A Practical Navigator for the Internet Economy

Executive Summary


The emerald city of the Wizard of Oz has moved to Kansas City.  In deciding how to handle the hoped for bounty of Google fiber, the machinations that we are hearing about involving the intent of a potential Kauffman Foundation grant of upwards of many hundred thousand dollars a year on behalf of local citizens who cannot afford access to the Internet reminds me of the doings of the wizard as he stands behind the the bi-state throne of the two mayors of the respective Kansas cities.

Some positive programs appear to be under discussion, but do they bear any resemblance to the real needs of their clientele?  Not as far as we can tell. For the Kauffman people, as seems to have long been their preference, live in their own elite world and ask others to recommend how they should spend the foundation's money.  In this case the “wizard” that sources say has Kauffman’s ear is Aaron Deacon, the local social media guru who heads his own marketing firm and has been openly chosen to advise the local politicians how to package and sell Kansas City’s good fortune.

It seems as though the local power brokers are rewarding Aaron for his demonstrated ability to turn the tables on Google and get other people to register residents of poor fiberhoods as willing to become customers of Google Fiber. In Gogol’s Dead Souls, Chichikov found out that serf “ownership” could be acquired on the cheap by buying the papers (“certificates”) of recently deceased serfs.  In this case the “certificates” were acquired by paying Google the ten dollar fee on behalf of poor who lived in the target fiberhoods.  With enough “certificates” the fiberhood would turn green and Google would have to connect the local school or public library branch at no charge to the community.

A critical question is whether Kauffman will be getting sound strategy advice that empowers the poor neighborhoods on whose behalf they are allegedly acting.  We tell the inspiring story in this issue of how over the past more than 40 years  black-led technology groups have been empowering local youth.  A story of which, bizarrely enough, most other Kansas Citians are unaware. One would hope that Kauffman would make grants designed to teach high school students how to install radios and build their own unlicensed wireless internet infrastructure. Instead we are told that no one from Kauffman has ever sat down with the local technology visionaries who have inspired generations of youth from the Kansas City urban core.  Programs are set to roll out but some appear to be rehashes of prior paternalistic treatment of local organizations.  One new possibility that is garnering excitement is Google Fiber connections for what used to be city run community centers. Some a century old.  And all requiring local residents to pay for use because city coffers are empty. The idea is that computer labs will be built in each center which will become hotbeds of local creativity.  What we hear nothing about however is funding local groups and teaching them how to build their own new infrastructure.  

What is needed to make a real difference is not a half dozen new digitally connected citizen centers but six times that many.    Not just a single Clint-Wynn-led digital skills training program but at  least ten such.  Not just three public housing complexes on line, but every such entity in both cities.  We are told that Kauffman stands, at its core, for the entrepreneurial ethos.  But the question that must be asked is will its digital divide efforts fund new entrepreneurs who build and run their own ISPs or will they just subsidize the incumbents to provide discounted connectivity? There is an opportunity to create a coordinated unified operation of skills training and workforce development ranging from the most impoverished single parents of Rosedale Ridge, to robotics clubs in local struggling schools, to the students of Lincoln Prep. Where is the entrepreneur who will step forward and get rid of standardized, no-child-left-behind testing that has devastated Kansas City’s public schools? If no one will take any chances with the design of efforts that will overturn the status quo and create online based alternative educational infrastructure, both Kansas Cities will fail to achieve their current needs thanks to piece meal uncoordinated efforts. The opportunity here is to coordinate them into something much larger than the apparent sum of their parts.

The city has put forward something called the Digital Inclusion Coalition with Michael Liimatta representing Connecting for Good, Cheptoo Kositany, the Public Library, and Aaron Deacon, the Digital Drive  — this last being tasked with rather vague and otherwise meaningless marketing oriented goals like “building broad-based coalitions around technology advancement.”  What seems to be missing is the specificity of focus on workforce and employment issues with employers, public schools and the University of Missouri Kansas City.  As pointed out in our Conclusions section beginning on page 167 below, a lot of efforts that do attract attention are neoliberal in their orientation.

They are focused on approaches that, as recently as the 1970s might have encouraged prosperous businesses to invest in the public interest in Kansas City and actually use their profits to further the kinds of investment described herein. Unfortunately digital divide investments now often depend on tax credits where instead of paying taxes to fund needed projects a corporate entity will contribute the local Kansas City Community Development Entity funds that may support a small scale wifi project.  The company gets its tax break and more wealth is moved upwards into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

This report, however, contains genuine inspiration. Namely the republication of Leon Dixon’s memoir on the DuBois Learning Center’s Telehub project.  It is the inspiring tale of how a small group of African Americans to the good fortune they won in the civil rights campaigns and invested it in a self-funded effort to develop a culturally-based supplemental educational system that has enabled multiple generations of black entrepreneurs to succeed despite the on-gong destruction of programs once done in the public interest.  Good could be done for the people of Kansas City, if some of these public-spirited programs we describe could be nurtured in such a way as to strengthen grass roots-based community support systems.

