Mary Sanchez

Google Fiber rollout put spotlight on KC's vision to provide access for all

Google fiber installation trucks
Google fiber installation trucks jsleezer@kcstar.com

This is how Kansas City diligence went national.

Our targeted perseverance brought U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro to the city Wednesday.

Castro rolled out a federal initiative, providing free or reduced-cost Internet service to public housing residents. Kansas City is the program’s first city, in collaboration with Google Fiber.

A household’s lack of Internet access is a modern civil rights issue. It’s yet another way that poorer children are isolated from opportunity, trapped by the circumstances they were born into. Their parents can’t email teachers, read grades online. Students might have access to a laptop through their school district, but with no Internet at home, studying too often stops when the school day ends.

No more for the residents of West Bluff. And within the next few months, residents of Guinotte Manor, Wayne Miner Court, Riverview Gardens and Theron B. Watkins Homes will receive the same offer. Eventually, public housing residents in 27 cities and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma will benefit from the federal program dubbed ConnectHome.

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The irony is this happy day is largely the result of how the initial Google Fiber rollout in Kansas City spotlighted the digital divide.

It all traces back to 2011, when Google Fiber announced that the two Kansas Citys would be first in the nation to have access to its ultrahigh-speed fiber.

Google Fiber established some of the first metrics on local Internet access: A quarter of homes in the two cities didn’t have access.

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That’s a devastating statistic for children in those homes. And for their parents, considering that so many job applications are taken online. It’s why there are lines and signup sheets to use the computers at public libraries. And why children without Internet access at home will sit in fast-food restaurants, using the access there to finish school work on their cellphones.

In the initial rollout, signups were managed around what Google called fiberhoods, neighborhoods basically. When enough people in a designated area or fiberhood enrolled, that whole area would be wired with the new service. It was partly a marketing decision, a way to roll out the new service with a limited-time expiration date, hoping to drive signups.

The prize was that with enough signups, Google would wire for free nearby schools, libraries, community centers and other public entities.

U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro visited the West Bluff public housing complex in Kansas City on Wednesday to announce the first of 1,300 area families in subsidized housing who will receive free or reduced-cost super-fast Internet connections

For middle- to upper-income Kansas City neighborhoods, the deals were sealed quickly. Google was offering the newest, latest thing. Cost wasn’t a deterrent.

But for lower-income areas, homes where there wasn’t already an Internet connection, the signups were far more sluggish. The number of vacant homes in some areas was a huge barrier, stalling the process.

Soon, the term digital divide became associated with Kansas City’s racial divide. Neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue risked not getting the free service for their schools and libraries.

 

Google also discovered that it wasn’t just cost, but a lack of familiarity with the value of the Internet that affected signups in lower-income areas.

So Kansas City reacted. The effort to enroll lower-income neighborhoods before the deadline worked like a well-oiled political campaign. Schools and teachers became heavily involved.

Volunteers went door-to-door, explaining the benefits of the service. People anonymously donated money to cover the then $10 pre-registration fee. And on the final day for signups, volunteers huddled in a downtown office, robocalling people to urge signups.

One of the programs that grew out of that period was Kansas City’s Connecting for Good, a nonprofit begun in 2011. What the organization has been able to accomplish for lower-income neighborhoods is remarkable.

In one feat, they bought bandwidth wholesale and rigged up wi-fi hotspots around the Rosedale Ridge, a low-income housing complex in Kansas City, Kan. They provided residents there with digital literacy lessons and access to refurbished computers. People eagerly accepted the help, excited for the possibilities.

Connecting for Good has bounced around town at several locations, but last fall settled into the newly renovated Linwood Presbyterian complex, located near the intersection of Linwood Boulevard and U.S. 71. There, the organization offers a public access computer lab and learning center.

The organization’s core beliefs include “connectivity equals opportunity” and “education is the number one thing that lifts people from poverty.”

No surprise that people noticed the work. A co-founder of Connecting for Good, Michael Liimatta, was chosen to lead the federal ConnectHome effort.

On Wednesday, Castro jokingly admitted that HUD had “poached” the Kansas City visionary. You’re welcome, happy to help.

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