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.”