When Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner received an award earlier this year she took the opportunity to expose the audience to one of her passions — closing the digital divide.
Kositany-Buckner, deputy director of strategic initiatives at the Kansas City Public Library, unleashed a stream of information.
“It’s a serious passion of mine,” she told me later. “Libraries have been the places where we’re bridging the divide.”
Computers at system libraries are used more than 1 million times annually. However, there aren’t enough computers or places in general with Internet access, and that’s a problem especially in a community that boasts ultrafast Google Fiber for homes.
Michael Liimatta, president and co-founder of Connecting for Good, provided some depressing, digital divide data: 70 percent of the students in Kansas City Public Schools have no Internet connection at home even though many are required to use the Internet for schoolwork. Low-income families in the district often change addresses in a school year. That works against staying connected.
Also, 80 percent of households in low-income, minority neighborhoods don’t own computers or have in-home Internet connections. In addition, close to 50 percent of the households in Kansas City, Kan., have no Internet connection, making it the seventh least connected large city in America. “It’s staggering,” Liimatta said.
Kositany-Buckner said in the 21st century, having in-home Internet access is like having plumbing, electricity and natural gas heating in the 20th century.
“It’s no longer a luxury,” she said. “This is serious. It’s really a social justice issue. It’s a 21st century civil rights issue.”
For this area to advance, every household should be connected to the Internet. It provides people with educational opportunity, access to jobs and career development, connections to social service and health care information, financial advantages and online shopping, housing and connections with friends and family. The Internet is today's path to integration and citizenship.
A Digital Inclusion Summit was held last fall, and more are planned to develop strategies and draw in more people and resources to close the digital divide. A disproportionate share of the non-connected, non-computer users are people of color, seniors, folks who have only a high school education or less and make less than $30,000 a year.
Liimatta said barriers include the cost of owning a computer, the intimidation of using one and being online, understanding the relevancy of computer use to everyday life and making the service affordable.
Kositany-Buckner said community learning centers with computers and Internet connections could help bridge the digital divide. Some Kansas City students will get free mobile hot spots in the fall. Such access could connect young people to science, technology, engineer and math, or STEM, opportunities and careers.
Many teens’ smartphones connect to the Internet, but Liimatta said: “Have you ever tried to create a good resume on your smartphone? Can you do a 20-page research paper on your smartphone?”
Connecting for Good’s technology centers in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City provide free classes in computer and Internet use. “We’ve touched about 3,000 people through our training,” Liimatta said.
Low-income people who qualify can purchase refurbished desktop systems and laptops as low as $75. They also can get their homes connected to the Internet.
Many don’t have bank accounts. That’s not a problem at Connecting for Good. “It’s like the equivalent of pay as you go,” Liimatta said. A household can be connected for $10 a month.
Kositany-Buckner said the city should set aside money to bridge the digital divide. “This is an economic development issue,” she said.
Despite the hoopla over Google Fiber and others ramping up their Internet speeds, if the playing field isn’t open to everyone equally this community will suffer.