By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Living in East Hawaii's less populous areas like Kalapana and Ka'u has its attractions: Beautiful, untouched scenery. Freedom from big city sights, sounds and smells. The satisfaction of self-sufficiency.
However, it also has its disadvantages. Among them is the lack of Internet availability: No email. No streaming videos nor music. No up-to-the-minute news updates.
For many, the price is one they're willing to pay. But, what if they didn't have to trade their Internet connectivity for a life off the beaten path?
That's the idea behind a $7.5 million federal grant offered through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service awarded the money to Virginia-based Internet provider Spacenet, to be used for its StarBand Open Skies program, which focuses on providing low-cost, high-speed Internet to residents in rural areas of Hawaii and Alaska.
Alaska will receive $6 million of that total, with Hawaii getting $1.5 million. Spacenet anticipates it will equip about 800 Hawaii residents with Internet service. The majority of the funding will likely go to the Big Island and the other Neighbor Islands, according to a spokesman.
"Most of that money will go to the Big Island because the other islands don't have as large a rural area as we do," said Gregg Davis, owner and operator of Tropical Satellite, a contractor that installs the satellite Internet systems for Spacenet.
Davis, who has lived in Mountain View with his wife, Wendy, for the last decade, began his association with the satellite technology as a consumer. The Davises found they needed access but were too far out to receive cable and DSL.
"A friend told me about this new technology coming with satellite Internet, and I thought that would be suitable for us," he said.
Gregg read about the technology online, ironically enough, and ordered his own equipment. It was expensive, between $1,500 and $1,800, he said. But he felt the investment would pay off.
The speeds associated with the technology aren't anywhere near what one can get with cable, but it's faster than something like dial-up, and it has the added benefit of being wireless. If you've got open skies above you, you can get Internet.
But when it came time to log on to the 'Net, he discovered that the service provider wouldn't allow installs by customers. He would have to take an installation class and sign up as a dealer before he could switch his own service on.
He did so, turned the service on, and began surfing the Web. He said he didn't really have much interest in being an installer, but over the years he's hooked up a few neighbors. But now that the stimulus money will pay for free equipment and installation, Gregg thought he could use his experience to bring Internet connectivity to Big Islanders in need, while making a little extra money for his family.
Costs for qualifying families are minimal. The grant covers all installation and equipment fees. There is no contract for the service, which charges recipients a minimum of $50 on a month-to-month basis.
There are cheaper services available, Gregg said, but only in areas that have more access.
"It's expensive," he said, "but for people who can't get anything else, it's worth it. I had a woman who I installed a system for, who called and thanked me out of the blue. She needed it for an online course as part of the UH-Manoa distance learning class. She'd been driving from Kalapana to Pahoa to use the Intenet. That saved her a whole lot of time. And gas."
Two download speeds are available: 1 megabyte per second for $49.99 a month, or 1.5 megabytes per second for $79.99 a month.
Due to the limited funding, the service is being offered on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call Tropical Satellite at 968-8874, visit www.starband.com/hawaii, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.