Troost Avenue runs north-south through the center of Kansas City, Mo. Like 8 Mile Road in Detroit and Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, Troost Avenue segregates a city: Whites live to the west, blacks to the east. Troost is a racial and socioeconomic dividing line, but it is also the marker of a digital divide. Families to the west have high-speed Internet and computer skills; many to the east have neither.
At a busy intersection on Troost Avenue, in an office above an Eastern Orthodox church, a nonprofit is working on closing this gap. It’s called Connecting for Good, and it provides free Internet access and computer classes to Kansas City’s poor and elderly. Since 2011, Connecting for Good has expanded Internet access to more than 500 low-income families. Its ultimate goal is to get free Wi-Fi to everyone who needs it.
Michael Liimatta, co-founder and president of Connecting for Good, says his ambitions weren’t this big when he and Rick Deane, co-founder and chief operating officer, were starting out. “Our original issue was trying to help the nonprofits that found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide,” he says. Liimatta and Deane were preparing classes for local nonprofits when, in 2011, Google announced that Kansas City would be the second pilot city for its high-speed broadband project, called Fiber.
Liimatta and Deane were thrilled. A citywide Internet upgrade would aid nonprofits tremendously, but not only that, says Liimatta. “We thought it’d open up the Internet to families too.”
Today, about one in four Kansas City residents do not have Internet connections at home, according to a survey by Google. About 54 percent of residents who lack a connection are black or Hispanic, and 56 percent are elderly. The people who lack a home Internet connection don’t have a computer, can’t afford a connection or simply don’t know how to get online. When it comes to important life matters like finding a job or getting health insurance, not having access to the Internet can put you at a severe disadvantage.
Liimatta and Deane hoped that the Google Fiber gigabit connection would be the “backbone” on top of which they would build wireless networks for low-income housing units. They said that in 2011 they spoke with Google officials and proposed that they pay for the company’s flagship service — $70 a month for a gigabit connection — to deliver to a low-income housing unit. The idea was to use one connection to serve multiple families at a time. Liimatta was told that this couldn’t be done, however, because Google’s policy is to deliver only one wired Fiber connection per household.
Liimatta and Deane realized this meant that Google Fiber would not be the ISP for Kansas City’s poor. “We had to find our own way to do it,” Liimatta says.
To determine the areas of Kansas City to which it would bring Fiber, Google divided Kansas City into 202 “Fiberhoods” and asked residents to preregister for the service by making a $10 deposit any time between July 26 and Sept. 9, 2012. When a Fiberhood got enough preregistrations, it turned green on Google’s map. If the company didn’t know the significance of Troost Avenue before it came to town, it quickly found out. As the preregistration period came to a close, this is what the Fiberhood map looked like:
People living west of Troost Avenue signed up in droves, while residents to the east scarcely did at all. Liimatta believes this was a reflection of the digital divide: Residents who live east of Troost Avenue lack the digital awareness and financial means that those to the west enjoy. But he also believed that these deficits shouldn’t prevent those people from getting Fiber. “Fiber was an awesome opportunity. Seven years of Internet at $300 upfront is incredibly generous,” Liimatta says in reference to the initial cost to each Fiber customer to drill holes and lay the required cable. “We didn’t want anybody in this town to miss out on this opportunity.”
Liimatta and Connecting for Good volunteers joined a neighbor.ly campaign called Paint the Town Green to raise money to cover preregistration deposits for residents, especially those east of Troost Avenue. Just days before Fiber preregistration ended, the campaign reached its goal of $5,000. In the end it would raise more than $11,000 — enough to cover the sign-up fees of more than 1,000 residents. “There’s this concept that urban poor people don’t care, don’t want to be online, don’t want to participate in the digital revolution,” Liimatta says. “We’re finding out that they do — they just don’t know how.”
This is what the Fiberhood map ultimately looked like:
The parts of the city already running on Fiber are turning to gold, but there are many neighborhoods that Google Fiber isn’t likely to reach. The Paint the Town Green campaign did not achieve citywide preregistration: 20 percent of neighborhoods did not qualify, many of which contain low-income housing units.
Jenna Wandres, a Google Fiber spokeswoman, says Google has signed up multifamily buildings, but doesn’t reveal where they are or how many. Liimatta says the only multifamily residences that have Google Fiber are high-end apartment buildings (including the one he lives in). Their residents are willing to pay for installation and service, and landlords can advertise gigabit Internet to attract prospective tenants, according to Liimatta.
