When a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
In the case of a Waikoloa cable outage on a Sunday evening last September, the silence was deafening.
A tree branch rubbing through a fiber-optic cable exposed a problem that has ramifications throughout the island.
In Kailua-Kona, the Internet went down, leaving shoppers unable to use debit and credit cards at local stores. Cellphones wouldn’t work along a 97-mile swath from Waikoloa to Pahala.
Neither cellphones nor landlines worked in Pahala, where Fire Department employees traveled from Pahala Hospital to the Ka‘u Police Station to tap into the police radio system to find out what was going on.
That Monday morning, Fire Department volunteers were enlisted to patrol the area and police officers were stationed at every school in Ka‘u to provide radio contact in case a student was injured or became ill.
The outage lasted almost 20 hours, as Hawaiian Telcom workers had to hike with their equipment half a mile into the Waikoloa forest to repair the break.
How could a simple cable break in Waikoloa cause such a massive outage?
The problem, according to a Dec. 20 report by the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, is the Big Island’s fiber “ring” isn’t actually a ring. Instead, it’s more like a slightly upside-down letter “C,” with a 22-mile gap from Volcano to Pahala.
There have long been complaints on the island, particularly from the Puna district, about slow Internet speeds and spotty cellphone service. But the problem goes beyond not being able to check a Facebook page. As the September incident showed, the county’s very security and civil defense depends on fast, reliable communication.
“It was just amazing that nothing happened during that outage,” county Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira said.
If there had been a major emergency, first responders would have been hard-pressed to handle it and alert the public because of the lack of communication channels.
There are three major government fiber networks semi-circling the island. The networks primarily piggyback on cable segments provided by Oceanic Time Warner Cable and Hawaiian Telcom. The state operates one, the county operates one and there is a separate one in some of the areas operated by the University of Hawaii to connect schools and libraries, according to the report.
In addition, the county Police Department has a hybrid microwave system filling in some of the gaps, strictly for first responders’ use, as it works to upgrade its existing radio system with a $30 million project to bring its service up to federal requirements.
The problem is, however, there hasn’t been enough demand for broadband and high-speed Internet in many of the remote areas of the county. Private-sector service providers would have to rely on government subsidies to afford to get the projects completed.
The state DCCA in its report estimates closing the gap in the fiber-optic ring could cost $6 million.
The report recommends a collaboration of state and county government, along with private-sector providers, to complete the system with fiber-optic cabling, so the system would be easier to maintain, increase broadband speed and provide redundancy in an emergency.
In addition to providing communication security to the island, building capacity would benefit underserved communities near the gap, such as Volcano Village, Pahala, Naalehu and the area between Keaau and Pahoa, the report says.
Hawaiian Telcom previously sought federal grants to run cable through that area to close the Volcano-Pahala gap, but its request was not approved, said spokeswoman Ann Nishida Fry in an email. She said one of the biggest problems would be the environmental challenge of installing utility poles in the lava rock terrain in an area spanning Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
“The report contains a number of proposed solutions, each with its own unique challenges,” Fry said. “A long-term solution is estimated to cost millions and requires collaboration among multiple government, state and private entities. … We look forward to working with all parties on a solution.”
Officials with Oceanic Time Warner Cable could not be reached for comment.
The subsidies are necessary, said Kailua-Kona resident Aaron Stene, a concerned technology user who studied the island’s cable issues extensively, because the sparse populations in most areas off Hawaii’s beaten path don’t justify the capital expenditures required. Sandwich Isles Communications Inc. is an example of a company that relies on subsidies to install broadband on Hawaiian Home Lands, Stene noted.
“There isn’t the same return on investment here because the population is so much smaller,” Stene said.
The DCCA, relying on a federal grant, in 2010 began gathering data on the availability and speed of broadband throughout the state. It’s collecting broadband speeds by having individuals log onto a website, hibroadbandmap.org/speed-test, to learn what their download and upload speeds are and help identify gaps. The DCCA, working with University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center, is creating publicly available broadband speed maps on its website.
Questions about Hawaii Island’s broadband problems are sure to come up Friday, when Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, the former state chief information officer and now chief advisor on technology and cybersecurity to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, addresses the Big Island Press Club at its annual dinner.
DCCA’s Cable Television Administrator Catherine Awakuni is in charge of the state broadband program. Her office began working with the private sector to determine how to address the problem on the Big Island.
Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi said he and his staff are staying involved as well.
“We’re very interested in building our partnerships,” Kenoi said.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.