KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The coronavirus outbreak has forced tens of thousands of adults and children in the Kansas City metro to leave their jobs and schools and stay at home for their own health and safety.
While many home-bound families are turning to the internet for entertainment, education and job-searching, there are hundreds of low-income families facing digital isolation in their homes. Their plight is the focus of a new effort providing low-cost access and equipment to financially struggling families in the Kansas City area.
"The coronavirus pandemic is a terrible crisis," said Tom Esselman, CEO of KCMO-based Connecting for Good. "But it is raising awareness of just how serious the need is for digital inclusion."
New affordable digital access
Because of the crisis, Google Fiber and the Greater Kansas City Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) this week announced they are donating money that will allow Connecting for Good to offer 200 hotspots for $20 per device. There is an additional $15 monthly fee for the hotspot, which can support three devices.
NaQuita, 34, has two boys, ages 11 and 7. She has had internet access for more than a year, but until purchasing her low-cost laptop this week at Connecting for Good, she was only able to access the internet on her cellphone, which made it difficult to complete online applications and search for jobs.
"The laptop is a new beginning as I work on transitioning to a new career," said NaQuita, who did not want to give her last name.
How to get hotspots, laptops and PCs, and training
Esselman believes allowing residents to purchase their own low-income equipment and receive hotspots that enable them to connect online wherever they are is an incredible opportunity.
"With the coronavirus, we have to comply with emergency requirements regarding social distancing and in-person meeting limits," Esselman said. "We are asking everyone to sign up for an appointment to get a new laptop or hotspot."
Where is the digital disconnect?
While NaQuita's family had internet access, Connecting for Good says that thousands of other families living in the 64109 Kansas City zip code — from Troost to Prospect avenues; Paseo to Linwood boulevards; and south to Cleaver II Boulevard — are not so lucky. They do not have internet access in their homes.
"Forty-three percent of families in that zip code, more than half of the people living there, are not connected to the internet,"Esselman said. "Now, with schools and libraries and community centers closed, those adults and children are digitally isolated."
Overall, Esselman said that while 79% of Kansas City has internet access at home, those who do not usually cannot afford it.
"If you're trying to pay bills and put food on the table, you're not going to pay $80 a month for internet access," Esselman said.
Previous efforts not successful
The federal government has paid millions of dollars over the years to initiatives to help poverty-level families in the U.S. gain access to the internet.
Esselman recalled a program in Kansas City in 2016 through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Google Fiber, Connecting for Good, the Kansas City Public Library and Surplus Exchange to provide free internet access in low-income housing projects.
"The 2016 plan provided free internet access for six years to six housing projects in Kansas City and three housing projects in Kansas City, Kansas," Esselman said. "Residents still had to sign up and provide their personal information, and many residents were concerned their private information would be accessed or shared (and) chose not to sign up."