Another First for Kansas City: Free Google Fiber For Low-Income Housing Residents

Feb 4, 2016

West Bluff resident Eugene Stegall Bey tries out Google Fiber
Credit Google Fiber

Some low-income housing residents in Kansas City now have some of the fastest Internet in the country — for free.

Kansas City is the first place Google Fiber is giving away its premier service, at no cost to users or the government. That’s because the city has become a primary laboratory in the effort to close the digital divide.

HUD Secretary Julian Castro announced the free Google Fiber roll out at West Bluff housing complex Wednesday
Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

Kansas City was the first to get Google Fiber, and the service came with a promise to help close the “digital divide."  

Google offered traditional-speed Internet service for free, after users paid a $300 installation fee. That put off many renters.

And, though Google Fiber wired schools in its service area for free, some feared that the proliferation of ultra-fast Internet could exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the gap between digital haves and have-nots.

HUD Secretary Julian Castro says Google Fiber providing free gigabit service beginning in Kansas City’s West Bluff housing project, will change lives.  

“For families here, at West Bluff, the days when young folks had to research a paper using the Wi-Fi at McDonalds, or research a paper using a library computer, are over,” said Castro during a visit to West Bluff Wednesday.

Castro would like to say the same of all public housing residents.

The Obama administration’s ConnectHome initiative aims to hook up something on the order of a quarter million low income households in 27 cities and a Native American reservation. That work has begun in other cities, but not with the deluxe service Google Fiber plans to provide to some 1,300 low-income households here.

“This is the first time that low-income Americans will have access to free, gigabit speed Internet, said Castro. “That is something that everyone in Kansas City ought to be proud of.”

Kansas City digital inclusion activist Michael Liimatta now directs the federal ConnectHome program.
Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

Proud because Kansas City’s selection for this first wasn’t happenstance. As the first Google Fiber city, Kansas City has been grappling with digital disparity more purposefully than many places, and that struggle has been led by a fellow named Michael Liimatta. 

Liimatta founded and led an organization called Connecting for Good in Kansas City, with a mission of providing, not just access to the Internet, but also computers, and training to low income citizens.  Last year, the Obama administration tapped him to lead its ConnectHome initiative.

“They wanted someone who really knows, from the grassroots,” says Liimatta. 

Liimatta says the work going on in Kansas City has informed Internet service providers, as well as policy makers.

“Google is learning what it means to close the digital divide too,” he says. “I think through the efforts of the very robust digital inclusion community and partnerships going on in Kansas City, they’ve also learned to close the digital divide and it’s become more important to them.”

Liimatta says Kansas City is a “mentor city” in dealing with the digital divide. 

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can find him on Twitter, @FrankNewsman.