How a local coalition is trying to improve internet access in Kansas City

Warehouse specialists Jason Shipps and Robeie Tiller take apart desktop computer units at the Connecting for Good warehouse on May 13, 2020, in Kansas City. Last June, Connecting for Good officially merged with the national nonprofit PCs for People to provide refurbished computers at low-cost to families (India Garrish/The Beacon).

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of adults and children into remote work and online learning last spring, the divide between those with adequate internet and the knowledge to use it, and those without, became even more prominent. There were students who needed devices, households that needed more affordable internet and older adults who needed to learn how to navigate the internet for doctor’s appointments.

In the mad dash to pinpoint solutions and respond to the crises of the pandemic, many organizations turned to the group that has been working on issues of digital access since 2015: the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion.

The Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion is a collaborative effort — among local nonprofits, internet service providers, city agencies, civic institutions and businesses — working toward increasing digital access and tackling digital inequalities in the greater Kansas City region. The coalition operates with the vision that every resident in the Kansas City area should have access to an internet connection, devices to use the internet and the digital skills to take advantage of all the internet has to offer.

Despite becoming the first Google Fiber city nine years ago, 14% of households in Kansas City still do not have internet access, according to a report from data organization mySidewalk. Another 10% do not have a computer in their home.

This visual showcases the households in Kansas City most impacted by the digital divide. The Digital Divide Index looks at the following criteria: percent of households without a computer, percent of households without access to the internet, and percent of households below the poverty level. (Source: mySidewalk) https://reports.mysidewalk.com/46060aa3cd#c-450307

What first began as monthly meetings among a handful of nonprofit leaders and advocates in a room at the Kansas City Public Library has since grown into a coalition of more than 200 organizations sharing resources and supporting initiatives to bridge the digital divide. In that time, the coalition has created partnerships with social service organizations and raised awareness around the existing digital inequities in the city.

While the pandemic has forced the coalition to hold its monthly meetings over Zoom, its work and its reach have grown. Ina Montgomery, executive director of Urban TEC, a Kansas City, Missouri-based nonprofit focused on digital literacy, said the pandemic led to more collaboration between the coalition and local and regional organizations.

“Because we were there, because we have the coalition members, because we had been doing the work, it was a natural connection for a lot of organizations to reach out to us,” Montgomery said.

What’s the need?

Google Fiber’s decision to pick Kansas City as the first city in the country to host its new, high-speed fiber internet promised to give residents greater access to the internet and even boost entrepreneurship in the city.

But the expansion of Google Fiber, which began in 2012, highlighted the divide between households with the resources to take advantage of high-speed internet and those that could not. It’s something leaders at the Kansas City Public Library and nonprofits like KC Digital Drive and Connecting for Good noticed.

“Very quickly, we learned that there was a lot of people who were going to be in the digital divide,” said Carrie Coogan, deputy director for public affairs and community engagement at the Kansas City Public Library.

In the summer of 2015, following monthly meetings among organizations like the public library, Connecting for Good, Urban TEC, Kansas City’s assistant city manager Rick Usher and other local nonprofits, the groups formally decided to form the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion.

Usher, the public libraries and nonprofits like Urban TEC then collaborated in 2016 to expand Google Fiber’s reach in the region, particularly as Google Fiber launched its ConnectHome program in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring fiber internet service to public housing properties in Kansas City.

Tom Esselman, executive director of PCs for People Kansas City, which at the time was known as Connecting for Good, said the organizations collaborated to ensure residents in public housing properties could utilize Google Fiber’s services.

“What are the ways we could help all these residents of these Housing Authority properties, that now were able to get free internet?” Esselman recalled. “How can we make sure that they get computers and that they learn how to use computers, and that they know we’re here to offer them resources?”

While broadband adoption has grown in Kansas City in recent years, households still face issues getting connected, from not having the right devices to being unable to afford internet service.

Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City, Missouri, said the primary issue with digital access in Kansas City is affordability.

“We’re fortunate in Kansas City to have at least three (internet service providers): AT&T, Spectrum and Google Fiber, running through about everybody’s backyard,” he said. “It’s really that monthly subscription that is the challenge in closing the digital divide.”

