Municipal broadband

Kansas City updates tech in bid to boost business

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While Google Fiber is a major draw for many residents and startups, according to Kansas City, Mo., officials, a nonprofit called Connecting for Good is hoping to expand the number of poor families in the area that can reach the Internet in any way possible.

The mostly volunteer organization recruits high school interns to refurbish old desktop computers, which are sold for $75 apiece to any low-income person who completes a free three-hour training course. More than 1,000 computers were refurbished for the program last year, says Michael Liimatta, co-founder and CEO of the group. They were all sold.

kc forgood

In the basement of a community center in Kansas City, Kan., the nonprofit Connecting for Good stores dozens of old PCs it plans to refurbish. Everet Leimer (left) volunteers more than 30 hours a week helping interns rebuild machines. The nonprofit's CEO Michael Liimatta (right) says the need is great for both computers and Internet connections for low-income families in the region.

To connect families to the Internet, Connecting for Good has set up 70 mesh network antennas from Meraki atop small homes in the Juniper Gardens housing project of Kansas City, Kan. to feed nearby residents free Wi-Fi. The homes are located in a ZIP code with one of the lowest incomes in the entire state.

About 70% of the usage of the free Wi-Fi comes from smartphones, according to Liimatta. Many of the families can't afford a desktop or laptop computer as well as the added cost of Internet access, while also trying to pay for food and housing, Liimatta says.

Surveys by Pew Research and others point to large numbers of people who don't see the Internet as relevant to their lives or who find it hard to use, but Connecting for Good says there is plenty of interest in the Kansas City area in learning how to use computers and to connect to the Internet, even at slower speeds.

Google hasn't been able to achieve the penetration for Google Fiber in poorer neighborhoods that many observers had hoped for. Google addressed the matter in a recent blog post, noting that finding the solutions to the digital divide is a "long-term, complex problem."

Despite this, there is strong interest among people in these communities to discover and use the Internet, Liimatta says on a short drive in his old pickup truck from Juniper Gardens to a storefront on Troost Ave. that Connecting for Good uses as a classroom center in a tired-looking commercial neighborhood on the Missouri side.

"People want access, and we're trying to lower the barriers to their being productive digital citizens," Liimatta says. "The Internet is one of the more life-transforming resources."

Computers are key to creating a resume and managing a job search, or even to finding medical resources, he says. They've also proven essential for high school and college coursework.

Grants from private and government sources to Connecting for Good have dried up, so the organization relies heavily on those refurbished computer sales pay its costs, including space for its free classes.

At its Troost location, a Connecting for Good class underway one Friday afternoon includes several older, mostly African-American women who are being taught computer basics by volunteer Johnathon Pruitt. He seems to have some trouble explaining how computer storage works to a woman who has just learned how to use a mouse and keyboard.

Nevertheless, Liimatta smiles proudly as he looks over the class. He says he's even prouder that his organization has begun "training the trainer" classes to help churches and other nonprofits offer free computer classes to even more residents. City officials refer to him as the "Mother Teresa of the digital divide," a designation that makes him chuckle even if there's a slight ring of truth to the moniker. As a former church pastor, he brings a humble religious fervor to his work.

"Less than 20% of the 18,000 students in the Kansas City, Missouri, public schools have in-home Internet, while 90% of kids in the suburbs do," Liimatta says on a short drive to a well-known KC eatery, Gates Barbecue, for lunch. "What kind of economic disadvantage is that? Most of us are so connected that we don't think of those without Internet at all. We're just keeping this issue on people's minds. Our biggest enemy is apathy. Internet connectivity really is a social justice issue."

Organizations promoting tech startups in the Kansas City area seem to be well aware of the digital divide right in their backyards. Connecting for Good actually began as a startup in the KCSV community, mainly to take advantage of low rents; Liimatta counts the Village startups among Connecting for Good's best donors and sources of volunteers.

But KCSV and other startup incubators and accelerators have a decidedly different mission from Connecting for Good: Their mission mainly revolves around building interest in entrepreneurship for students and others, even on a national and international stage. "We've hosted many student groups, ranging in all ages from grade school to university, to help them understand the viability of entrepreneurship as a professional career path," KCSV's Marcus says.

One long-term goal of the city is to bring more residents to live in new lofts, condos and apartments now popping up in abundance throughout the downtown. The downtown area currently has only about 20% of the residents that its infrastructure could potentially support, says Ashley Hand, chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo.

Cisco's smart city

There's so much recent interest in promoting tech innovations and tech startups in the KC area that it is hard to predict what will ultimately stick. The arrival of the KC Downtown Streetcar line in 2015 and the associated smart-city Cisco project both hold enormous promise.

Even with all the excitement, some entrepreneurs are worried about the strength of Sprint's commitment to the area and to its Accelerator. The nation's third-largest carrier (by number of subscribers) is likely to slip to fourth place by year-end, and layoffs have been announced nationwide by new Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. Sprint has, however, indicated its commitment to the accelerator for at least the next year with a recent announcement that applications are open for the 2015 Mobile Health Accelerator.

For now, downtown buildings are still emblazened with huge advertising murals touting Sprint's "new" network and pricing, and the company's name is used for a striking metal-clad downtown indoor arena called Sprint Center.

Even if Sprint remains a permanent fixture in the downtown and the region, with Softbank of Japan owning 80% of the carrier, the long-term future seems somewhat uncertain.

At the time of the smart-city announcement in May, Cisco also said it planned to work with Think Big to manage a "living lab" for entrepreneurial development to help address some of the city's challenges.

Those challenges include finding ways to better manage aging city infrastructure, including energy conservation with city streetlights that could be dimmed on clear, moonlit nights. Or, sensors could be installed to monitor underground utilities for failures or to automatically alert a driver whose car is blocking a streetcar line, well before the streetcar arrives. Kiosks at the new transit stops along the line can also potentially become Wi-Fi hotspots for tourists, nearby workers and even residents.

City officials fully expect Cisco to move ahead with the downtown smart-city project, and boast it will be the biggest of its kind in the world. Even so, Cisco hasn't provided more details about the project since it was first announced in May, and the company declined further comment for this story.

Separately, there are rumors that the Bloomberg Philanthropies organization in New York is interested in some manner of technology-related assistance for Kansas City, Mo., although neither Kansas City nor Bloomberg would comment. Kansas City officials say the Ford Foundation and the League of Cities have also taken interest in the area's digital innovations and small business promotion.

By far, the biggest infusion of public money in Kansas City, Mo., toward the tech renaissance will be the streetcar line. It "has presented a unique opportunity for a smart-city network overlay," Hand says. "It's a huge opportunity to take something that's new to the urban experience for a lot of people and provide the highest customer experience possible."

With the cooperation of the city's Streetcar Authority, Hand says fiber optic cable can be fed to each catenary pole spaced 90 feet apart that brings electricity to the streetcars. From there, Wi-Fi antennas could be attached, giving fast Internet connections in hot zones along the line to create relatively widespread Internet use for visitors, residents and workers.

A symbol of the coming KC streetcar line is an outdoor exhibit of a lone streetcar from a bygone era. It sits under a protective roof next to the Amtrak entrance to Union Station, near where the modern streetcar line will terminate. The streetcar's northern terminus will end two miles to the north, just steps from a wooden footbridge that leads to a platform overlooking the muddy Missouri River. In between the two ends, city planners hope: An incipient world of tech and arts and vibrancy.

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A footbridge allows visitors to walk to a platform overlooking the fast-moving Missouri River. The platform sits where commerce first began in early Kansas City in the 1840s with riverboats using the rivers as highways to move goods and people.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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