Aloha Spirit Inspires Hawai'i Digital Equity Plan

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, October 20, 2023

Weekly Digest

Aloha Spirit Inspires Hawai'i Digital Equity Plan

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of October 16-20, 2023

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.

Grace Tepper


He wa'a he moku, he moku he wa'a.
The canoe is an island, the island is a canoe.
—Native Hawaiian Proverb

The ʻŌlelo Noʻeau (Native Hawaiian proverb) above, which introduces Hawai'i's draft Digital Equity Plan, speaks to Hawai'i's dependence on the finite resources on an island, the state residents' dependence on one another, and their interconnectedness with everything around them. On a waʻa (canoe), everyone operates together and in sync with one another, with a heightened awareness of the resources on board and the kuleana (responsibility/privilege) of each member on the team to ensure everyone is cared for to bring their best selves forward. The preparation for a long voyage is a tedious and intentional process where every detail, from resources to navigation, are intricately planned.

The State of Hawaiʻi has been actively engaged in the work of closing the digital divide since the formation of the Hawaiʻi Broadband Task Force in 2007. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 revealed and deepened the digital divide experienced by communities throughout Hawaiʻi that were already vulnerable to inequalities and hardships. The Hawaiʻi Broadband Hui (BBHui) and Digital Equity Declaration were birthed in 2020 in response to the digital inequities revealed and exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Lahaina wildfires of August 2023 created another emergency that unearthed the digital challenges of Maui communities. Although there were a multitude of community members and organizations that stepped up to address some of the technical challenges, the event shined a light on gaps in services and deeply rooted needs that prevail throughout the islands. Members of the community, who had just faced intense trauma, were severed for days—if not weeks—from communication that could connect them to vital information, services, and even the search for their loved ones, deepening the trauma of the event.

Over the past year, the State of Hawaiʻi Broadband and Digital Equity Office (HBDEO), under the leadership of the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT), and in collaboration with a team of community-based consultants, has engaged directly with a wide range of populations that face digital inequity across the islands. With more than 480 participants engaged during the primary data collection phase of this plan, 51 interviews, and 37 focus groups with members of covered populations across Hawaiʻi, the Digital Equity Plan seeks to center the voices of Hawaiʻi’s diverse community. This deeply rooted outreach into Hawaiʻi’s digital divide lays the foundation for a collective movement towards a digitally equitable future for all kamaʻāina (residents), particularly those in marginalized communities and underserved households.

The state's draft Digital Equity Plan is the first step in what HBDEO believes will be a unique voyage for Hawaiʻi. Together, Hawai'i residents will embark on a journey to bridge the digital divide and steer Hawaiʻi into a future where digital equity is achieved and all of those who call Hawaiʻi home will have access to the devices, connection, and skills that they need to succeed into the digital future.

Hawai'i's Vision of Digital Equity

Hawai'i's vision for digital equity is:

All who call Hawai'i home have the confidence, ability, and pathways to thrive in the digital world.

The vision of the Digital Equity Plan for Hawaiʻi is the overarching guide that steers the direction of all strategies, objectives, and actions in the state's plan. As remote work, online learning, telehealth services, and virtual interactions became essential, individuals and communities faced immense obstacles in getting digitally connected. These challenges will continue without high-quality Internet access, adequate tools, and the necessary digital literacy skills. The impact of digital inequity extends across various sectors and geographic regions in Hawaiʻi—economy, workforce, education, healthcare, essential services, familial care, and civic and social engagement. Access to affordable, high-speed Internet, connected devices, digital literacy training, and support programs for communities will empower Hawaiʻi’s residents and create a more equitable and prosperous future.

The Hawai'i digital equity plan's mission statement is to design and enable systems that perpetually empower our people through access to digital resources.

The world will turn to Hawai'i as they search for world peace because Hawai'i has the key...and that key is Aloha!

                                                                                                                                              –– Aunty Pilahi Paki

Aunty Pilahi Paki, in sharing the ALOHA acronym, represents the core values in the Native Hawaiian culture and illustrates the overarching values for the Digital Equity Plan. Aloha guides all of HBDEO's work to engage with compassion, respect, and appreciation for one another and carry out its responsibilities to create a more equitable community. This Native Hawaiian concept is so deeply ingrained into the way of life in Hawaiʻi that it is enshrined as the Aloha Spirit Law [Hawaiʻi Revised Statute §5-7.5].

