Local company getsBy Susan Kreifels
$40 million loan to get
native Hawaiians online
At remote South Point on the Big Island, native Hawaiian families may soon be able to go online to study, run a business, do their banking or join a video conference with officials in Honolulu.
A $40.9 million check to a local telecommunications company yesterday is intended to help give such families access to the information superhighway, no matter how isolated their Hawaiian Home lands.
The federal Rural Utilities Service presented the low-interest loan to Sandwich Isles Communications Inc.
Sandwich Isles is owned and operated by native Hawaiians who are committed to providing inexpensive telecommunications for families on Hawaiian Home lands throughout the state.
"Hawaiian Home lands are especially hard hit regarding a lack of infrastructure," said Albert Hee, Sandwich Isles president. "In this day and age, if you don't have access to information over a broad network, you'll really be left out.
"If you don't put this type of infrastructure into the Hawaiian Home lands, you can expect that the social demographics of native Hawaiians won't change but get worse."
Immediate benefits to Hawaiian families, Hee said, are delivery of education, medicine and social services. Eventually economic development will follow.
The check was delivered by Christopher McLean, deputy administrator for the Rural Utilities Services under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sandwich Isles received its first loan of $27 million in November 1997 for the initial phase of its telecommunications projects on rural Oahu at Waimanalo, Kapolei, Barbers Point and Kalawahine.
Construction is also under way on Maui at Waiehu and Kula, and on Molokai at Kalamaula. A brochure for special telephone services offered at the Villages of La'iopua on the Big Island includes services such as call forwarding and automatic callback that people can get anywhere.
The total project will cost $250 million over 10 years. Sandwich Isles Chairman Robert Kihune said eventually all Department of Hawaiian Home Lands areas will be interconnected with fiber-optic cable, including undersea interisland cables.
McLean said this is the first loan his agency has granted for telecommunications projects. Sandwich Isles was granted an exclusive license by Hawaiian Homes Commission.
Kihune said his company has taken on all costs and will get its money back through users. But Hawaiian families, no matter how remote, will pay the same or lower rates as users in population centers such as Honolulu.
McLean said the Rural Utilities Service scrutinizes the feasibility of companies' programs before granting loans, and Sandwich Isles' plans were solid.
U.S. Reps. Patsy Mink and Neil Abercrombie, interim department Director Ray Soon and Francis Blanco, state director of USDA Rural Development, were present.
McLean said his agency has the authority to provide grant money along with loans. The Rural Utilities Service has helped a water project on Maui and a distance-learning program on Kauai.
The federal assistance requires a feasible program. "It starts with the community coming together," McLean said.