Indigenous Community Launches First Community Broadband Network in Hawai'i - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 385

For the third year, the Internet Society worked with locals to hold an annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit as a way to teach and share information. In November, participants collaborated to deploy a fixed wireless community broadband network in a small village in Hawai'i and Christopher had the chance to participate.

While he was there, he interviewed Matt Rantanen, Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association, and Brandon Makaawaawa, Deputy Head of State for Nation of Hawai‘i. Christopher, Matt, and Brandon discuss the summit and the need for connectivity in Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo, the village where summit participants worked with local indigenous folks to build the network in just a few days.

Brandon talked about some of the obstacles that have faced the people of the Nation of Hawai'i and how those obstacles have put them on the wrong side of the digital divide. Without sovereign nation status, like many other indigenous people in the U.S., Brandon's people don't have access to funding. When the opportunity to work with the Internet Society to establish a community network arose, the village jumped at the chance as a way to learn and teach others in Hawai'i.

Learn more about the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit here. Be sure to check out the information on past Summits in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Don't miss Brandon's essay on the importance of the project to Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo here.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Brandon Makaawaawa: Internet is very vital to our community and not having that access is a weakness that is now going to be fulfilled with this summit.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 385 of the community broadband bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. While the community broadband networks team has been fighting the cold and snow in Minnesota, Christopher recently spent a week in Hawaii. He wasn't on vacation though, he was attending the Internet society's Indigenous Connectivity Summit 2019. While he was there, he interviewed Brandon Makaawaawa, a local broadband champion, and Matt Rantanen from the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association. Regular podcast listeners will recognize Matt who's been on the show in the past to talk about advances and tribal networks and how local tribal communities are making better connectivity happen for themselves. During this conversation, you'll get to hear the purpose of the summit and how the annual event has evolved. You'll also get to hear about how Brandon's indigenous community has found themselves in a situation where high speed connectivity from the big providers isn't headed their way. We learn a little about his people's history, which has contributed to their current situation and their decision to pursue self-determination. We get to hear about one of the purposes of the summit, a deployment of a community broadband network in Brandon's village. Even though the environment is far away from many of the rural communities that we usually report on, we learned that many of the roadblocks are the same. Now here's Christopher talking with Brandon Makaawaawa and Matt Rantanen at the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Hawaii.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the community broadband bits podcast, Hawaiian edition. It's Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And today I'm back with Matt Rantanen and a new guest, Brandon Makaawaawa who's from Waimānalo. Welcome to the show!

Brandon Makaawaawa: Aloha! Thank you, man. I mean, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: That's totally perfect for the intro. Matt, who are you?

Matt Rantanen: Matt Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association. I'm also partnering in business development for Arcadian Infracom who's building fiber across the Southwest of the United States through the Navajo nation. We are here for the Internet society and we're starting on the big Island for two days of background on all kinds of North American Indigenous Connectivity, what's happening there and that sort of a space. And I'm gonna give the mic back to Matt in a second to go a little bit deeper but we're going to be going over to Waimānalo to actually build a community network. And this is going to be, I mean, we're not just talking about how to build it — we're going to go learn how to build it and literally turn screws and attach wireless devices to things. And you're going to have connectivity when we're done and you're going to be in charge of me and keep going after that. So, Matt, why are we here? What is this Indigenous Connectivity Summit from the Internet society?

Matt Rantanen: So this is the third annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit and it's really an opportunity for indigenous folks to get together to support the concepts of building networks and bringing community networks together to share opportunity, for those who want to build new community networks, those who want to solve problems within their community networks and those who want to understand policy and funding and opportunity around this space. We feel that with the lack of provision by the existing incumbents to the Native American communities, it is our duty to provide for ourselves and dictate our future and become self-determined. So this is the third Indigenous Connectivity Summit — the first one was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that kicked it off. We had tribes from Canada and the U.S. convene for the very first time and we were able to have conversations and realize the value of this group getting together. It spawned a lot of projects, a lot of networks were being built because of that actual meeting. And I can specifically address three of those projects having consulted as a free service to our own communities. The second one was held in Inuvik 200 miles North of the Arctic circle — a very extreme change in temperature, geographic location and a completely different place. Amazingly enough, the same exact problems, the same exact issues with connectivity and access to communications. And here we are in Hawaii and we see the same thing.