Guided by the value of aloha, HBDEO believes that the Digital Equity Plan realizes the spirit of this value through inclusivity for each of our neighbors, family, friends, and community members in providing equitable access to devices, broadband, and digital literacy skills for everyone that calls Hawaiʻi home. Hawai'ian communities seek to create a culture of kuleana (responsibility/privilege) inspired by the aloha spirit, where they respect uniqueness, mālama (care for) each other, treat one another with dignity, and work towards an equitable future for our next seven generations. The deeply rooted people of Hawai'i have developed a cultural respect that has been built over generations of interconnected communities that have worked together to thrive in these islands they call home. HBDEO's Digital Equity Plan uses the value of aloha to provide a foundation for all of its recommended strategies, objectives, and actions, which seek to set the pathway for the voyage toward a digitally equitable future.

Overarching Barriers to Digital Equity

As of 2021, 54,000 (11.3%) of households in Hawaiʻi did not have a broadband subscription, and 20.8 percent of the population did not use the Internet. To understand the digital landscape of Hawaiʻi, it is important to first understand the geographic, cultural, and social landscape of the state. While the pae ʻāina (islands that comprise Hawaiʻi) includes 137 islands across the archipelago, the population of 1.45 million people is primarily scattered unevenly across seven of them: Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island. Individual island populations range from a few thousand to one million, each composed of a unique mixture of cultures, community networks, available resources, and socioeconomic characteristics.

Some individuals do not see the relevance of digital devices and connectivity in their day-to-day life. They have survived without Zoom or creating an Excel spreadsheet, and are skeptical that having these skills would tangibly benefit their lives. Residents already working two to three jobs find it nearly impossible to find time to learn new skills outside of work and life demands, even if they know those skills may lead to better job opportunities. For seniors who may have spent decades working in industries that didn’t require—much less encourage—these skills to develop, digital skills remain an unknown frontier better left to their kids or grandkids. Additionally, a reality for some of those in rural communities, especially some kūpuna, veterans, and Native Hawaiian homesteaders choose a more rural lifestyle for the very purpose of being more disconnected.

Lack of integration of digital literacy skills along with other existing programs and services means that residents must not only express interest in digital literacy but digital literacy alone. It decreases participation as residents balance many different topics, resources, and needs in addition to their daily work and life obligations.

Pressures such as generational trauma, chronic hardships, and negative experiences with public agencies generate emotional barriers such as fear, shame, distrust, insecurity, and a lack of confidence among individuals from covered populations. These emotions are strong enough to inhibit individuals from seeking any kind of help as they may not trust the offer, they may not feel worthy of support, or they may be quick to give up upon encountering any obstacle or barrier. Frustration with the time it takes to learn how to use computers or devices can erode self-confidence and deter individuals from continuing to achieve digital literacy.

Working adults, parents, and grandparents spoke of the need to balance the time spent online on devices with outdoor activities, person-to-person interaction, hands-on activities, and experiential learning. Various focus group participants raised the point that there are generational differences in perspectives on acceptable tradeoffs. While young adults have been quick to adopt digital technologies, older generations are wary of the impacts of a heavy reliance on technology. There is concern that a growing reliance and emphasis on digital devices and Internet access will be detrimental to interpersonal relationships, relationships with the natural world, cultural traditions, and children’s social-emotional development.

Transportation is a major barrier for covered populations on all islands that inhibits residents from accessing digital equity services and resources. Kūpuna, disabled individuals, and veterans particularly highlighted this challenge, as some were physically unable to drive themselves from place to place, relying upon family members or services if they were unable to walk to their destination. Locating resources where these community members are already gathering is particularly important. Some immigrants are unable to obtain a driver’s license.

There are residents on every island from every covered population who live off-grid in remote, rural areas. Some choose this lifestyle for the isolation and escape from urban life, while others do so for economic reasons, and some are Native Hawaiians who are living on homestead lands. Some fall into all three categories. Those who live off-grid commonly use solar- or gas-powered generators to support bare essentials like food refrigeration, water pumps, heaters, and lighting. Maintaining these functions is especially critical for parents who can lose their children to Child Protective Services if their homes are found to have inadequate refrigeration for food. Consequently, computers, smartphones, and Internet connections—all of which require electricity—are luxuries that are difficult to accommodate in off-grid households.

