(TNS) -- A big national effort to narrow the digital divide took its first small step Wednesday in Kansas City.
U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro, at the West Bluff housing complex, announced that the 100 apartments there now have superfast Internet connections at no charge to residents.
They are the first of 1,300 area families in subsidized housing, and 275,000 nationwide, who will get free or reduced-cost access under the federal ConnectHome program.
“For far too many low-income families, and especially for low-income children, connecting to the Web remains just an aspiration,” he said at the announcement. “We’re helping to change that through ConnectHome.”
“We want to give every family in America access,” Castro said in an interview before the announcement.
The superfast gigabit service at West Bluff, courtesy of Google Fiber, offers residents a chance for the Internet benefits that most Americans take for granted. A coalition of local agencies and other businesses also is on board with ConnectHome to help residents get technology training and access to low-cost personal computers and other hardware.
For West Bluff resident Shaunte Mack, that will mean reliable Internet access for one of her sons as he does his high school homework. Her three preschool-age grandchildren will be able to use online games and lessons to practice their ABCs and other skills to be ready for kindergarten. And she will have a much easier way to find the work-at-home jobs she uses to support her family.
“I have access on my cellphone now, but I don’t know how to use the Internet fully,” she said. “I’m excited to learn and be able to do more.”
Another resident, Tamara Butler, addressed the group assembled for Castro’s and Google Fiber’s announcement. She said he was “so excited about having Google Fiber in my home,” especially for her son, Willie, and throughout the complex for the other children there. “If you can’t afford that in your home, kids can’t get the education that they need.”
Butler and Mack also are part of the program’s Connected Neighbors, a group of residents who have agreed to talk about the free Internet access and promote it with their neighbors.
Another Connected Neighbor is Eugene Stegall Bey, who opens West Bluff’s community space most mornings for a program that provides juice and snacks and a safe place for children to wait for their school bus. As part of ConnectHome, a computer lab with eight PCs will be added to that space — a prospect that has Bey “very excited.”
“Excited” and “proud” seemed to be the words of the day for everyone involved and on hand for the celebration marking the start of service — excited for the residents, and proud of the people, agencies and businesses who worked together to make Kansas City the first community to make ConnectHome a reality.
“We’re so proud that we’re beginning this work in Kansas City,” said Erica Swanson, Google Fiber’s head of community impact programs. “We’re committed to bringing our very best service to the people who need it the most.
“And we’re proud of all our important partners, who are helping to make sure that residents are able to purchase discounted computers, have access to digital literacy classes, and are partnering with us in the outreach. We can bring the connectivity, but we know residents need to have an affordable device and know how to use it.”
The ConnectHome program, announced last July by Castro shortly after he took over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, aims to bring affordable Internet access to public housing residents in 27 cities and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. Those areas were chosen in part because they showed they would make the most of the program.
The Kansas City metro area, besides being the first to get Google Fiber’s superfast Internet service, has been in the vanguard of trying to get Internet service for low-income residents. The nonprofit Connect for Good program started in 2011, and its co-founder and first leader, Michael Liimatta, was chosen to be the manager of ConnectHome nationally.
His successor as executive director of Connect for Good, Tom Esselman, said the effort to launch ConnectHome in Kansas City had been “completely collaborative” and challenged dozens of area agencies and businesses “to put our best foot forward. And everyone did, with the one goal of figuring out how to make sure the residents are getting the most holistic benefits possible.”
“It’s too big of a problem for any one organization, and very few other cities at this stage are able to have the coordinated effort Kansas City has.”
At the Surplus Exchange, which helped round up the computers for West Bluff’s new lab, executive director Bob Akers said, “We’re so happy to be involved, to be in the middle of this by providing the gear.”
Residents of subsidized housing, he said, can get a complete PC with operating system software for $55. Area businesses and government agencies upgrading their equipment had been great about sending their used PCs, Akers said, which his nonprofit agency wipes clean and refurbishes.
He said the ConnectHome effort also had brought agencies together and promised much more than Internet access. Part of that will be classes at the housing complexes, and other training and troubleshooting on regular visits by staff from Google Fiber, his agency and others.
“We’ve also been working with the Full Employment Council to find kids and bring them to Surplus Exchange for internships and training,” he said. “And we want to ‘graduate’ some of them through to community college or other more advanced training, so they can be the IT staff eventually” at their communities.
“We’re so stoked about the whole effort and program.”
At the Housing Authority of Kansas City, executive director Edwin Lowndes also praised “the fantastic partnership that we’ve put together” and saw great things ahead.
“This is the beginning of what we can do to help the families that we serve know they are part of a total community,” he said. “Agencies, the private sector and government are all coming together to say we want to make sure that you and your children have the tools to succeed.”
In the next six months, the plan is for Google Fiber to connect residents of four more housing complexes under Lowndes’ agency: Guinotte Manor, Wayne Miner Court, Riverview Gardens and Theron B. Watkins Homes.
Across the state line, Google and the Kansas City, Kan., Housing Authority are working on which complexes will be getting the service.
Google Fiber said it will offer the same service eventually to public housing residents in all its cities. That currently means Provo, Utah, and Austin, Texas, besides the Kansas City area. Google Fiber also is coming to Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Nashville, Atlanta and Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. And it’s scouting several other cities.
In the other ConnectHome cities, other Internet services will provide free or reduced-cost access. An estimated 75 percent of Americans whose annual household income is under $30,000 have Internet connections, compared with 98 percent of those with annual incomes above $75,000.
“The Internet is no longer a luxury, but something everyone needs to succeed,” Castro said. And with a year left in the Obama administration, “there’s an urgency to accomplish things that make life better for all Americans.”
“Our goal is to get communities hooked up to the Internet as thoughtfully and quickly as we can under ConnectHome,” he said. “We’re delighted to have the program on the ground and going in Kansas City.”
©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.