This report also traces the forces released by Google Fiber’s first urban fiber build in the United States.  Forces that we can expect to see repeated in similar fashion across the country as the Google Fiber effort expands into new cities.  The technology aspects of fiber are well understood.  What is less clear are the possible openings for the nurturing and survival of grassroots, culturally based, and self-built technology alternatives.

One thing unique to Kansas City is that the University of Missouri Kansas City has an Economics Department is the national leader in the very slowly emerging idea of Modern Monetary Theory. MMT challenges the alleged free market successes of neoliberal economics that are being used across the country to undergird the political policies that are destroying the middle class.  We very much support the idea that an alliance between the culturally rooted educational technical programs explored herein and the iconoclastic UMKC Economics Department be explored.

The work of the DuBois Learning Center and that of BFTAA form a well-rooted approach to a Kansas City digital divide - one that has been accentuated by Google’s arrival. Perhaps some of the needed material resources could be derived from an emerging musical (jazz) and small business scene. (More on that in our next issue.)  Stepping back, Michael Liimatta summed it up rather well: “The verdict is still out on so much of this.  On a daily, grind it out level, there isn't much glamour in all of this. We can talk about global transformation on a grand scale but I don't want all of this to be a flash in the pan feel good experience for a few people. The tough part is patiently working to build something that will be sustainable so that we will see a longterm sea change in these under resourced inner city communities.”

“We can squawk a lot about injustice and inequity, but for the long haul there has to be real resources channeled toward offsetting decades of withheld infrastructure and community disinvestment. The lack of access to the Internet - and all the resources it can offer - is the inevitable outcome of all the cultural, economic, political and racial forces that make life in Kansas City's immigrant and minority communities so challenging. I suppose this interchange with you has strengthened my resolve to continue our emphasis on building Connecting for Good as an organization that keeps its focus on social enterprise as its primary means of support. So far this year, selling refurbished PCs and IT support for small nonprofits has generated over half of our operating revenue. That's been enough to keep three staff members and several volunteers and interns in the fight. I have yet to take any compensation myself, deriving my personal support as academic dean of City Vision College  -- an online college I founded in 1998.”

“At least with having a level of self generated income we can stay on track and not be so dependent on the whims of the philanthropic and political power brokers.  There will always be a need for below market rate PCs that we rescue from the scrap dealers. And requiring those who get them to take a three hour class first will allow us to create in the adults we serve a self confidence with technology that will be transferred to the next generation.  I guess my big dream is that one day for these inner city kids, being an IT professional or entrepreneur will be just as cool as being a pro athlete or hip hop star. Of course, this will never happen if they have no access to the Internet when they leave the school buildings, whether at home or at some other public space.”

But it will take much more.  Rather than an attitude of coming down from the mountain bearing “gifts,” those operating within this sphere must have or build close ties to the communities within which they work. They must become rooted within the culture and know who the local heroes are.  The bulk of this issue is taken up with shining light on one such hero. We offer the memoir: World of Our Dreams by Leon Dixon.  We should try avoid the absurdity of coming into a community offering technology projects and education without any awareness that the DuBois Center ever existed — something that Leon told me happens all the time in Kansas City.  The work of Cheptoo and Michael is a step in the right direction, but only a step.  What is needed is a more serious move.  One such might well be to put resources into the hands of people like Clint Wynn and Anita Dixon - people who are a part of the urban inner core and who understand how access to technology can be used to provide not only physical necessities but establish a source of personal and cultural well being.



Executive Summary       p.3
Introduction             p. 7

Leon Dixon - Bringing back Telehub A short interview p.11
Editor’s Introduction to Leon Dixon’s World of Our Dreams  p.15

World of Our Dreams, by Leon Dixon  p. 21
Prelude  p.21  The complete unedited memoir is available at www.cookreport.com/pdfs/telehubPrelude-unedited.pdf
Chapter One: Seven steps to Heaven  p.21
Chapter Two: Giant steps  p. 37
Chapter Three: Stepping into Tomorrow  p. 46
Chapter Four: Steppin’ Out p. 59
Interlude: Congo Square  p.67
Chapter Five: Observations p.71
Chapter Six: Contemplation p.82
Chapter Seven: Inner Visions p. 92
Postlude:  Familiar Waters p.101

George Lewis Walker and the Black Family Technology Awareness Association  p. 107
Problems of educational system without Role models  p. 108  Telehub p. 112  What is Overall Goal? p.117

The Google Fiber Role out in Kansas City June 2012 to December 2014  p.119
State of broadband internet access     p.122  Mayor’s bistate innovation team p.126  Enter the Social Media Club  p.131  But no good deed goes unpunished p. 134    In Kansas City few poor people sign up p.136

Digital Haves and Have nots in Kansas City: Google Provides Infrastructure While up to KC to do the Rest  p.145
Free Network Foundation p.147  Connecting for Good p. 149  Situation as seen from point of view of FNF p.152  As we near the end of the year p.153  Community Learning & Access Center p. 154  Other resources  p.156

Conclusion p. 167