Highly vulnerable populations such as immigrants, post-incarcerated individuals, victims of domestic violence, houseless individuals, and victims of human trafficking sometimes come into shelters or transitional homes with no ID, no Social Security number, no birth certificate, nor any means to obtain them. Without these official documents they cannot apply for a phone or a plan, social services, gain employment, access benefits, or take advantage of programs such as the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

There are shortcomings in public outreach that result in a lack of awareness among both service providers and individuals about the programs that are available to assist with affordability, access to devices, Internet access, and digital literacy. As an example, many focus group participants had not heard about the ACP benefits despite being eligible. Case managers are not always made aware of all the resources available to their clients, in part due to silos between public agencies that inhibit comprehensive, collaborative support for the people they serve. Opportunities advertised on websites and social media rarely reach those who do not have access to connected devices. Opportunities advertised only in English do not reach non-English speakers or readers; those formatted without accessibility text do not reach certain individuals with disabilities. Messaging that is not attuned to the cultural intricacies and lived experiences of minorities, immigrants, and veterans does not provide the welcoming space necessary to bring these individuals into the fold.

Bureaucratic roadblocks and the lack of a customer-service mindset in certain public-facing agencies leads to frustrations among individuals that lead them to abandon the pursuit of benefits. A Vietnam War veteran had to document that he was in combat in order to qualify for benefits from Veterans Affairs; a quadriplegic individual had to prove he was seeking employment or schooling in order to obtain a laptop from Vocational Rehabilitation; a mother pushed for four years to obtain an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device from the Department of Education for her non-verbal, autistic child. While these individuals eventually garnered the resources they desperately sought, it was solely through their unwavering persistence and not through the support of the agencies involved. They all shared that most of their peers either give up on receiving assistance altogether or settle for lower levels of support.

Covered Populations in Hawai'i

There is immense overlap between Hawaiʻi’s covered populations. Some remote and rural places like Hāna on Maui, Waiʻanae on Oʻahu, and the island of Molokaʻi are home to deeply rooted Native Hawaiian communities. As a result of historic pineapple plantation activity, the island of Lānaʻi is home to a strong Filipino community. Meanwhile, the remote Ocean View community on Hawaiʻi Island is home to a diverse mix of impoverished, non-English speaking Micronesian and Marshallese immigrants interspersed with aging Caucasian retirees from places like Alaska and Silicon Valley who have ample financial reserves.

Low-Income Households

According to the 2022 American Community Survey (ACS) data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 17 percent of Hawaiʻi residents live in low-income households, with percentages varying across the counties. HBDEO notes that the statewide total has grown over the past few years, with the 2015-2019 5-year ACS data showing 14 percent of Hawaiʻi residents within covered households. In both data sets, Hawaiʻi County has the highest incidence with over one-fifth of the population living in low-income households.

Given that the cost of living in Hawaiʻi is the highest in the nation, HBDEO acknowledges the large number of households across the state that are not low-income but experience economic challenges. Over 40 percent of households across the state are ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) or in Poverty. Maui County exhibits the highest rate of households under financial strain with nearly 50 percent ALICE or in Poverty.

Kūpuna (Aging Individuals)

Seniors aged 60 years and older represent nearly one-quarter (24.9%) of Hawaiʻi’s population. Although the island of Oʻahu is home to the largest number of seniors, Hawaiʻi Island has the highest number per capita. Living situations vary among multigenerational households, senior living facilities, and individuals or couples aging alone in place.

Incarcerated Individuals

There are eight non-federal correctional centers and facilities distributed across the islands, with four located on Oʻahu, two on Hawaiʻi Island, and one each on Kauaʻi and Maui. The sole women-only facility in the state is located on Oʻahu. According to data gathered by the Prison Policy Initiative, at least 15,000 individuals are booked into the prison system each year in Hawaiʻi. At any given time, approximately 5,100 residents are incarcerated: approximately 4,100 in state prisons, 130 in involuntary confinement, 60 in juvenile detention, and 840 in federal prison, 17,000 people on probation, and 1,300 on parole.

Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in the incarcerated population. Estimates range from 25 to 40 percent depending on how race and ethnicity data is collected, by whom, and for what purpose. Each year, approximately 1,654 individuals are released, including approximately 141 women (not counting sentencing terms of less than one year). There are unique challenges for women coming out of incarceration; “Most incarcerated women are mothers, and are frequently the primary caretakers of their children,” according to HBDEO.


Veterans comprise approximately 8.8 percent of the state population. This is higher than the national average of 6.4 percent of the adult population being veterans. There is considerable overlap between veterans and other covered populations in Hawaiʻi. Over 50 percent of Hawaiʻi’s veterans are seniors. Over 20 percent of Hawaiʻi’s veterans have household incomes less than $50,000, and 5.7 percent live in poverty. As of 2020, 30,380 Hawaiʻi veterans (31%) were receiving disability compensation.