Because Google Fiber couldn’t do it, Connecting for Good became its own ISP. But to build and broadcast its own Wi-Fi Internet connection, the nonprofit needed money. So it started refurbishing and selling used computers. To help lay the infrastructure for Wi-Fi, Liimatta then sought guidance from the Free Network Foundation, the nonprofit that provided Internet access to Occupy Wall Street protesters.
Connecting to Wi-Fi doesn’t require physical installation, so once a network is set up at a low-income apartment building, its residents can gain access without paying for cables. So far, Connecting for Good has provided free wireless service to 500 Kansas City families in two large housing projects and one senior-living home. Liimatta says there are several other networks in the works. “We’re socially-minded geeks with missionary zeal. That’s who we are,” Liimatta says.
This doesn’t mean that Google played no role in Kansas City’s technological expansion. Since it touched down in Kansas City, Fiber has boosted the local startup scene considerably. In November 2012, the Hanover Heights neighborhood, southwest of Troost Avenue, became the first one to connect to Fiber. Dozens of entrepreneurs flocked there right away. Startup Village, a startup incubator in that neighborhood, was founded by four entrepreneurs who met in Hanover Heights after Fiber arrived. According to Startup Village’s co-leader Brittain Kovac, the space now hosts 23 local companies — one of which used to be Connecting for Good, which resided in Startup Village’s office space before it moved to Troost Avenue.
Last November, Connecting for Good also received a $35,000 grant from the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund, a foundation that supports nonprofits and startups, to which Wandres says Google has contributed (an undisclosed sum). The money helped Liimatta’s team upgrade their computer-refurbishment program and renovate their workshop — in 2013, Connecting for Good was able to renovate 600 computers; this year, its output has increased to 200 computers a month. And it’s hired a full-time manager. “We went from no staff at the beginning of January 2013 to five staff at the beginning of January 2014,” Liimatta says.
Google supports Connecting for Good directly as well: The company donated 20 Chromebooks and some money, which Liimatta says paid for part of the nonprofit’s computer drive this past fall. Employees at Google’s spaceship-like Kansas City office, which is near the Kansas-Missouri border and far west of Troost Avenue, occasionally help teach Connecting for Good’s computer classes.
Nancy Andreasen, 38, who lives east of Troost Avenue, is one beneficiary of such education. Originally from San Francisco, Andreasen comes from a “lower-middle-class Navy family” that did not own a computer when she was growing up. In high school, a couple of her friends had computers at home, “but they were from wealthy families,” she says.
Andreasen’s high school computer class didn’t teach much more than typing, so in 2003 when she enrolled in Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., she signed up for a computer course expecting to learn basic skills like word processing. The course was “so frustrating and so technical that it didn’t feel like I was even being taught computer skills,” she says. She dropped the class. From then on, if she had a written assignment, she used what she’d used in high school: her grandfather’s old typewriter.
Last July, a friend told Andreasen about Connecting for Good’s computer refurbishment program. The nonprofit offers refurbished PCs for $50 each to qualifying students in its digital literacy class. Andreasen signed up for a class that same week. As it turned out, she was too advanced for the beginner course, having learned her way around a computer at various jobs since college. But when her instructor noticed that Andreasen was spending most of her time helping the woman next to her, he asked if she would be interested in volunteering.
Now Andreasen teaches a digital literacy class herself. Almost all of her students are below the poverty line or past retirement age, or both. In one of her first classes, she taught a recent immigrant from Kenya how to use Google. “He was so excited that he could look up his home newspaper on Google, and look up online what was going at home,” she says. “He wouldn’t have to spend the money to get the paper shipped now.”
In October 2013, the nonpartisan New America Foundation reported that Internet access in the United States still lags far behind other developed countries. “In comparison to their international peers,” the report stated, “Americans in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are paying higher prices for slower Internet service.”
The Kansas City model could change this. The town’s Internet access beats the service offered in major cities in two areas: speed and price. Google, which recently announced an expansion of Fiber to nine new metropolitan areas, including Atlanta and Portland, Ore., is pushing the borders of Internet connectivity, while Connecting for Good, which set up a second office in Kansas City, Kan., last month, is opening that boundary to more and more people. Kansas City’s digital infrastructure, built by the collective efforts of these two organizations, could soon be the model for every American city.