate, we no more.”

Souza, who lives most of the time on Oahu, said he experiences firsthand the digital disparities among Neighbor Islands. 

As an employment specialist with the state Workforce Development Council, Souza is among a group aiming to increase broadband connectivity and plug Hawaii residents in to new digital opportunities.

Souza was among the speakers last week at a Hawaii Economic Association talk called “Hawaii’s Changing Workplace: The Remote Ready Hawaii Pilot Program.”

Also speaking were state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism officials Burt Lum, broadband strategy officer and Scott Murakami, economic development coordinator.

Moderated by Pamela Tumpap, Maui Chamber of Commerce president, the speakers discussed how more employees are working from home because of the pandemic. They also highlighted pandemic-induced changes that create more digital opportunities, especially for unemployed residents.

Gov. David Ige during his State of the State address in January said Hawaii is dedicated to moving toward a digital economy.

In such an economy, the state can weather future disruptions, regardless of its economic engine; it doesn’t matter where workstations are located; the local workforce can compete globally; and children won’t have to move to the Mainland to get jobs, he said. 

The governor also highlighted an expansion of broadband services, particularly to rural areas, such as Hana.

Lum said last week that federal funds before the pandemic helped Hawaiian Telcom bring fiber optic infrastructure along the south route to Hana. He said they are looking to additional federal money to extend the fiber-optic technology to Keanae.

He added that bringing hard-to-reach communities online is a joint effort among the carriers, the infrastructure utilities and the communities, who express interest in getting connectivity “that they already deserve.”

Lum said he received a call from a Kula woman who said, “Hey, our internet service really sucks up here.”

He encouraged her to get testimony from her neighbors. With that, he was able to aggregate data and take it to the carriers to let them know what people are experiencing.

“The result of the pandemic has really elevated the voice of the community,” Lum said, adding that he may be contacted about broadband concerns. “And that’s what we are continuing to do is just give voice to the community.”

After getting connectivity, the next step for some residents is learning computer basics. 

“Digital Readiness,” a free three-hour class that provides fundamental computer training for people 18 and older, is being offered at University of Hawaii Maui College. Residents with little to no computer experience are encouraged to join. Participants will gain confidence using computers, connecting to the internet and communicating with email.

“If you are not sure how to even turn your computer on this class is for you,” organizers say.

The courses, provided through partnerships among state Workforce Development Council, Hawaii State Public Library System and University of Hawaii community colleges, began in early May and continue through June 22 on Maui. 

Souza on Wednesday said the classes have generated interest among a broad demographic, with many kupuna “super excited” about the program.

For information on Maui classes, call the college at 984-3231 or visit http://digitalreadyhawaii.org.

Speakers also discussed “Remote Ready Hawaii,” a pilot project that helps provide unemployed residents with the opportunity to train for remote jobs, paid remote internships and job placement help. 

The project, a collaboration among DBEDT, state and county Workforce Development councils and American Job Centers, is among other efforts to expand remote work opportunities and take initial steps to increase Hawaii’s competitiveness in the global digital economy, Mike McCartney, DBEDT director, said in a February news release.

For information on the project, visit https://instantteams.com/hawaii/.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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