Bridging the Digital Divide

In Kansas City, the public schools and library are turning technological have-nots into haves.

David LaCrone (in the yellow cap) helps students set up their Wi-Fi hot spots at the Lucille H. Buford branch of the Kansas City, Missouri, public library.
Courtesy of Kansas City Public Library
Ted Hesson
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Ted Hesson
Jan. 29, 2016, 1:17 p.m.

For 17-year-old Dae­on John­son and his fam­ily, the In­ter­net is a lux­ury.

When he wants to get on­line, his first choice is to ask his moth­er for a ride to a lib­rary about 20 minutes away from their home on the east side of Kan­sas City, Mis­souri. If his mom isn’t avail­able, he can take the bus to a closer lib­rary, as long as he can get there and back be­fore dark; be­cause once the sun sets, his neigh­bor­hood be­comes dan­ger­ous.

Dae­on has a smart­phone with a lim­ited data plan, but for full-blown Web ac­cess—the kind you typ­ic­ally need to re­search an Eng­lish pa­per or a bio­logy pro­ject, not to men­tion to watch You­Tube videos—he needs the lib­rary. Kan­sas City pub­lic schools provide each stu­dent with a Len­ovo laptop; but without an In­ter­net con­nec­tion, it wasn’t so help­ful.

The situ­ation changed for the fam­ily last Oc­to­ber. A part­ner­ship between the city’s school dis­trict, the pub­lic lib­rary, and two loc­al non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions res­ul­ted in a pi­lot pro­gram to equip 25 un­der­served fam­il­ies with port­able Wi-Fi hot spots and a tab­let at no cost. Un­der the ar­range­ment, each par­ti­cip­at­ing fam­ily can “check out” the small device for the school year and use it however they want—home­work, You­Tube, so­cial me­dia. Dae­on’s moth­er, Ad­rienne Mor­ris, finds it help­ful in look­ing for a job, hav­ing been laid off from her po­s­i­tion at a cloth­ing ware­house around Christ­mas. “I’ve been sub­mit­ting job ap­plic­a­tions,” she said. “It’s real use­ful for that.”

Dae­on still goes to the lib­rary once in a while to hang out with friends, but it’s no longer a ne­ces­sity. “Some­times, I just see no point in go­ing to the lib­rary, be­cause I have In­ter­net at home,” he says.

For any­one who is con­stantly con­nec­ted, the idea of a Web-less life might seem hard to fathom. But nearly one out of six Amer­ic­an adults still lack ac­cess to the In­ter­net, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. The prob­lem is worse for the poor. In­ter­net avail­ab­il­ity has im­proved—three-fourths of adults earn­ing less than $30,000 per year now have ac­cess to the In­ter­net, count­ing those who use smart­phones, up from a third in 2000—but many more are un­der­served. Poorer Amer­ic­ans have the low­est rates of broad­band us­age at home, and they de­pend the most on smart­phones to reach the Web. More than a third of those without home broad­band see the lack of ac­cess as a dis­ad­vant­age when it comes to job-hunt­ing or gain­ing ac­cess to gov­ern­ment ser­vices. The ever-in­creas­ing im­port­ance of In­ter­net ac­cess per­suaded the White House to launch ini­ti­at­ives in 2013 for mov­ing schools on­line and, last year, for help­ing un­der­served loc­al­it­ies.

Kan­sas City sits on the wrong side of the di­git­al di­vide. A quarter of the Kan­sas City met­ro­pol­it­an area’s 2 mil­lion res­id­ents lack an In­ter­net con­nec­tion at home, ac­cord­ing to census data com­piled by the non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion Con­nect­ing for Good. An as­ton­ish­ing 70 per­cent of stu­dents in Kan­sas City pub­lic schools lack Web ac­cess at home.

Iron­ic­ally, the city has also de­veloped a repu­ta­tion as a base for tech-friendly com­pan­ies. In 2011, Google chose Kan­sas City, Kan­sas, and then ad­join­ing Kan­sas City, Mis­souri, as among the first places to test out Google Fiber, the com­pany’s su­per-fast, com­pet­it­ively priced for­ay in­to the realm of In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders. The product is cheap by in­dustry stand­ards—$70 per month for a high-speed con­nec­tion that is 85 times faster than the av­er­age for U.S. broad­band. For the cost-con­scious, Google of­fers an­oth­er op­tion: slower In­ter­net ser­vice that is free for sev­en years, ex­cept for a one-time $300 in­stall­a­tion fee, pay­able in $25-a-month in­stall­ments.

Could you get a bet­ter deal? Yet the sub­scriber base re­portedly re­mains small, ac­cord­ing to a stock ana­lyst’s cull­ing of copy­right re­cords. (Google won’t say.) Even that low a price, while bet­ter than the com­pany’s com­pet­it­ors, might be out of reach for poorer res­id­ents, ac­cord­ing to Zach Lev­er­enz, the CEO of Every­o­neOn, a na­tion­al non­profit group that is try­ing to elim­in­ate the di­git­al di­vide. “Any­thing that re­quires an up­front in­vest­ment for folks who are liv­ing paycheck to paycheck—it’s go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult to get a lot of trac­tion in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods,” he said.