Individuals with Disabilities

Hawaiʻi’s statewide disability rate is 11.3 percent. According to data compiled by the Cornell University Disability Statistics Online Resource, types of disabilities across the state include: visual (24,900 people, 1.8% of state population); hearing (55,500 people, 4%); ambulatory (80,000 people 6.1%); cognitive (55,900 people, 4.2%); self-care (29,800 people, 2.3%); and independent living (65,700 people, 5.7%). Of those with a disability statewide, 53.6 percent are over the age of 65 years old.

Individuals with a Language Barrier

Individuals with a language barrier include those individuals who speak a language other than English at home and have low levels of literacy. A significant portion of individuals in Hawaiʻi who have a language barrier are foreign-born. Of the 268,995 foreign-born individuals over five years old residing in Hawai‘i as of 2021, nearly 50 percent or 107,598 individuals did not speak English “very well”. Over 25 languages other than English are spoken within households in Hawai‘i. The top languages spoken in Hawai'i other than English include Tagalog, Ilocano, Japanese, Spanish, Hawaiian, and Chinese.

Racial or Ethnic Minority Groups

For the purposes of Hawai'i's Digital Equity Plan, minorities are defined as individuals who identify as a race other than White alone. Hawaiʻi is known the world over as a melting pot of cultures, and the data shows that a clear majority of Hawaiʻi residents—over 77 percent—belong to ethnic minorities. Native Hawaiians are considered to be a minority group with unique challenges, barriers, and assets that are sometimes distinct from other ethnic minorities.

Immigrants are a unique subset of ethnic minorities. Hawai‘i has one of the highest ratios of immigrant and migrant populations in the country, with 18 percent of the state being foreign-born. According to a 2021 study by New American Economy, immigrants and migrants accounted for nearly 40 percent of agricultural workers, and 33 percent of workers in the tourism, entertainment, and hospitality industry. Additionally, immigrant workers, especially Filipinas, are overrepresented in hotel and housekeeping services accounting for 68 percent of total workers. Immigrants are also present in the healthcare sector, representing nearly 50 percent of all nursing assistants and one in five physicians. These immigrant and migrant workers contributed $874 million dollars to state and local taxes.

Residents of Rural Areas

For the purposes of this plan, rural areas are defined as towns with less than 50,000 residents and not any urbanized area next to a town with 50,000 or more residents. As such, most of Hawaiʻi’s island communities are classified as rural. The main exception is the urban metropolis of Honolulu on Oʻahu. Honolulu is Hawaiʻi’s only incorporated municipality and the 56th largest city in the United States with nearly one million residents. However, even on the highly populated island of Oʻahu (Honolulu County), remote communities like Kahuku and Waiʻanae on the windward and leeward coasts are classified as 100 percent rural.

Implementation Plan

Strategy 1: Inspire and welcome all residents to become lifelong digital learners


  • Establish and implement a communications campaign for covered populations to improve perceptions about the importance of digital literacy for their social, economic and cultural well-being.
  • Develop and implement training programs for staff of public agencies on adopting digital equity in their organizational culture and applying best practices in serving new digital learners from covered populations with compassion and empathy.

Strategy 2: Honor the diversity of our communities with inclusive and accessible online resources


  • Develop comprehensive policies and regulations that address issues such as net neutrality, affordable access, and fair competition.
  • Develop and institute digital equity best practices for accessibility and inclusivity into online interfaces with an emphasis on mobile enabling and mobile integration for the following entities: State and County departments, service providers, community organizations, and others that provide services to members of covered populations throughout Hawai'i.
  • Integrate digital equity assets as identified in the Digital Asset Inventory into Aloha United Way 211 Helpline to make them accessible for the public.
  • Advocate for expanded access and improvements to telehealth services as a health care solution.

Strategy 3: Make devices safe, affordable, and available for all covered populations


  • Increase access to affordable devices with software, accessories, and affordable Internet service plans that meet the needs of individuals in Hawai'i's covered populations.
  • Establish free or low-cost Wi-Fi and community spaces equipped with computers and printers at all public housing, publicly funded affordable housing, and transitional housing projects
  • Make refurbished devices with basic software and cybersecurity protections available to covered populations as a low-cost option.
  • Allocate public resources to provide cybersecurity and online privacy measures for covered populations.
  • Establish device service hubs that can provide free or low-cost troubleshooting, repair, upgrades, and replacements of devices for remote and rural communities with concentrations of minorities and Native Hawaiians.
  • Develop programs that enable incarcerated individuals to have access to devices while incarcerated to prepare for reintegration by learning basic digital skills, obtaining necessary ID, and accessing telehealth services such as mental health treatment.

