Kansas City unveils a new strategy to get high-speed internet access to all

The promise of community digital equity in Kansas City remains elusive, despite many programs and initiatives, including the arrival of Google Fiber in 2011.
The promise of community digital equity in Kansas City remains elusive, despite many programs and initiatives, including the arrival of Google Fiber in 2011. File photo

Kansas City’s highly fueled rush to become a gap-less digital community needs a boost.

For all the advantages the city has seized — pioneering Google Fiber networks, stirring a wave of community activism and marshaling its high-tech Smart City innovations — the rewards still spread unequally across the city.

Hard lessons prodded a new Digital Equity Strategic Plan, which was passed Wednesday by the City Council’s Neighborhood and Public Safety Committee, and goes to the full council Thursday.

The city needs more vigorous tactics to equalize the opportunities high-speed connectivity delivers in education, civic growth, jobs and start-up businesses, advisers to the plan say.

“The original goals came with high fanfare,” said Tom Esselman of Connecting for Good, one of the city’s nonprofit partners. “But it’s not just about providing access.” The awareness campaigns, free training and other outreach efforts have not been enough to combat the gap, he said, “and that’s been the new learning.”

Kansas City is still struggling to close gaps revealed in Google Fiber’s assessment six years ago that a quarter of the people in the city did not have high-speed internet connections, and 17 percent were not going online at all.

Of those not online at that time, 28 percent said it was because they did not have a computer or could not pay the fees, and 41 percent said it was not relevant to their lives. Seven out of every 10 children in the Kansas City Public Schools did not have internet access at home.

A city equity strategy “is something we desperately need,” said Carrie Coogan, deputy director for public affairs and community engagement at the Kansas City Public Library.

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The fact that Kansas City is “known as a national leader in digital equity” is not enough, Coogan said. Attacking the persistent gaps means the city has to make sure “that people know this has to be a priority and why,” she said, “and make sure they understand that it’s complicated.”

Data in the plan show the gap in internet access splits both by income level and in high-minority neighborhoods, said McClain Bryant, the policy director for Mayor Sly James, addressing the committee.

Citywide, only 56 percent of people earning less than $30,000 a year have internet access at home compared to 91 percent among those earning more than $30,000. But access among people in the low-income category drops to 52 percent in the 5th District and 48 percent in the 3rd District, which have higher minority populations than other districts.

The strategic plan will serve as a “basis for action,” she said.

Within six months, according to the plan, the city intends to build out a three-year road map with “quick-win” projects, including funding sources, leadership, return-on-investment projections and criteria for measuring success.

Recommended actions include:

▪ Mapping and supporting a network of community learning centers among several collaborators to ensure all children have resources within walking distance of their home.

▪ Providing not just high-speed broadband access in centers, but also up-to-date devices and training.

▪ Building equity awareness and accommodations into all city departments and public services.

▪ Adding digital equity as a goal in the city’s Community Health Improvement Plan.

▪ Considering the digital equity efforts of potential vendors when securing partnerships or contracts.

▪ Developing and promoting distance working and learning opportunities for people with disabilities.

▪ Adapting city services and business and zoning regulations so that they promote and encourage online commerce for home-based and small business owners.

Many high-profile efforts have built Kansas City’s digital reputation, including the push from Google, the federal government’s choice to make Kansas City the first site of its Connect Home program, and Kansas City’s Smart City initiatives, all part of a futuristic vision of what’s to come.

But a codified equity plan is critical, said Aaron Deacon, the managing director of the nonprofit KC Digital Drive, if the impact of the digital city is going to elevate everyone.

“This puts it out in front of the public that this is what we believe,” Deacon said. “These are our priorities … and the city is on the record.”