By MIKE HENDRICKS
(KANSAS CITY, Mo., AP) — When you’re living off disability checks and buying groceries with food stamps, there’s not much room in the budget for even the bargain-basement plans Internet service providers offer.
But now comes KC Freedom Network.
Since last fall, a consortium of nonprofit groups has been trying to bridge the digital divide by building what, for Kansas City, is a new kind of Internet service. One that for now is absolutely free to the 1,000 people who already can get it in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan.
The key: While most Internet service providers deliver the Net to homes via copper or, in Google’s case, fiber optic cable, KC Freedom Network has gone airborne.
With microwave dishes and Wi-Fi systems, it uses the airwaves to connect people who might not otherwise have broadband Internet service.
As far as the project’s backers are concerned, there is no limit on how big the KC Freedom Network will get.
Not that the big guys are sweating it.
A spokeswoman for Google says there are big differences between the quality of Internet service her company provides and that of efforts like KC Freedom Network, but Google welcomes the effort all the same.
“It’s great that Kansas City nonprofits are working to get their neighbors online,” Jenna Wandres said. “The more groups who are thinking about the digital divide and working on locally driven solutions, the better.”
KC Freedom Network’s effort to achieve better access for KC’s core is seen by some as an exciting experiment.
“In as much as we’re trying to bring digital access to the poor, this is a unique and valuable system to do that,” said Aaron Deacon, managing director at KC Digital Drive, a group encouraging Kansas City to become a leader in digital innovation.
Besides the technology, the other thing that makes KC Freedom Network different from other providers is that it’s structured much like a food cooperative, owned by its members.
So far, grants have covered the $60,000 startup costs, but eventually a bargain-basement subscription model will keep it going, organizers say.
“It really is cutting-edge stuff,” said Michael Liimatta at Connecting for Good, a nonprofit that’s lead partner in the endeavor. “People have this notion that you have to go through Google or Time Warner to get the Internet. … We say, why not get it wholesale?”
Most of us take home Web access for granted, even if we swallow hard when we see the bill. Low-income people, however, are less likely to have Internet access, which puts them at a huge disadvantage in today’s economy.
Many employers accept only online job applications. School kids often need access to do their homework.
So Liimatta and his friend Rick Deane co-founded Connecting for Good back in 2011 with the aim of getting poor folks online.
Connecting for Good teaches basic computing skills to people who don’t know how to log onto a computer much less surf the Web for jobs and social services. Anyone completing the course qualifies for a refurbished laptop for as low as $50.
It was about the time the group was formed that Google announced it had chosen Kansas City, Kan., for the rollout of its ultra-high-speed Internet service.
All of a sudden, the digital divide discussion grew even louder. While charging $70 a month for its premium service, Google promised to provide conventional broadband for only $300, which gets you seven years of guaranteed access.
Problem was, entire, mostly poor neighborhoods were in danger of being left out because too few property owners paid a deposit for service.
And even within areas where the low-cost version of Google Fiber was being installed, people at some low-income apartment complexes were being left out because the complex owners didn’t want to sign up.
That’s when Connecting for Good went to work setting up what’s known as wireless mesh networks.
Think of a mesh network as akin to a Wi-Fi router in your house, only on a larger scale. Often mesh networks simply redistribute the signal from an Internet provider. But Connecting for Good couldn’t work out an arrangement with Google at one Kansas City, Kan., apartment complex.
Enter Kansas City native Isaac Wilder, who became something of a legend among his counterculture peers two years ago when he set up 9-foot-tall towers in New York’s Zuccotti Park, beaming free Internet service throughout the Occupy Wall Street encampment.
Forget Google, Wilder said. Go wireless.
Free, wireless Internet connections that link mesh networks to each other have been around a while. Seattle and other cities have had them for many years. It’s being done extensively in Spain.
But combining the two technologies on the scale that KC Freedom Network has in mind is a first for Kansas City.
After securing some grant funding in 2012, Connecting for Good set to work buying equipment and data services. Its mesh networks now provide broadband service to Rosedale Ridge in Kansas City, Kan., and two other low-income apartment complexes: Juniper Gardens in Kansas City, Kan., and Posada Del Sol on Kansas City’s west side.
Juniper Gardens’ Internet system is still hooked to regular cable. But the other two get their signal from KC Freedom Network.
Connecting for Good buys bandwidth for a few hundred dollars a month from a wholesaler in Oak Tower, one of two downtown office buildings with access to transcontinental fiber-optic lines.
From the 26th floor, KC Freedom Network beams its signal from two dishes. One is aimed at Rosedale Ridge and Posada Del Sol, the other at a building on Troost Avenue, where Connecting for Good has its headquarters.
“We could shoot eight miles in any direction from here,” Liimatta said.
Which means any number of apartment complexes, businesses or groups of homeowners in Kansas City could join the network. Recently the Mutual Musicians Foundation in the 18th and Vine Jazz District joined and set up a Wi-Fi hotspot for the neighborhood.
“We have bridged the digital divide in an urban community,” said foundation vice president Anita Dixon.
The potential market for KC Freedom Network is broader than the poor, urban neighborhoods. Suburban subdivisions might also be inclined to join in.
The quality of the signal isn’t always the best. At Rosedale Ridge, Danielle Carpenter and her friend Krista Taylor say they’re glad to have access. But with Wi-Fi, as in real estate, it all comes down to location, location and location.
“People on that side get it better,” Taylor says pointing to the far end of the complex.
“I’m at the bottom on the back,” Carpenter said, “and I don’t get a good signal.”
Plus, it’s not like KC Freedom Network has a fleet of service trucks to come fix things. Maria Kline, president of the Juniper Gardens tenants association, complains that Connecting for Good has been slow to improve reception there.
“I get it pretty good,” she said, “but it crashes a lot.”
Liimatta says his organization is working on that.