HONOLULU (Nov. 10, 2021) — Hawaiʻi already had a significant digital divide before COVID-19 ever arrived on its shores. In 2019, according to federal Census Bureau data, nearly 12 percent of all households statewide did not have an internet subscription. Nearly 10 percent had no internet access of any kind, including a disproportionate number of senior citizens, lower income households and those living in in rural areas. In nearly all measures relating to technology, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders lagged behind the general population.
When the pandemic forced education, health care, government services, and many other facets of daily life to migrate online, the divide became a chasm. Those who lacked access to computers, internet or smart phones—or the skill sets to use them effectively—were rapidly being left behind.
This situation mirrored national trends. The November 2020 Benton Institute for Broadband & Society report Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond, for example, cited research showing that Black and Hispanic adults remain less likely to say they own a computer or have high-speed internet at home, and that Native American tribal lands are the least connected areas in the country.
Among the challenges made starkly visible was equitable education for students, whose 2020 spring break unexpectedly turned into a yearlong-plus shift to online learning. “A lot of assumptions about supporting students were built around them all having internet access,” said David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of the Oʻahu-based nonprofit Hawaiʻi Kids Can. “Schools may have had Chromebooks to loan, but not all families had internet access, or perhaps were sharing one cell phone hotspot with multiple people in the home. And when people are losing jobs, internet becomes a luxury.”
To help with connectivity, Hawaiʻi Kids Can picked up on programs that had already rolled out in South Carolina and Texas: WIFI on Wheels, which uses buses and vans to provide free, mobile wifi on a set schedule—typically the weekday hours when area schools are in session. The Hawaiʻi initiative now operates at eleven sites on four islands; since its launch, more than 800 students and community members have accessed the program’s services.