Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 129

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 129 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Michael Liimatta of the nonprofit Connecting for Good in Kansas City, Missouri. Listen to this episode here.

00:04:

Michael Liimatta: It's a digital world that we live in. And so, if you're not online, you're not really a fully-functioning citizen.

00:11:

Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.

This week, Chris and his guest, Michael Liimatta, discuss digital inclusion efforts in Kansas City. Michael is President of the nonprofit, Connecting for Good, an organization in the region, aiming to bring more lower-income households online. As our listeners know, Google Fiber is now deploying in the community. Chris and Michael discuss whether or not the deployment has increased rates of adoption. Michael and Chris ponder some proposed ideas for bringing lower-income households online: Charging a very low rate. Should access be free? How does home access affect adoption, as opposed to access in a library or other community space? We encourage you to visit connectingforgood.org to learn more about the organization, especially if you feel your community could benefit from a digital inclusion program.

We bring you the Community Broadband Bits Podcast advertisement-free each week. Please consider contributing to help us continue to carry on this valuable service. It's easy. Visit ILSR.org and click on the orange "donate" button.

Here are Chris and Michael.

01:26:

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today, I'm speaking with Michael Liimatta, the President of a nonprofit organization, Connecting for Good. Welcome to the show.

01:40:

Michael Liimatta: Thank you very much.

01:42:

Chris: Michael, I'm really excited to have you on this show, because I know you've been doing excellent work in Kansas City. You and I are on a -- the same LISTSERV, where we talk about a lot of these different issues. And I've always found you to have -- I think you give a lot of deep thought to these issues, deeper than perhaps other people are. So, I was excited to have you on. And I'd like to start by asking you to tell us a little bit more about Connecting for Good.

02:09:

Michael: Yeah. Well, we have been around since November of 2011. That was actually, you know, my partner, Rick Deane, and I, the cofounders, were excited when Google Fiber was coming to Kansas City. We really thought, you know, it would be a great opportunity to reach out to people who have, you know, not been connected up to this point. We had worked together on some projects because Rick had an IT company, called NPO Tech Support, and I had done a lot of consulting for nonprofits. I'm actually the acting Dean at City Vision College, an online school I started in 1998, and have been involved in working with the homeless and alcoholics and drug addicts for over 30 years. So, I'm kind of aware of the empowering, you know, nature of accessible technology. So -- and Rick, on the other hand, you know, was an installer for One Economy in Kansas City when they were active here. He brought Wi-Fi to about 16 housing projects. So he's kind of on that end of things.

03:10:

Chris: Can you tell us a little bit about Kansas City. And, you know, is there -- is Kansas City just a typical urban area that has populations that aren't really served under the current situation? Or is there something unique about Kansas City, aside from Google Fiber?

03:26:

Michael: Yeah. Well, I think Kansas City itself has got a long history of racism and intentional redlining. And, as a result, I mean, the city is almost split down the middle between majority-white, majority-black neighborhoods. And so, everything east of Troost in Kansas City, Missouri, is like 90 percent black. And, you know, we know that all of the studies of this area showed that, you know, there are neighborhoods east of Troost that have -- fewer than 20 percent of the people have home Internet connections. In the Kansas City, Missouri, school district, we know that 70 percent of the kids don't have Internet at home. So there are huge, you know, disparities between what people can do, economically, academically. And so, we really felt like, you know, this was a time, and this was an opportunity to seize a chance to go out and say, you know, let's get these people connected.

So, we actually formed our board and incorporated in 2011. And our first project was something called Rosedale Ridge, which is a 158-unit, Section 8 property in Kansas City, Kansas. And we, of course, hoped that Google Fiber would allow us to their back -- you know, their bandwidth. But it turns out, at least at the time, their fiber-to-the-home didn't allow multiple users. So, we, at that point, got hooked up with Isaac Wilder and the Free Network Foundation that learned how to do backhaul through the microwave dishes. So we kind of became our own nonprofit ISP. And today we still supply about 500 low-income households with free Internet.

The other side of our project is that we are a computer re-user. We try to rescue usable computers from the scrap dealers and refurbish them and offer them to low-income families for $75. And then we have a training component, where we're involved with, you know, teaching people how to use the Internet, how to -- computer basics. And a three-hour class is required before you can buy a computer for $75. To kind of take home a computer that's useful, we've hooked up with EveryOneOn.org and Mobile Beacon, to actually allow them to buy a $45 router that will allow them to get 4G Internet for $10 a month. No contracts. No credit checks. And we actually accept cash from people who, you know, don't have bank cards or credit cards.

06:06:

Chris: Well, that's an important point. I'm glad you raised that. And, actually, your solution at $10 a month, it's worth noting, is far superior to the Comcast solution of Internet Essentials, because your solution would allow people to use multiple devices. So if kids in the school district got a device from the school district, you know, you could have multiple people in the household connecting, whereas Comcast Internet Essentials only allows one device to use the Internet at a time.