Brandon Makaawaawa: Yeah, the problem for our community at least is, you know, Hawaii is a pretty small place. Like we don't fit the usual description of what rural is because everything's within less than a hundred miles. We're less than a hundred miles to the city of Honolulu, we're less than actually 20 miles. So we're not really recognized technically as a rural area so sometimes we get left out of the picture as far as getting rural funds to us to have companies like the one we deal with, which is Hawaii Telcom to actually come out to us. So they gave us this whole spiel of — it's not economically feasible. And so when that happens, our community gets disenfranchised. It gets pushed back and it gets ostracized and it gets suppressed even more. And so we feel that this opportunity now with the Internet society and them coming out and helping to kind of spearhead this initiative to build our own network so that we, like how Matt said, we can self-determine our future. It falls right in line to what we do as the nation of Hawaii in Waimānalo. The nation of Hawaii is our organization that actually governs over our lands where this network will be put up. Now this is the first time that we have actually partnered with the state of Hawaii with Bert Lum with the DBEDT department. Burt Lum is actually the broadband expert, strategy expert on implementing broadband across Hawaii. So he went to one of the Internet society Indigenous Connectivity Summit last year and he got them to say that, "Hey, why don't you come out to Hawaii next year because we have communities out here that actually need help." And so when he came back, he tried to look for an indigenous community that could kind of fit the parameters that would be able to run their own network. But Hawaii is a very unique place. Native Hawaiians aren't federally recognized. And we come from a history of — in 1893 our people, we had a sovereign and independent nation and that nation was overthrown with the help of America and businessmen. And so for over 125 years, we've been stuck kind of like in this limbo of not really getting federal funding, not really getting any kind of assistance. We've just been kind of like stuck out here to kind of figure it out on our own. It wasn't until 1993 when president Clinton signed the apology law that the federal government and the state ever acknowledged the wrong-doings that had happened. And at that time, the leader of the nation of Hawaii, he organized a bunch of houses, Hawaiians, to actually occupy lands that the federal government had just apologized for stealing. And so we actually leverage that occupation, which was at a beach called Makapu'u into the first ever sovereign Hawaiian land base in existence. So for the last 25 years, we've been in a village called Pu`uhonua O Waimanalo, where we have our own autonomy, where we have our own set of rules. We don't ask the state of Hawaii what to do if we need houses, we build it, if we need roads, we build it. And so this is the first time that the state of Hawaii through somebody like Burt Lum had the vision to look at us and these guys might have the way for us to bring something like the Indigenous Connectivity Summit here without having to go through the usual red tape that the state has to go to and the federal governments have to go to. And, you know, we just met everybody in June and this is November and we're rolling already and it's happening. And so I think, just our involvement alone allowed the state to live up to what Burt wanted to do, which was bring the conference to us and in turn we have finally found like a mutual goal, which is to build our own community broadband network because this will be the first ever in the state of Hawaii.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, there are no community networks to my knowledge and not to yours either. So it's a good description of the collective situation. I want to just quickly get a better sense of you, personally, for people who aren't sitting in the room with us, which is everyone on the planet except for us — the two of you, I mean, Matt, you're like 6'2 and Brandon, you're like 6'3. Did you get into this cause as the tallest person, it would be easier for you to put radios up?

Brandon Makaawaawa: Well, you know, my uncle is not 6'3, but he is pretty intimidating. So if he wants to do something, he tells me to do it, I just do it.


Christopher Mitchell: And who's your uncle?

Brandon Makaawaawa: My uncle is a head of the state of the nation of Hawaii, his name is Dennis Bumpy Kanahele. You guys can Google him. He's a controversial figure in our Hawaiian community but he stood for what is right and, you know, he being like this independent force in Hawaii, he's always open to the opportunity for us to take advantage of situations such as this. And we felt that like it was no brainer. If we had people like the state of Hawaii, like Burt Lum involved, we had people like Internet society, which was so gracious in lending their expertise, bringing in other partnerships that actually helped us push through this initiative without us coming out of pocket. Because of our stance, we've been kind of ostracized here and so anytime we want to do something, we've got to come out of pocket for everything. And so this is like no brainer for us, if they're going to provide the service and they want to do it, you know, we know how important the Internet is. Without the Internet, we'd have to rely on regular media and regular media doesn't really paint us in the best picture. So Internet is very vital to our community and not having that access is, you know, is a weakness that we see that is now going to be fulfilled with this summit.

Matt Rantanen: I think one of the things that I've seen in the last 18 years of working in community wireless and working with 573 federally recognized tribes and now, you know, Native Hawaiians, I think that, Brandon to me, you are the champion of this. Your uncle is, obviously, the motivator and uncle Bumpy is wonderful, but you are the one that will probably take lead and manage the determination of the future of this network and how it evolves and work with your people to, you know, to grow this. And that's the required element in every situation in Indian country across the United States, across Canada, and across other continents in the world is you have to have somebody on the ground that embraces the technology, embraces the concept of the network and what it means to the community and is the champion of that. And so that's how I see you and since you're bigger than me, yeah, you're my champion.

