Connecting for Good wrestles Kansas City's digital divide

Google Fiber's arrival in the metro area prompts a groundswell of interest in connecting more homes to the Internet

The digital divide isn't some esoteric, policy-wonk concept to Michael Liiamatta, president of Connecting for Good, a nonprofit IT support group based in Kansas City, Mo.

Liiamatta describes his group as a collection of "socially-minded geeks who provide IT support to non-profits with wireless installs and computer refurbishing labs, as well as computer training labs that trained 2,000 people for free last year with another 2,000 expected this year."

Connecting for Good's 2014 budget totals just $300,000, about half of which comes from the sale of wireless microwave installations to homes along with $50 refurbished computers and other gear. There are six paid workers. Liimatta and 40 others volunteer their time.

The group partners with some 50 groups and non-profits. such as the Kansas City-based-based Kauffman Foundation and Google Fiber.

A Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund has provided some funding to Connecting for Good as well. Google Fiber, which has been busy since 2012 installing 1 gigabit fiber optic cable in the KC area, having already installed about 6,000 miles on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, accounts for an undisclosed portion of the funds.

Liimatta and Kansas City officials point to Connecting for Good as a model for Google Fiber and AT&T and other for-profit companies that want to bring 1 gig fiber connections to other cities in the country where large numbers of residents have no Internet broadband connection.

In some Kansas City neighborhoods, as few as 20% of residents have a home Internet connection, Liimatta said. About 70% of students in the Kansas City, public schools lack a connection at home, he added.

On its website, Connecting for Good has posted a map from the Open Technology Institute showing the lowest levels of broadband adoption in the metro area's inner core.

Nationally, about 28% of homes don't have a 4 Mbps downlink wired or fiber connection, the minimum needed to be classified as broadband under the 2010 National Broadband Plan.

The relatively high use of cell phones in poorer neighborhoods helped diminish the digital divide somewhat, according to experts. However, it's hard to prepare a resume on a cell phone, so today a desktop computer or laptop is still an essential tool for most job seekers.

In some cities, there are lines at the public libraries to use a computer and even then, it's hard to get back to the library every day to check for an email from a potential employer.

Gloria Jones, newcomer to Kansas City, Kans., is in her early 50s and on Tuesday finished her first free two-hour digital life skills class at a Connecting for Good classroom. In the class, she learned how to use email apps, how to browse the Internet, as well as how to cut and paste and attach documents.

"I want to learn more to prepare for online classes [in nursing], and I really need to search for resumes," she said in an interview. "I knew a little bit about using a computer, just the basics, but this helped because they spent time with me one-on-one, step-by-step."

Jones has a smartphone and even has a Google Fiber link to her home, but said she needs more computer skills to "open up more choices."

"For many people, computers are intimidating," Liimatta said. That's where free, hands-on courses come in, with assistance at home to make an Internet connection and to set up a computer.

Last September, the Pew Research Center survey found that 15% of American adults don't use the Internet at all, with about one-third of them saying the Internet wasn't relevant to them, and another third saying it was frustrating or difficult to use.

To Connecting for Good volunteers and many others, those numbers aren't acceptable. "Whether it's the intimidation factor or too difficult or too expensive, our whole focus is to the lower the threshold," Liimatta said.

Some groups have accused Google Fiber of not doing enough to promote Internet connections in poorer areas of Kansas City, though others counter that the Internet firm's arrival helped activate the community and raise awareness of the city's digital divide. There's plenty of blame to go around for the divide -- it could be shared with the area's prior Internet providers, such as Time Warner Cable and AT&T.

"It's not fair to ask if Google or Time Warner or AT&T is doing enough," said Rick Usher, Kansas City's assistant city manager, in an interview. "Really, the question is, is the community doing enough? There's a groundswell of activity that's much larger and more visible than when Google Fiber came. It's put the K.C. digital divide on the agenda in a way that it wasn't before."

At the very least, Liiamatta said, Connecting for Good has "become a lightning rod for socially-minded geeks. They might not be the ones who serve a meal at a soup kitchen, but they have technical skills."

For Liimatta, an ordained Christian minister who works as a full-time dean at a local college, the digital divide is something to get passionate about.

"You have to be digital to live in a digital society," he said. "More than ever, information is power. Bandwidth really is the new water."

"The digital divide is the same old divide that splits America between the haves and have nots, between black and white. It's the same socioeconomic divide that has already divided cities. I believe an underclass is emerging in America that separates the connected from the unconnected," he added. "This is a social justice, economic and educational crisis and I think corporate America has to step up to this. Our government policy is not reaching the grass roots level we work at every day."

On a more practical level, Connecting for Good is meeting with a Google Fiber official in coming days to see if the group can connect its Wi-Fi mesh network technology to Google Fiber backhaul fiber optic cables near apartment buildings where Internet connections are needed by residents the most.

"If we got that access to Google Fiber, we'd jump for joy," Liammatta said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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