06:34:

Michael: Right. And I think the other side of the Kansas City, Missouri, school district is that 40 percent of the kids will move during the school year. So even Google Fiber, which is, you know, to a particular residence, doesn't help them much when they're not there at the end of the school year. So, it's a device that is, you know, you can take with you wherever you go. And it's kind of the equivalent of a pay-as-you-go cell phone. So, you could give us $10 this month, you can have the service, If you don't pay it next month, you don't have the service, but if you come back again, sometime during the month, we'll turn it back on, in 30-day increments.

07:09:

Chris: Right. And I want to point that I -- just for our listeners -- when you -- we normally talk about municipal networks and things that are related. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you're working on these kind of solutions that I think can inform what people are doing with municipal networks. And one of the things that you said earlier, that I want to come back to briefly, is that you had hoped that you would be able to get connections from Google and then share them. So maybe get one or two connections from Google and then share it over multiple households -- something that the cable companies and telephone companies don't let us do. And Google decided not to let us do that. And I think many municipalities don't allow people to do that either. So I just want to put it out there as something that you saw a solution there, and it's something that we don't really see ISPs in general allowing people to do.

07:58:

Michael: Yeah, well -- and, of course, we haven't given up. Google has announced this small business plan. And, you know, we -- actually, we have used Time Warner in the past for one of our projects. It was a commercial connection. So we have hopes, maybe, that, you know, there's a ** another avenue for sharing bandwidth to a commercial connection of some sort that Google provides.

08:19:

Chris: Right. Now, one of the things that, as I understand it, Google helped to set up was the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

08:29:

Michael: Yes. Well, Connecting for Good is one of the first recipients of a fund that was actually organized by Google Fiber. And it included some other funders. Like, Sprint got involved. And J. E. Dunn. And, you know, the whole idea was to put together a million dollars and to offer $300,000 of finance a year. So, last year, we received about $35,000.from that. And used it to basically upgrade our refurbishing operations. And the other nonprofits were a couple of Hispanic groups, the public library, and another youth organization.

09:06:

Chris: Do you have any advice for other cities that are trying to set up digital inclusion funds? You know, we had an effort here in Minneapolis. And the way the contract was worded, the provider that was getting city money to build a Wi-Fi network effectively stopped making contributions to it, which was very disappointing. So my experience has been somewhat negative. You know, what advice would you give to cities that want to set up a fund like that?

09:34:

Michael: Well, I think it's an awesome thing. And the key is to really start talking to the people who are already doing the work. You know, I think that if you design any kind of fund that, you know, you don't consult the people who will actually be the beneficiaries, you're not going to get something that is really practical for them. And I think, you know, again, in Kansas City, like many other major cities, the people who are unable to connect are really left out. I mean, it's a digital world that we live in. And so if you're not online, you're not really a fully-functioning citizen. You know, people have thought that perhaps the public libraries or such could really, you know, solve part of the problem. But, at least in Kansas City, they're completely deluged. So either you wait for a couple hours to use the computer for 45 minutes. And if you had to check your e-mail every day by doing that, it would be pretty discouraging. So, you know, we just really think the gold standard is Internet in the home.

Well, we've gotten a little bit involved also with working with Free Networks, and have supported their work here in Kansas City, too. So, we're trying to do it on multiple levels. You know, our whole idea is, how do we get you connected? Are you in a Google Fiber neighborhood? Can you afford it? Is it an opportunity? You know, if you're in a public housing project that you live in, of course we provide it for free.

10:50:

Chris: Can you tell us a little bit about that? So, is the -- in the -- what happens if you're living in a public housing?

10:57:

Michael: Well, right now, we have a partnership with the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Housing Authority And they've pretty much given us open door as far as all their properties. Of course, the key is always the funding element. Last year we had a crowd funder here on a platform called Neighborly. And we raised a total of about $40,000 to bring their biggest property online, and that was called Juniper Gardens, which has about 400 households. And so, we built the Wi-Fi hotspot, using equipment that was donated by One Economy, to bring Internet to all this property. So we put about 70 radios on 40 buildings.

11:39:

Chris: And so, you took $40,000, and you were able to serve 400 housing units.

11:45:

Michael: Yes.

11:46:

Chris: And that corresponds --

11:47:

Michael: About $100 a door.

11:48:

Chris: Right. And, presumably, you have -- you know, what, two and a half, three people in each of those units?

11:54:

Michael: Yes.

11:54:

Chris: So, that's really quite remarkable impact.

11:56:

Michael: Yeah, we really think so. And, you know, we're seeing, really, like maybe about 150 gig of data being transferred a week in this particular housing project.

12:08:

Chris: Well, I want to get back to Google briefly, and just -- one of the things that enjoyed in talking with you online is the nuance. And some people are very critical of Google. And some people only want to praise Google. And I think you and I have been taking a position of, this is good, and this is challenging, or we don't really like that so much.

12:27:

Michael: Uh huh.

12:28:

Chris: Google's decided not to serve some neighborhoods. And that's obviously disappointing. Now, they gave those neighborhoods a chance to sign up. So that's different from what we've seen from other carriers. But I'm curious if you can tell me -- and maybe we'll separate it into the neighborhoods that are served by Google, and then those that are not served by Google, separately. But, how has the Google Fiber network impacted low-income neighborhoods in Kansas City?