Brandon Makaawaawa: Yeah, no, thank you Matt. And, we're growing into this, but we see the potential of how high speed Internet access lifts up communities and it's all about empowerment today. We can't be stuck in this victim-hood thing where, you know, we are just going to accept whatever is given to us. No, we have to find ways to create independence and to create situations where our people prosper and it's governed and controlled by our people. And so that creating this community network, it just fits — it fits what we do and it fits where we're going, which is for total independence for our people to have the best opportunities that everybody else has and so this is an empowering event.

Christopher Mitchell: And so to build on that a little bit, you're not seeing this just as the technology, it's not just about having better broadband Internet access and Waimānalo, right? So why is the community ownership important? And you mentioned how it fits into the greater independence struggle, but tell me a little bit more about why that community ownership has been important to you.

Brandon Makaawaawa: I think for us it's having practical means to create independence, so ownership is a big one, creating economy is another big one, creating political action, creating social movements — you need an economy to fund these things. We can't stand frontline and protests every single development that comes in because we won't ever survive like that. We need to have a voice, we need to have resources behind us so that when these colonizing or when these multinational corporations want to come in here with their big bucks in their money and whatever they want to do, they can't just force their way in here. Because somebody is going to be in the place and we've already taken up that position and so they got to work with us now. So that's why it's so important for us, you know, not just with the Internet but with everything we're trying to create independently is that we need to start solving our own solution, stop outsourcing to other companies and corporations because we're just trading one colonizer for another. And so the more that we eliminate the dependencies on whether it's the government that hasn't treated us right or these multinational corporations that talk a good game, but when they come in, they take over everything and then we're stuck. So this kind of helps.


Matt Rantanen: What we've seen as, you know, along those lines is that tribes are able to be proactive instead of reactive to issues that can be involved in the issue when it's just in conversation before it actually becomes a law or because written down as a rulemaking. You can be involved in the conversation if you have access to the Internet because you have the current flow of information, you're not getting secondhand or information delivered to you. You're actually part of the information flow.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk now about the prep work. So you don't have very good connectivity now — what have you had to do to prepare for the building of the community network?

Brandon Makaawaawa: We dug our own trenches, you know, working with Hawaiian Tel now in this new capacity where the state is involved. It kinda gave us an opportunity to push Hawaiian toe closer to working with us. And so in that sense, that was good but then also, when they come onto our land, like I was talking about, it's our land, we govern it, we do the work on it. And so it was only right that we're the ones that dug our own trenching and lead our own conduits. We dug about, you know, from the street level up to our building where we will have the main hub, we dug us 600 foot long trench. You know, luckily we have good operators in the village, we have good machines, we have good foremans that, you know, they have experienced laying all kinds of different plumbing pipeline for our houses, electrical, roadway, so something like this, you know, it might seem amazing to a lot of people, but for us it's just part of the gig. We're used to it — we're used to getting dirty, we're used to getting down because that's the only way things are going to get done. We can't wait for somebody else to come in and do it for us, so we've dug trenching, we've set up, with Hawaiian Tel, we pulled the fiber in. We set up Hubs to every, you know, all the new equipment that's gonna go in to build the mesh net around our village, it's ready to go. We sunk a light telephone pole down at the bottom of the village because we'll have two entry points. And so, yeah, no, we are just, we're game for everything and a lot of this prep work that we've done, it's just stuff that we've done in the past, but now it relates to Internet and broadband access.

Matt Rantanen: And call it trial by fire but it is a great experience builder where you're forced to have to dig your own trench, to lay your own conduit to have fiber brought in. You are much further along than most community networks before you even have the first connectivity LED. Most people have some sort of delivery of service that they start using before they actually start building infrastructure, really heavy duty infrastructure. And this is great to see, you get that experience and now you know what it takes, right?

Brandon Makaawaawa: Mahalo.

Christopher Mitchell: So what are we going to be doing the next two days in Waimānalo?

Brandon Makaawaawa: Well, we'll probably be eating some good Hawaiian food.

Christopher Mitchell: Some Lau Lau, I hear.

Brandon Makaawaawa: Some Lau Lau will probably be, you know, checking out the scenery. But we'll be in there and we'll be building the network and we'd like to thank Bysells for bringing in the equipment and helping to donate all of that. And we just kind of looking to see and experience what finishing this whole thing off — we did the first part, now we are brining in the technical side, we are bringing in some of the experts, you know, from around the world that'll come in. To me, I just want to see how this takes place because we have so much experts here. It's going to be like 150 guys changing one light bulb. Oh, I want `to see how this is organized, like who is the chief and who is the Indian and who is going to make it go but that's part of the excitement and we kinda like spread this story out amongst our network and amongst our community, so everybody's excited. So we're expecting like a couple hundred people to be there and just kind of watch and learn and we're just so excited to get this network going but hopefully, by Friday, we'll be totally lit up. I think that's the second day, so the first day, I guess, we'll be in a training with Bysells in the morning and then we'll be kind of watching the experts light up that first line and then the second day they'll shadow us and whatever we learned on the first day, we'll do for the second entry point. And, we'll see if we did a good job on that and we'll try and light it up, then.

