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Free Gigabit Project Bridges Digital Divide in Lawrence Public Housing

Public-Private Partnership Brings Free Gigabit Service to 130 Households

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Above image credit: Lawrence Mayor Brad Finkeldei, Patrick Kelley, executive director of Curriculum and Instruction for USD 497, Mike Bosch founder and CEO of RG Fiber, Shannon Oury, executive director of Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority, and Heather McNeive, director of general housing with LDCHA, were among the attendees at the splice event on Feb. 5, 2021. The event marked the launch of free gigabit internet for the residents of Edgewood Homes. (Courtesy | Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority)

LAWRENCE, Kan. — In 2020, Sarah Ready was working two jobs, one from home, while her daughter was attending school remotely. They also had to keep themselves entertained indoors as a pandemic raged on.

Suffice to say, internet access was vital.

“It would be annoying, especially when I was doing a lot at one time,” Ready said. “It would be frustrating, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when I had my old internet.”

She was paying about $50 a month for an internet connection that would stall or pause from time to time. Now, thanks to a new partnership of the Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority (LDCHA) and some local organizations, Ready and the other tenants of Edgewood Homes in Lawrence have access to free gigabit speed internet.

“When I first got that letter on the door, I was excited because I’ll be able to save that money,” Ready said.

Ready is the Lawrence Habitat for Humanity homeowner this year, and will use the money she is now saving on the internet to invest in her home that will begin construction this April. She says she will also use that extra money to address some back issues that she has been dealing with since the beginning of 2020.

“It’s actually going to help me physically, because I work two jobs, I’m a single parent and I’m constantly on the go, so I need my health to be good,” Ready said. “So it’s been a huge, huge help. Like, I was very happy.”

The LDCHA is a part of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectedHomeUSA program’s 2018 cohort. The program was launched in 2015 to address the homework gap for K-12 students in public and Native American housing.

According to a Kansas Health Institute study on broadband access in the state, nearly half of Kansans with income below the national poverty level lack adequate access to the internet. A quarter of children also lacked access to the internet.

Long Time Coming

Heather McNeive, director of general housing for LDCHA, has seen the need for increased digital access among residents in public housing for a while.

“I was relentless,” McNeive said. “Digital equity and digital literacy are things that I’m really passionate about for our tenants, especially our kids. Because I would see the disparities with the kids able to do their homework, and with the adults trying to apply for jobs and other things that they didn’t have access to or just didn’t have the skill.”

LDCHA started applying for the program in 2017. In 2018 they were accepted. Over the next couple of years, the housing authority collected smaller grants here and there to provide devices for some of their residents.

Then 2020 hit.

Heather McNeive, director of general housing for the Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority
Heather McNeive stands in one of Edgewood’s computer labs on March 8, 2021. McNeive saw a need for digital equity at Edgewood Homes, and has pushed to get the residents adequate internet access. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

“Honestly, what really accelerated things from zero to 60 was the pandemic,” McNeive said.

The pandemic focused attention on the issue of digital access. As people were forced to move their work, education and social lives online, having reliable speeds became increasingly important. That was especially true in public housing, where access in Kansas has not been reliable.

The housing authority was able to get a proposal out in April 2020 for service providers. They decided to go with RG Fiber, a Kansas-based service provider that provided expanded access in Baldwin City, Kansas. They also secured a $25,000 Community Development Block Grant from the city of Lawrence to fund infrastructure costs.

But what is the point of high speed internet if you don’t have a device to access it with?

During the pandemic Edgewood had to close its computer labs in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, access to devices for residents was limited.

That’s where The Jefferson’s Foundation came in.

The nonprofit was founded in 2018 with the purpose of helping children of lesser means in their community. When the foundation heard about the project in February of 2021, it cut a check within the week for $10,000 that will be spent on laptops and tablets for the 142 children that live in Edgewood.

“We felt it was a wonderful program to get involved with, especially with COVID,” said Pam Kirkpatrick, executive director of The Jefferson’s Foundation. “We found out that these kids did not have access to an internet service that could keep up with their schoolwork. Nor did they have the proper hardware equipment to do so.”

McNeive said that the housing authority hopes to have the new devices soon. They are also planning on expanding access to their Section 8 housing, and other public housing across Lawrence.

Fiber Solutions

Ask anyone involved with the project, and they will point to the same person as being vital to its execution.

“Honestly, this just wouldn’t have been possible without RG Fiber and Mike Bosch,” said Shannon Oury, executive director of LDCHA.

Bosch is the founder and CEO of RG Fiber, and was particularly drawn to this project because of his background. 

“I remember stories from my dad about living in public housing growing up,” Bosch said. “I don’t know why we are wired the way we are, but there is something deep within me just about equality, and people having equal access to reach their fullest potential.”

The passion for the issue that McNeive and Bosch shared made them a perfect fit, but that didn’t mean the project was without its snags.

Exterior view of Edgewood Homes in Lawrence, Kansas.
The corner of Edgewood Lane and 16th Street in Lawrence, Kansas. These homes will have access to free gigabit internet thanks to a public-private partnership between the Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority and local companies. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Early on, concerns from the housing authority on budget were abundant. Every time they came up, Bosch had the same mentality: we will find a way to make it work.

“They can’t be with a doctor, they can’t go to work, they can’t do their schoolwork,” Bosch said. “It doesn’t matter how hard they try. They literally are not enabled to do that, and I think it’s morally wrong. So when somebody says ‘the money is not right,’ I’m like, Okay, well, let’s figure out a way to make that work.”

Because of that, Bosch and RG Fiber had to run the project at a loss. It cost the company $100,000 to get the fiber in the ground, and to get free access to each of the 130 units at Edgewood.

All of these houses will get 1 gigabit per second upload and download speeds. That is 40 times as fast as the Federal Communications Commission’s standard definition for broadband of 25 megabits per second.

According to Bosch, comparing baseline broadband to gigabit speed is like “a race between a horse and buggy and a jet fighter.”

The current contract for the project is for five years, but McNeive says she hopes to have this project run forever.

“I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not going to let this go anywhere.”

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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