Economically distressed neighborhoods in Kansas City are at a bigger disadvantage than ever before, Rick Usher said, urging residents to combat digital inclusion as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend the way Kansas Citians learn and work.
“Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing us to social distance in ways that include remote work and distance learning; residents, students, employees and small business owners — who have been unable to subscribe to internet services — are being further impacted,” added Usher, KCMO assistant city manager for entrepreneurship and small business.
In response to that challenge, the city of Kansas City is asking residents to share their thoughts on a newly drafted request for qualification (RFQ) that gauges community feedback on its digital equity strategic plan, originally adopted in 2017.
“The goal of the RFQ for digital equity is to increase the number of families, students, employees and small business owners who are subscribing to internet services in Kansas City,” Usher said, noting the document will inform decision making and support training programs and job opportunity partnerships for residents exploring permanent remote work employment.
The effort is also expected to benefit entrepreneurs, greatly impacted by remote working scenarios, he added.
“Entrepreneurs and small business owners will be introduced to partnerships for internet access, access to computers and hardware and most importantly, access to training, education and technical support,” he said.
Initiatives rolled out by the likes of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, KC Rising, and the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) will also be given a fair shot with equitable access to internet services for employees and program participants, Usher said.
“Kansas City is served by the best internet service providers and wireless service providers in the country. Flexjobs recently rated Kansas City as the best city in the U.S. for remote work, based on access to high-speed internet and the relatively low cost of living we enjoy,” he offered as reasoning for creating digital equity across the region and in reference to the success of initiatives outlined by the digital equity strategic plan.
According to the city of KCMO, there are 36 internet service providers in Kansas City — including five that offer speeds of up to 1,000 megabytes per second. Four wireless carriers in the area promise the fastest networks in the country.
As a result of the effort, 94 percent of residents, students and small businesses have access to such services, but lower- income communities remain disconnected — further offline as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — the city noted during a June 18 city council meeting.
“We have a strong community of organizations and school districts seeking to close the digital divide and we need a high level of cooperation and collaboration to bring these efforts together to close the digital divide,” Usher said.
In the physical world, the city has donated 650 computers to PCs for People as part of its digital upcycle program. Additional devices are set to be delivered soon, Usher said.
“We are also hoping more employers in the KC region will join the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Employer Laptop Challenge,” he added.