Google seems to un­der­stand that: In Ju­ly, the com­pany joined the White House in Con­nectHome, to help bring un­der­served com­munit­ies on­line, and will waive in­stall­a­tion fees for res­id­ents in cer­tain gov­ern­ment-sub­sid­ized hous­ing. “Our ef­forts to help close the di­git­al di­vide will take time,” Erica Swan­son, head of com­munity im­pact pro­grams for Google Fiber, ac­know­ledged in a state­ment.

Of­fi­cials at the lib­rary and school dis­trict hope their part­ner­ship to provide Wi-Fi hot spots can get fam­il­ies on­line more quickly. Last Oc­to­ber, the lib­rary provided hot spots to low-in­come stu­dents in two schools, made up pre­dom­in­antly of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and re­cent im­mig­rants, re­spect­ively. Par­ti­cip­at­ing fam­il­ies re­ceive the device free of charge, as well as un­lim­ited data us­age, all provided by Mo­bile Beacon, a Rhode Is­land non­profit that tries to get more people on­line. “The fam­il­ies and the kids were just very ex­cited, es­pe­cially the par­ents,” said Chep­too Kos­it­any-Buck­ner, the lib­rary’s deputy dir­ect­or of stra­tegic ini­ti­at­ives. “You could tell that this was something that was really go­ing to change their lives.”

Earli­er this month, the lib­rary reached an agree­ment with Sprint, which is headquartered in nearby Over­land Park, Kan­sas, to provide 1,000 ad­di­tion­al lines of free ser­vice over the next four years through the White House’s Con­nectHome ini­ti­at­ive. Dona­tions from sev­er­al oth­er or­gan­iz­a­tions amount­ing to $10,000 will buy 125 new hot spots, to be dis­trib­uted to stu­dents in high-need schools “fairly soon,” ac­cord­ing to a lib­rary spokes­per­son. The lib­rary will buy more devices as ad­ditiion­al fund­ing is found. Lib­rar­ies in New York and Chica­go have sim­il­ar pro­grams to lend hot spots to low-in­come fam­il­ies, but the ef­fort in Kan­sas City stands out for fo­cus­ing on stu­dents and work­ing with the school dis­trict.

The lib­rary con­siders it­self an “an­chor in­sti­tu­tion”—in­ves­ted in the com­munity for the long haul. Over the years, its role has evolved; a place where people once went to read is now also a cy­ber-cafe, draw­ing thou­sands of res­id­ents who wish to get on­line. When Google Fiber an­nounced plans to launch in Kan­sas City, the lib­rary was one of many in­sti­tu­tions in the city re­think­ing the im­port­ance of con­nectiv­ity. But after lackluster signups, they star­ted to won­der if In­ter­net would ever reach all homes, ac­cord­ing to R. Crosby Kem­per III, the lib­rary’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. A 2014 sur­vey by The Wall Street Journ­al found that only 10 per­cent of res­id­ents in six low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods had signed up for the faster ser­vice; an­oth­er 5 per­cent chose the slower, cheap­er ser­vice.

Cost is cer­tainly a factor, but there are oth­ers. For in­stance, the ini­tial sign-up for Google Fiber re­quired a cred­it or deb­it card, but 12 per­cent of res­id­ents in met­ro­pol­it­an Kan­sas City don’t have a bank ac­count, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al fig­ures. An­oth­er is­sue: Roughly 40 per­cent of the dis­trict’s stu­dents change home ad­dresses dur­ing the school year, ac­cord­ing to Kem­per. “People don’t want to fool around with something that they know they’re not go­ing to use next week or next month,” he said.

Lib­rary of­fi­cials will eval­u­ate the hot-spot pro­gram when the school year ends. Us­ing an on­line data­base, they’ll re­view the num­ber of hours the device has been used (al­though not the web­sites vis­ited) and plan to sur­vey the fam­il­ies to gauge the pro­gram’s pop­ular­ity. They’ll also gath­er data from the school dis­trict to see if stu­dents vis­ited school web­sites, and they can track wheth­er stu­dents or fam­il­ies used the lib­rary’s edu­ca­tion­al ma­ter­i­als.

The pi­lot pro­gram has won some fans. Mar­ilyn Dav­is has two teen­age daugh­ters, Kemora and Nikysia, at one of the se­lec­ted schools. Be­fore re­ceiv­ing the hot spot, the fam­ily had In­ter­net ac­cess only through a smart­phone, but the lim­ited data plan meant that it couldn’t be used too of­ten. She’d thought about Google Fiber but couldn’t af­ford the cost. When the girls needed to get on­line, she drove them to her sis­ter’s house, five or six minutes away.

Now, Kemora and Nikysia, both fresh­men in high school, can do their home­work without leav­ing the house. Kemora is also able to ex­plore her bud­ding pas­sions—fash­ion and art. Dav­is, too, uses the Wi-Fi con­nec­tion; lately, she’s been look­ing at col­leges for her daugh­ters. They aren’t sure if the Wi-Fi pro­gram will be ex­ten­ded at the end of the year, but they’re get­ting ac­cus­tomed to be­ing on­line. Dav­is says she would con­sider buy­ing the hot­spot if she can. “If it’s not too ex­pens­ive,” she said, “it would be worth it.”

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