12:57:

Michael: It brought faster Internet to people that were using fast Internet. But, really, was not any kind of significant impact upon any low-income neighborhoods at all. The -- you know, there's less than a 10 percent adoption rate in the traditionally black and low-income neighborhoods of east-of-Troost. And also in Wyandotte County, where we work -- where we have a community technology center. And that just follows pretty much the pattern of all of those neighborhoods, that, you know, like, one in five people has an Internet connection. And so, those who had it thought that Google was a great deal. Those who weren't already on line first, and didn't understand it, may not have had the money to do it -- it didn't happen.

13:40:

Chris: What IS the barrier for people who are not online where it's available?

13:47:

Michael: Well, I think there's a lot of barriers. First off, of course, is the cost of the equipment, which is something we're trying to address through refurbished computers. The cost of a subscription. There was a lot problems around renters -- that, you know, unless the landlord initially paid $300, you weren't going to -- for your unit and every unit in your building, you weren't going to get Google Fiber. So, I understand now they have changed that policy, and we'll see what the impact of that is. But, ultimately, too, is just the fact that people don't understand the Internet. They're intimidated by it. They don't see its relevance in their lives. Plus the cost, you know. Plus not owning a device. So there are some on-the-ground issues -- that a lot of Pew research studies have indicated. I guess the hopeful part for us, though, was that, you know, we did -- we've trained like two thousand people in our -- what we call our Free Digital Life Skills Class, this year already. And our profile is pretty much 80% black, because that's the neighborhoods that we're in, but also 75% $20,000 a year income or less, two-thirds women. And of the women, I mean, most of them are 50 and older, and have a child under 18 living in their home. So, in some ways, we're kind of in this motif of empowering older black women to the Internet, and they're taking computers from us home -- and connectivity home -- to where they have children in their care.

15:18:

Chris: Now, I think, one of the benefits that you had identified in a previous discussion was that Google coming in has cast more light on the issue, and really helped to galvanize a better conversation about the need of many in Kansas City for better options than they currently have.

15:37:

Michael: Yes. I would say that is THE biggest impact of Google Fiber on the low-income neighborhoods. Very simply, that they did a digital inclusion, or a digital divide, study, and, you know, it just sort of like made people aware of -- hey, wow, you know, there's a huge percentage of our people that aren't online, and aren't using the Internet. So it really created, you know, quite a thrust among ourselves, the public library and other nonprofits to figure out, well, how -- what are we going to do about this now? And so, we have actually been meeting for a couple of years. And a group got ** Kansas City Digital Inclusion Coalition. We actually sponsored a summit on the 17th of October that was very well attended. And we'll be doing a follow-up here in January of that summit. And we got a lot of, you know, think tanks and discussion and energy going. And so now, actually, we're moving to the place where our city council is about ready to pass a resolution in support of digital inclusion activities. And we're actually moving toward the city opening up more of its facilities. You know, Google Fiber is installing free connections at many of the community centers. So we're, right now, working to install computers and all of the equipment to make sure they can use that gigabit connection. And then other community organizations engage with, you know, training and things at those sites. So, we're -- you know, we're really excited for that part. You know, I guess it's a problem that's been kicking around for years, but they're actually coming to Kansas City to sort of put the spotlight on it.

17:22:

Chris: To wrap up, I'm curious if you can help me understand something, which is: Do we need to just lower the cost of connectivity, and teach people how to use computers? Or do we need to find a way of making sure there's a free connection available at every address in a given city?

17:40:

Michael: Well, you know, I think that there's an element of expecting people to pay for something. Because what they've actually invested in, I believe, they value more. So, that's why, you know, we try to offer it for ten dollars, because that's a price point practically anybody can do -- it's like two packs of cigarettes, right? -- to get Internet for a month. And with our computers for $75, we let people actually make payments -- layaway ...

18:10:

Chris: Right.

18:10:

Michael: ... before they purchase it. And so, we want them to have that investment. And because, you know, we've invested more than $75 into these computers, we don't want them in a pawn shop in a week. So people have to take the class, put their money in. So it's -- you know, there's a value proposition there. But we don't mind doing this in places that are, you know, **. The low-income, like the housing authority, right? Or Section 8, where we know people are just getting by on $10,000 a year. For them, you know, it's like, keeping food on the table and clothes on their children. And it's like, that's all they can do. So, to provide free in some cases, I think, is something that's, you know, very worthwhile. I think it -- you know, but, generally speaking, I just think a big, giant giveaway is not the way to do it.

18:54:

Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. I've really enjoyed learning a bit more about Kansas City. And I think there's a lot of cities that could benefit from all the thinking and work you've done in this area. So, thank you for sharing that.

19:07:

Michael: Thank you, sir.

19:08:

Lisa: Take a look at stored tagged "digital divide" at muninetworks.org for more on this topic. Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org . Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . Thank you to Dickey F for the music this week. His song, "Florida Mama," is licensed through Creative Commons. Have a great day.