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Virginia company boosts isles' broadband access

By Erika Engle

LAST UPDATED: 2:16 a.m. HST, Feb 9, 2011

One of two companies with federal grants to get broadband Internet access to unserved households is reaching out specifically to people in Hawaii and Alaska.

Virginia-based Spacenet and Maryland-based Hughes Network Systems LLC have received stimulus-funded grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service to provide previously unavailable broadband Internet service to areas not served by other providers. While HughesNet got a grant to service all 50 states, Spacenet specifically targeted states No. 49 and 50.

"Our goal is to provide StarBand Internet to thousands of consumers in Alaska and Hawaii that currently lack access to alternate options," said Andreas Georghiou, Spacenet chief executive officer. "We are actively pursuing outreach efforts to make these communities aware that they are no longer restricted by some of the previous challenges of accessing high-speed Internet, including high upfront costs."

Spacenet received a $7.5 million grant, which is funding its StarBand Open Skies program. "We feel that the stimulus money that has been awarded to us will serve about 800 residents" in Hawaii, said Anne Evans, director of sales operations. "We think that's only a very small percentage of residents that don't have broadband today."

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Eligible applicants who do not have access to high-speed Internet service via a cable, telephone or Wi-Fi service provider can get StarBand Open Skies equipment and standard installation at no upfront cost. For entry-level service, customers will then pay $50 a month.

"I am a bit of a crusader — I think that every person in America should have access to broadband," Evans said.

A plurality of, if not most, Hawaii residents do have access to broadband Internet service via several companies, such as Oceanic Time Warner Cable, Hawaiian Telcom and, on Hawaiian homelands, through Sandwich Isles Communications, but finding out specifics on unserved areas is challenging.

Oceanic's cable Internet service does not reach "between 5 percent and 10 percent of the homes in the state, most of which are on the neighbor islands," said Alan Pollock, vice president of marketing.

Hawaiian Telcom's statewide network provides a range of communications services; however, "broadband access is (presently) limited in portions of East Hawaii (Big Island)," where customers do have traditional phone service, said Ann Nishida Fry, media relations manager.

The same applies to small areas of other neighbor islands. While phone service is widespread, there are "pockets where broadband may not extend, in isolated, very rural areas," she said. "In many areas we've been able to extend the service," with additional equipment.

Certain Hawaiian homelands tracts are served by Hawaiian Telcom, but most are served by Sandwich Isles Communications, which offers broadband connections wherever it has infrastructure, said Su Shin, vice president of strategic alliances for Sandwich Isles' parent company, Waimana Enterprises Inc.

Residents with mobile smart-phone access to the online world but no fixed service may still apply, Spacenet's Evans said.

The stimulus funds are limited, so it is up to interested Hawaii residents to jump on the opportunity to get connected to all the good (and not-so-good) the Internet has to offer.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by e-mail at


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