In Kansas City, Missouri, families with internet and those without largely skew along racial and geographic lines. A 2020 KC Connectivity Report from data organization mySidewalk on digital inclusion in Kansas City analyzed three criteria for its digital divide index: households without a computer, households without internet access and households below the poverty level. Census tracts with a higher index percentage are more likely to experience issues of digital access and connectivity. The report found that areas east of Troost and the historic northeast — which are predominantly Black neighborhoods — ranked among the highest on the digital divide index.

Coalitions in other cities

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a national organization focused on digital equity, pinpointed community coalitions like that in Kansas City as one kind of solution to promote digital inclusion and digital equity at the local level.

In a 2018 report on the work of digital inclusion coalitions, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance highlights three effects of coalition-building: advocacy that increases the visibility of digital inclusion as it affects the local community, an “alignment effect” that brings organizations together under one common goal, and networking that can foster collaboration between groups.

The Detroit Digital Justice Initiative was established in 2009 to pursue funding to bridge the digital divide in the city. Since then, the coalition has brought together community members and organizations, much like the Kansas City coalition, under the idea that “communication is a fundamental human right.” The Detroit initiative continues to advocate for digital justice through events called DiscoTechs to engage the community on issues of internet use and ownership.

In Austin, Texas, the Digital Empowerment Community of Austin was established in 2015 to improve the community’s ability to participate in the digital world and increase digital inclusion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization put together a resource list to assist residents, including low-cost internet plans offered by service providers.

The Digital Empowerment Community has also been collaborating with local nonprofits and service providers during the pandemic to discuss ways to provide long-term, affordable high-speed internet service for Austin residents living in public and affordable housing.

Pandemic partnerships

When the pandemic first hit, Jewish Family Services saw how older adults struggled with transitioning to a more remote, online life. Though the Kansas City-based social services organization had always offered tech support, the pandemic spurred the creation of a structured program to help older adults with digital access, called Tech Connect.

To further streamline the process of getting people online and connected, Jewish Family Services teamed up with KC Digital Drive — Jewish Family Services conducted the social work to reach the residents who needed internet, and KC Digital Drive provided the funds to support the internet access.

“What we also know about social services is that sometimes they’re not coordinated,” said Rachel Ohlhausen, program operations manager at Jewish Family Services. “So clients themselves have to go to two to three different doors to get their full needs met. And so we partnered closely with KC Digital Drive to make that a one-door stop.”

The collaboration with KC Digital Drive led Jewish Family Services to join the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion at a time when the collaboration was growing in membership and visibility. As the coalition’s monthly meetings moved online, member organizations focused on the ways they could assist families struggling to get connected. And partnerships have been a key success of the coalition.

For an organization with connections to many in the Kansas City community, joining the coalition has helped Jewish Family Services see the bigger picture around digital inclusion in Kansas City and the best practices to improve access in the region, Ohlhausen said.

“I think it’s helped us just make sure that we are being efficient, that we’re not reinventing the wheel,” she said. “We also can make sure that we are providing advocacy for our clients and their experiences.”

Other coalition members have gotten together to enact other digital solutions. Last spring, Usher, Esselman, mySidewalk and the Kansas City, Missouri, school district collaborated to run a test program providing Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots for Kansas City students to take home. A school bus was also outfitted into a Wi-Fi hotspot to help students with online school.

Kansas City Public School bus driver Fonzi Banks boards his rolling hotspot bus after his first stop of the morning in September 2020 at Hale Cook Elementary. Turning school buses into a Wi-Fi hotspot was one solution that members of the coalition worked on during the pandemic. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

The coalition further took action to channel coronavirus funds where they were needed. For example, KC Digital Drive worked with the Mid-America Regional Council to establish the Internet Access Support Program. Supported through Johnson County’s federal COVID-19 funds, the program offers financial assistance to help low-income families afford internet service, pay off previous internet service balances, catch up on current internet costs or pay for internet service for six months.

For the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion, moving forward amid a pandemic means forming more partnerships across organizations, developing a public policy platform, raising awareness about digital inclusion in Kansas City and working to increase digital access in the region.

“We’ve been preparing for this for the last six years,” Usher said. “So we really are at a point where the work of the coalition is very relevant to what’s happening across their community today.”

The Kansas City Beacon is an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.

Publisher’s note: As a digital publication that supports equitable access to news and information, The Beacon joined the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion last fall. You can see a list of all coalition members here