Christopher Mitchell: So what are the connections going to in this initial round of the network?

Brandon Makaawaawa: Okay, the first connection is actually going to our front gate so that we can kind of get around this huge tree that is in the way of getting this connection down to the bottom part of our village.


Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, when you say a huge tree, I think you, I mean, as I said before, you're already, you're a big guy.

Brandon Makaawaawa: Yeah, I'm talking like 150 foot tall, you know, a hundred feet wide, you know, it's probably more than a hundred feet wide, 200 foot wide, Banyan tree. And this equipment doesn't go through that type of —

Christopher Mitchell: I don't think much of anything goes through a middle of a tree.

Brandon Makaawaawa: — and so, you know, we had to do two installations, so the first installation is going to go kind of at the bottom of our village, near our front gate and then the second installation is actually going to go to our community, which is actually kind of like set up on a hill that overlooks all the homes. And so I guess from there we're gonna like shoot the mesh network all the way and connect to all the homes from there. It's kind of a central hub and a place where everything can originate and be spread out.

Matt Rantanen: Yeah, that's almost exactly right and the design of the network is designed because of geography, which is typical to tribal installations. Most tribes are in very geographically diverse areas that have obstacles and you have to get creative to be able to deploy the network to all the people. And, and you have it right, I mean, we're, going to Spencer Sylvia and Mariel Triggs and myself and a few others are going to do some demonstration of product and probably show how the installation of the one or two pieces goes. And then, you know, we'd love to hand it over and have you do that because experience and hands on is the key because then we know that you've done it, you've experienced the process and their success after that because you can rely on yourself and your knowledge of what happened and if we shadow and just offer suggestions or support. It's a great way to start this and hands on is how most of tribal people learn — visual and hands on. We're all about seeing what happens and how it works.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you and I want to follow up in like maybe a year or two to see how accurate this is — how do you think this is going to change things? Like what's the result going to be of this network?

Brandon Makaawaawa: Well, already, it's kind of brought in like this new excitement to our village and we're so independent and we still used to doing things on our own and just like scratching and crawling, you know, just to get like roads in there and just to get, you know, houses built that this'll kind of just take us to, bring us up to modern times because honestly, our network is non-existent. We have no Internet access in our village right now so most of our things are run off of cellular data, off of hotspots, which can be really expensive and that kind of cuts into the things that we could do otherwise. So first off, it is going to save us a lot of money by doing this. Secondly, it's gonna enhance our reach because we rely a lot on social media. We rely a lot on the Internet for research and development issues and to stay connected with the world because we believe that connectivity is actually the real sovereignty that, that is emerging around the world because we're not trapped behind these political barriers, these landlocked barriers. We're not going to be fighting over land anymore. We feel that with this Internet connection, it's the beginning of the rise of a digital nation and we want to be the people on the fore-front of that. So just this alone allows us to imagine and to hope and to bring excitement to our village. Because with the Internet, you know, stuff like Blockchain technology, stuff like Cryptocurrency, you know, e-commerce, just connecting with these people that they have these experiences and expertise and technology and innovation that the state governments and the federal governments are not bringing to us. So now we don't need that, now we can go around them, we can go through them, we can go to anywhere around the world and connect with people that want to help. And so it's a way for us to improve our political, economic and social standards and just read the standards of life inside our village and eventually to the rest of the Hawaiian population around the other audience

Christopher Mitchell: Great! Well, thank you so much, Brandon Makaawaawa from Waimānalo. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Brandon Makaawaawa: Mahalo, Chris! Thank you for having me and thank you to Matt and thank you to ISOC and everybody that's here, we really appreciate what's going on. And, you know, this year, it's about us but when we're lit up, where we're ready to help everybody else. So it's about empowering and it's about empowering every single community after this. If we can be an example of hope, then let's be that example. Let's shine that light.


Christopher Mitchell: You know, next year is scheduled for Winnipeg, I think. I don't know how often you've experienced a winter that far North, but I think we should move it to a little later, maybe January or February in Winnipeg.

Brandon Makaawaawa: You guys had a boss of cold. We were just following you so if you lead us into a blizzard, you know, next time you come to Hawaii, we might take you to the North shore, you know, during December and teach you how to swim out there.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Brandon Makaawaawa and Matt Rantanen at the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Hawaii where they work to deploy a fixed wireless community broadband network for Brandon's village. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter — his handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 385 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.