Strategy 4: Provide broadband connectivity where Hawai'i lives, works, learns, and plays


  • Expand the network and strengthen the capabilities of Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) on every island to broaden free access for residents in all covered populations.
  • Install free Wi-Fi and charging stations in public spaces with public facilities to broaden connectivity for all covered populations.
  • Establish digital resource hubs across the islands to meet residents from all covered populations where they are.
  • Collaborate with Hawai'i's business community and nonprofit sector to facilitate broadband connectivity for employees and clients.
  • Require internet service providers and cel phone carriers to provide a basic level of service for rural and remote communities.

Strategy 5: Provide affordable lifelong digital literacy training and mentoring tailored to the needs of covered populations


  • Implement best practices for providing ongoing digital literacy training tailored to the culture, language, and other unique characteristics of covered populations.
  • Develop and expand a cadre of digital literacy trainers and instructors with cultural, language, and experiential competencies, allowing hire based on innovation and experience vs solely educational background.
  • Design and offer digital literacy training to support job seeking, entrepreneurial goals, and career pathways of covered populations.
  • Disseminate guidance and updates quarterly on privacy, safety, and cybersecurity tailored to covered populations.
  • Integrate digital literacy in K-12 schools as foundational to career paths and to create cadres of students to serve in digital navigator programs, digital literacy training, and community-based digital hubs.
  • Collaborate with the Department of Public Safety and training providers with appropriate competencies to provide digital literacy classes for incarcerated individuals to ensure preparedness upon exit.

Strategy 6: Create a community-based digital navigator program


  • Recruit and empower digital navigators from within covered populations or who understand the unique challenges faced by covered populations.
  • Build capacity among public agencies, nonprofits, and community groups across the state for existing or new staff to serve as digital navigators who are equipped to address the unique digital needs of covered populations.
  • Establish a Digital Navigator Jui to foster networking, partnerships, lessons learned, and the sharing of resources between digital navigators that serve covered populations across Hawai'i.
  • Secure funding to establish and sustain a statewide digital navigator program to tailor support to the individual needs of covered populations.

Strategy 7: Strengthen disaster response capabilities and community resiliency through broadband


  • Establish and annually update best practices framework for digital equity in community resilience with a team that includes: island-based, collaborative planning teams from public, private, and nonprofit sectors.
  • Incorporate digital equity emergency response/hazard mitigation checklists to address the preparedness, response, and recovery needs of covered populations in Emergency Support Functions (ESF), the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, the Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), and all hazards mitigation planning.

Strategy 8: Prioritize funding and investment policies that advance digital equity


  • Invest in scaling and capacity building of existing effective programs and models, including those identified in the asset inventory, and new promising concepts that enhance the digital equity ecosystem.
  • Establish and maintain multi-agency capability and strategy to pursue federal resources that support digital equity.

Strategy 9: Integrate evaluation and data collection throughout implementation to measure progress and inform strategy development


  • Invest in qualitative and quantitative tracking studies by organizations with deep experience in Hawai'i that measure overall statewide progress on digital equity objectives and goals.
  • Develop shared tools for grantees to track outputs and facilitate data analysis to inform future improvements.
  • Conduct an annual review of the State's Digital Equity Implementation Plan using data from the two preceding Objectives to improve each of the other Objectives.

Hawai'i Wants to Hear From You

Once final, the Hawai'i Digital Equity Plan will serve as a roadmap to achieve a baseline of digital equity across the islands over the next five years. Public comments on the state's draft plan can be submitted here or by mail until October 31, 2023. For the HBDEO mailing address and more information on Hawai'i's digital equity initiatives, visit the HBDEO website.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Oct 20––2023 USTelecom Broadband Investment Forum (USTelecom)

Oct 23––Fireside Chat with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel (AARP)

Oct 24––41st Annual Everett C. Parker Lecture & Awards Breakfast (United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry)

Oct 24––The A.I. Divide: What is the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Digital Equity? (Michelson 20MM)

Oct 26––Oregon Connections: Navigating the Funding Flood. (Oregon Connections)

Oct 29––The CyberShare Summit (NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association)

Oct 30––Alerting Security Roundtable (FCC)

Oct 31––The Future of Private Networks (New America)

Nov 2-3––Michigan Broadband Summit (Merit Network)

Nov 2––Workshop on Environmental Compliance and Historic Preservation Review Procedures (FCC)

Nov 6––Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force Meeting (FCC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2023. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

For subscribe/unsubscribe info, please email headlinesATbentonDOTorg

Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

Share this edition:

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Grace Tepper.