Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, January 21, 1997

High tech can be
comfortable in Hawaii

(Second of four articles)

I sought out experts on telecom and cyberspace to tell me how Hawaii's future may be affected by the Big Bang explosion that is reordering and expanding world communications totally.

The encouraging answer is that Hawaii can do quite well - primarily by just being Hawaii, an attractive place.

Many businesses in telecom are footloose. They can work from anywhere.

At least 200 operate here now, some big like GTE and AT&T, many very small. Philip Bossert founded Strategic Information Services here 10 years ago. He now has 42 employees with eight of them in California and Michigan, the rest here. He could base where the cost of living is cheaper but he likes it here and has strong Hawaii connections.

Richard Barber left the University of Hawaii and the East-West Center after he founded the Pacific Telecommunications Council in 1980. PTC tomorrow winds up an annual conference in Honolulu that has drawn 1,400 people from 47 nations. It could headquarter elsewhere, but Barber likes Hawaii and delegates find it attractive. Barber and Bossert think our potential in telecom lies in keeping Hawaii an attractive place to live and work.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser, who conceived and built Hawaii Kai, saw the same opportunities 40 years ago. He pointed out that "think industries" don't need airports, railroads, concrete highways or ports to deliver their raw materials and export their products. They can go anywhere, he said long before the Internet was born. Many will seek places to help them attract and hold skilled employees. Hawaii can be among these.

Verifying Kaiser's vision, Verifone, a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry founded in Hawaii but now based in California, allows one of its executives to maintain a product test lab at the small, former plantation town of Laupahoehoe on the Big Island. It has a bigger operation at Mililani Tech Park on Oahu.

A former University of Hawaii president, Harlan Cleveland, used to teach classes worldwide by using a modem hooked into the phone line at his vacation home near South Point, Hawaii. One of his students in the Mideast during the Gulf War reported he could see a mine floating in the bay nearby.

Instant communication has robbed Hawaii of the time zone advantage between East and West that once seemed to make us a logical site for a Pacific Stock Exchange and other Pacific bridge businesses.

Airline connections to Asia have become more difficult. Even a sharp drop in housing prices still leaves a typical house here costing four or five times as much as one in the Midwest.

BUT nothing has yet robbed us of being one of the world's most attractive places because of our climate, our dramatic scenery and our multicultural people. We get along quite well partly because no ethnic group is a majority. Asians tend to find themselves more at ease here than on the mainland U.S.

Yes, labor and real estate are cheaper elsewhere. Labor-intensive high tech may want to go somewhere else. But many high-tech and telecom-based firms can find our environment helpful in attracting and keeping quality staffers, even in attracting back some of Hawaii's talented young people who felt they had to seek opportunity elsewhere.

This article is part two of four

Jan. 16: The Big Bang in communications
Jan. 21: High tech can be comfortable
Jan. 23
Jan. 28

A.A. Smyser is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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