A handful of public housing residents on Kansas City’s West Side nibbled on cookies and tapped on keyboards Tuesday afternoon to mark a year of free internet.
Yeah, free. Which, it turns out, could be a hard sell.
A year ago, Google Fiber teamed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Kansas City Housing Authority to plug low-income residents into the Web.
The federal ConnectHome program works to team companies that sell internet service with local housing authorities to wire families into the internet.
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In the year since the program kicked off, Google Fiber has hooked up 1,100 housing units in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan. — all along the way fighting the skepticism of residents who thought there must be a catch.
“When somebody from the housing authority knocks on the door, people assume there’s a problem,” said Kelvin Patterson, the local agency’s ConnectHome liaison. He’s become known in the past year to residents as “Mr. Google.” “They think there’s a problem with the rent or some rule. We had to tell them, ‘No, this is really free internet.’ ”
Even then, he said, folks assumed that there was a “gotcha” waiting to kick in. A bill that would come later. Collection of data that Google would feed to the housing authority or to the feds. Something.
So Patterson relied on people like Tamara Butler in the West Bluff housing complex to carry the free internet gospel to her neighbors.
“It’s the best thing,” she said.
Her 3-year-old, Willie, uses an electronic tablet purchased from Surplus Exchange, the non-profit electronics recycler, for $22. Using programs such ABC Mouse, he’s learning his colors, spelling, geography and a range of pre-school lessons. Sometimes, when the two play together, she hears, “No, this is how you do it, Mommy.”
She used the fiber optic internet hook-up, rather than burning through the scarce data on her cellphone plan, to find a job as a certified medical assistant. Now she’s using the one-gigabit-per-second connection, the same thing most Google Fiber customers pay $70 to $80 a month for, to begin online training for a nursing certificate.
When Google Fiber began wiring the market with its ultra-fast connections, it went only into neighborhoods where sign-ups suggested that demand would justify the corporate expense of stretching into different areas. That left out some of the poorer sections of Kansas City.
With its free connections to low-income housing through ConnectHome, Google mitigated some of that criticism that it was accentuating the digital divide between those who could afford broadband and those who couldn’t bear the monthly expense.
Rachel Merlo, Google Fiber’s local community impact manager, said more than 80 percent of the apartments and townhouses in eight select public housing complexes have had the internet service installed. Some residents are still wary that it comes without strings attached, she said, and turnover in some units has complicated other installations. The work started last February and wrapped up in Kansas City, Kan., in December.
The project focused on places where school-age children live, Merlo said, to help with homework.
After the residences were wired, she said libraries, Literacy KC, Surplus Exchange and other groups worked to outfit people with used laptop and desktop computers and tablets.
“Then the challenge was to educate people on how to use the internet,” Merlo said. “A lot of time they knew how to do it on their phones, but not on the desktop.”
On Tuesday, in West Bluff’s small computer lab, 7-year-old Jaylen Bates tapped out the “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by tapping a banana, an orange and clumps of clay wired into one of the laptops.
“It’s fun,” he said. “And you learn stuff.”