Bridging the digital divide in a work-from-home era

Jason Shipps and Robbie Tiller dismantle desktop computers at the Connecting for Good warehouse in Kansas City. India Garrish/The Beacon.

By India Garrish

Like millions of others across the country, Heather Savio Wolf is depending on home internet access more than ever.

But the Shawnee Mission School District teacher says her home WiFi is spotty with four people using it. And she knows that’s been true for her students as well.

“It really is a necessity,” Wolf said. “If (a student) didn’t have the internet, it would not be equitable.”

At a time when most work and school has moved online, a digital divide has deepened between the haves and have nots. According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 24 million Americans have no access to broadband internet.

While the $2 trillion CARES Act provides $50 million to expand network access, purchase devices and provide tech support during the pandemic, Kansas City residents may have to wait 12 weeks or more before hotspots can be installed, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Things like low-cost services, hotspots and mesh networks (a group of devices that act as a single WiFi network) are being used until more federal subsidies can cover greater hotspot access.

Data compiled by the Kansas City nonprofit LEANLAB Education found that 17 percent of Kansas City residents live without internet access. Digital inequities are also skewed along race and class — according to the data, lack of internet access is concentrated in neighborhoods east of Troost and disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income families.

Broadband access is another challenge driving the digital divide. A recent study from Broadband Now found that 42 million Americans do not have the ability to purchase broadband. Additional research shows higher numbers: Microsoft projects that about 163 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds.

“Broadband is the future for education, health care, civic participation, networking and social inclusion,” said John Windhausen, executive director at the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB). “If you don’t have a broadband connection, you’re not connected to the future.”

‘Gigabit metropolis’

Kansas City became a Google Fiber city in 2011, making it what Windhausen calls a “gigabit metropolis.” It was one of the first cities to have full-capacity broadband available to all residents. But the goal to bring affordable, high capacity internet to all fell short.

According to a 2019 study from SHLB and The Kansas City Public Library, while Kansas City saw an increase in home broadband adoption, the growth has been slower among low-income households.

This disparity affects rural communities, too: 69 percent of rural Americans use the internet compared to 75 percent of urban residents, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

It also takes more than broadband to connect citizens — people need the actual computers too. Last year, one in five adults in the U.S. were “smartphone-only” users, meaning they relied on their smartphone for Internet access versus a home broadband service.

Rachel Merlo, Government & Community Affairs Manager for Google Fiber, said one disparity in the digital divide that stands out is among families.

“All of these young people that were supposed to learn at home may only have one computer or a cellphone, no broadband activity or hotspot limitations,” Merlo said. “COVID-19 has brought a lot of that to light.”

‘Playing matchmaker’

In the midst of the pandemic, local nonprofits are trying to figure out how to serve the region’s digital needs. Coogan said the Kansas City Public Library is “playing matchmaker” between the community and service providers.

“This has shown a huge light on the digital divide, not just in Kansas City, but nationally,” Coogan said. “It’s an odd position for us because we’re used to taking charge, but because physical locations are closed, we’re finding ways to get out the word.”

Coogan said even though they can’t be open right now, the library system is offering services online and working with local partners to address the needs in the community. Additionally, local school districts have placed WiFi-equipped buses in the library’s 10 locations throughout the metro.

A variety of desktop computer units are stacked at the Connecting for Good warehouse in Kansas City. India Garrish/The Beacon

The library has worked to provide more services for parents with students who are now learning from home. Staff have created tutorials related to online accessibility, and students in many Kansas City public schools can use their IDs as library cards. Coogan said online initiatives like the Library’s Facebook Live storytime have also been successful. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, enrolled students can request a hotspot if they are in need of home internet.

For local nonprofit Connecting for Good, which works to address the digital divide in Kansas City by focusing on vulnerable communities, a large source of its devices has normally come from corporations. Although those donations slowed as employees took computers home for work, the City of Kansas City, Mo., donated 500 computers previously used by government workers to the nonprofit last month. Connecting for Good also received a grant to provide 150 computers to three local organizations that serve senior citizens.

“Our hope is that this will prompt other municipal governments that have been sitting on computers to recognize the work we’re doing,” said Tom Esselman, CEO of Connecting for Good. “Collecting devices, cleaning them and getting them out to families that need them.”

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has donated 100 computers to nonprofits across its seven-state district as part of its Employer Laptop Challenge. Although the initiative was planned prior to the pandemic, the issue is as relevant today than it was before, said Jeremy Hegle, senior community development advisor at the Kansas City Federal Reserve. Hegle said it would take 5,000 computers to meet the needs of the most at-risk families in the metro area.

John Windhausen said initiatives like free WiFi through libraries have helped“provide a world of online content,” but there need to be more long-term solutions.

Merlo added that this pandemic has created a unique moment for companies like Google to make an impact.

“When COVID hit, communities were scrambling for solutions quickly,” Merlo said. “Now that it has quieted for a moment, more organizations and schools are not just solving for the current school year. We need to think big.”

India Garrish is a freelance reporter and photographer for The Beacon.

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

Note: Google Fiber’s Rachel Merlo is the sister of The Beacon’s audience manager, Jennifer Hack Wolf. Wolf was not involved in reporting or editing this story.