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Google Fiber/HUD strive to close digital divide

Google Fiber’s high-speed gigabit Internet service is now at the fingertips of every child and adult living in the West Bluffs housing community in Kansas City, Missouri.

The 100 residences all have been wired free of charge by Google Fiber. ConnectHome, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the White House to accelerate broadband adoption by families in public housing and help narrow the digital divide, kicked off last week.

The ConnectHome program announced last July by HUD Secretary Julian Castro brings affordable Internet access to public housing residents in 27 cities and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

Castro returned to Kansas City and along with Dennis Kish, vice president of Google Fiber, announced that the children and families in West Bluff would be able to access the Internet from inside their homes.

“As President Barack Obama has said, access to the Internet is no longer a luxury it is a necessity,” said Castro.

National studies show that many low to moderate-income families do have access to the Internet through their cell phones. Connecting through the phone may drive their data usage up and trying to attempt homework on their cell phone can be tedious work.

Resident Tamara Butler doesn’t have a computer and has been working on medical charts for the University of Kansas Medical Center through her cell phone.

Now that her residence has been wired, Butler will purchase a computer from Connecting for Good, a nonprofit organization that offers refurbished computers for low-income families at nominal costs.

“Working on the small telephone screen and trying to fill in charts, well it was hard to do and took a long time,” said Butler.

Before getting connected she worried about how her son Willy would be able to do his homework. As he approaches school age, she knew all the school communications would come through emails and his textbooks would be downloaded on computers.

“When I lived in Texas, the schools sent out emails to let you know about homework assignments and your child’s progress. Before now, I didn’t have that same access but I will now when he starts school,” she said.

The West Bluffs are the first of 1,300 local families in subsidized housing that have received free Internet access. Nationally the program reached 275,000 people.

“For far too many low-income families, and especially low income children, connecting to the Web remains just an aspiration. We are helping to change that through ConnectHome. We want to give every family in America access,” said Castro.

A national study called Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Low-Income Families, conducted by Rutgers University and Joan Ganz Cooney Center, revealed substantial ethnic disparities with Hispanic immigrant families being less connected than other families.

One in five immigrant Hispanic parents do not go online at all. Four in ten Hispanic immigrant parents report mobile only Internet access. Of lower income families with mobile only access, about three in ten say they have hit their data limits, which create higher bills and loss of service due to non-payment.

Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Wagner spoke at the press conference emphasizing the importance of Internet access for all.

“Dreams that could never be realized are a little closer to being accomplished … because they have Internet access in their home. It is a tool that will help them become a future engineer. We could have a future president or secretary here and with this opportunity to continue their education in their homes ... their future is bright,” said Wagner.

West Bluffs families’ average income is less than $10,000 a year. Over half of the residents are school-aged children.

“Having access to the Internet in their homes will not only help them learn, but they can connect to our whole community, our city and our country. Most importantly to the children is the connection to the schools. Every assignment whether you are in K-12 grade, teachers tell the students go on the Internet and … now they can do that in their own homes here at West Bluff,” said Ed Lowndes, executive director Housing Authority of Kansas City.

Resident Shaunte Mack is excited about the Internet in her home. Before Google Fiber, she had to walk a mile with her preschool aged grandchildren to the local library to help them with homework.

“They will be excited when they get off the school bus that they can come into my home and work on their homework. I can help them with their homework and cook dinner at the same time. I am really excited about having this service offered here,” said Mack.

Presently she doesn’t have a computer in her home, relying on her cellphone for her Internet access.

“I intend to take advantage of getting a computer and attend the classes here to teach me about using the Internet fully,” said Mack.

Both Butler and Mack have been selected for the Connected Neighbors program. They have agreed to go door to door in the West Bluffs community and talk about the free Internet access and promote it to their neighbors.

As part of ConnectHome, a computer lab with eight computers will be available for children and families to use in their community room at West Bluffs.

The equipment is being provided by Connecting for Good, a nonprofit that begun in 2011. One of the organization’s core beliefs is that “education is the number one thing that lifts people from poverty.”

A coalition of local agencies and businesses are working with ConnectHome to help residents receive technology training and access to low cost personal computers.

“It takes a team to make this opportunity become a reality for families that need it,” said Castro. “We know how important it is for every single child to have a fair shot for opportunities in the 21st century.”

Hispanic News was able to ask Castro about rumors that he is a possible running mate for one of the Democratic candidates.

“I have heard the rumors that my name is being considered, but I have no plans to run. At this time, when my term is over, I plan to be back in Texas.”