Nestled within the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed off on are billions of dollars set aside to ramp up broadband connectivity and increase digital equity for Native American tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations.
This infrastructure package represents a once-in-a-generation investment in broadband that, for Hawaiʻi, will positively impact the geo-culturally positioned Native Hawaiian communities spread throughout the islands and, most profoundly, those living in rural areas.
Access to the internet and its platforms is access to unlimited business opportunities, particularly for Indigenous peoples. The pandemic, the systemic inequities it exposed, and the subsequent economic fallout have put an exclamation point on the crucial role that technology service, its providers, and its regulators play in our everyday lives.
As positive as this pop-up financial investment in the nation’s infrastructure may be, there is a downside to the initiative as Congress also gives serious consideration to altering the framework of the competition laws.
One of the proposed provisions would heighten the federal gatekeeper system by requiring the system’s framework to be better shielded by new government approval processes prior to mergers and acquisitions by private companies.
Certainly there are issues that need to be addressed – such as strengthening the public policy framework relating to the broadband connectivity and internet equity sectors. But increasing the gauntlet of regulatory hurdles is a short-sighted, risk-averse approach.
The thinking behind the proposal basically flips the constitutional principle that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty and assumes guilty until proven innocent, placing undue punitive burdens on the very platforms the Biden Administration is seeking to make more accessible for underserved communities.
Thus, the intended positive effect of this massive financial investment will be diminished if mired in arduous and ill-considered regulatory hurdles.
As we become more connected through technology, we cannot stifle the innovators who would use this new infrastructure to expand Hawaiʻi’s technology community from 30,000 to potentially over 100,000 as access to the internet improves throughout the state.
The infrastructure bill by the very nature of its existence validates that the digital divide is real and that Congress needs to continue to focus on equal access to technology.
The Native Hawaiian community – as well as other Indigenous people’s business sectors – need to chime in. Our congressional leaders need to continue the commitment to equal access to technology advancement opportunities. The work to bridge the digital divide through tech equity is just beginning.