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When Dorie Muzquiz of Overland Park, Kansas, suddenly lost her job in the senior living industry last March, staying afloat meant choosing which bills to pay.
So she cut off her internet.
“I went that summer during the pandemic without internet,” Muzquiz said. “And it was horrible. I felt disconnected from the entire planet.”
Then her brother, who was living with her, had a heart attack followed by a stroke in September that led to myriad health issues. He needed a phone with an internet connection so he could make telehealth appointments with his doctor or contact Muzquiz in case of emergency.
One morning last fall, Muzquiz was watching a morning news show that mentioned a program to help Kansas City residents with their internet bills. She gave them a call.
“I was in tears because at this point, I needed to have the internet,” Muzquiz said. “I needed this internet to have telehealth appointments for my brother who was very, very sick. And they got me going.”
For Muzquiz, job hunting, staying connected during a pandemic and ensuring her brother had medical care would not have been possible without the Internet Access Support Program.
Launched last fall, the pandemic-era program helps Kansas City area households cover the cost of their internet bill at a time when many essential functions, from work to doctor’s appointments to school, moved online.
The program is overseen by KC Digital Drive, a local nonprofit dedicated to closing the digital access and equity gap in the Kansas City region. KC Digital Drive partnered with the Mid America Assistance Coalition, a social services agency in Kansas City, to create the program and handle the program’s administrative tasks.
According to Census data gathered by data organization mySidewalk, 14% of households in Kansas City, Missouri, don’t have internet. These households are disproportionately located in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, which have higher populations of people of color and lower income levels.
In Johnson County, about 5% do not have home internet service, according to the Census Bureau. In Wyandotte County, 16.7% do not have internet access.
So far, the Internet Access Support Program has assisted over 1,000 families, said Aaron Deacon, executive director of KC Digital Drive.
“We’ve had families whose kids had been disconnected and weren’t able to access their school. They were able to get back online,” he said.
Funding for the program came from two sources: the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
The Mid America Assistance Coalition received $600,000 from Johnson County. KC Digital Drive received $197,500 from Johnson County’s COVID-19 relief funds. The Mid America Assistance Coalition received an additional $250,000 from the Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
Families who qualify for the program can get help to pay off an old balance, get caught up on current service and pay for internet for up to six months. Households who need help paying their current internet bill can have up to $75 covered monthly.
It’s one of many programs in the region helping families with internet access, and advocates hope the model will continue as pandemic restrictions ease.
How the program helped Muzquiz get back on her feet
The Internet Access Support Program is covering Muzquiz’s household internet bills. She said it’s allowed her to get back on her feet without worrying about going further into debt. It’s helped her find a new job. It’s given her a sense of peace.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “I wouldn’t have found my job if I hadn’t had the internet to go on, you know, Indeed.com at my house and send in resumes.”
To qualify for the program, residents must earn less than twice the federal poverty level. According to the Internet Access Support Program website, that means a household of two must earn less than $2,873 monthly, and a household of four must make less than $4,367 a month.
Unlike the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program announced a few weeks ago, the Kansas City program does not limit qualifying households to participating service providers. Households can have any internet service, and the program can also help people find the plan that best fits their needs.
Deacon said it offers customers more choice and the ability to learn about their options. “Navigators” can help clients find the best solutions to their internet needs and understand their bills, for a more hands-on approach.
“There’s power in being able to make that choice, and being able to act as a consumer and choose the package that you think is best for you,” he said.
The Internet Access Support Program partnered with local school districts and community organizations to find eligible households and streamline the process.
Rachel Olhausen, program operations manager at Jewish Family Services, said her organization partnered with KC Digital Drive to connect its existing clients with the program.
She said KC Digital Drive then reimbursed Jewish Family Services for the clients receiving internet assistance through the Internet Access Support Program.
“JFS was already their point of entry,” she said. “So even though KC Digital Drive funded their internet, the clients didn’t have to go through another intake system, they didn’t have to go through another entity. We were able to coordinate services together, which was awesome.”
At the end of 2020, Olhausen said KC Digital Drive reimbursed Jewish Family Services about $17,000 for helping clients get internet assistance. Olhausen said the program helped serve older adults and families.
“I think this funding really helped people …. who … had to rely on internet like never before,” she said. “So maybe they were relying on it for schoolwork, or they were relying on it for work or looking for work after being furloughed or laid off. … It just allowed us to free up their finances.”
Why internet service is not like other utilities
At first, KC Digital Drive thought the Internet Access Support Program could be modeled after existing programs that assist households with utilities like gas or electricity.
“That was kind of the initial hope, was, ‘Oh, maybe we can just add internet to sort of an existing suite of services that we already have,’” Deacon said. “But it became clear as we kind of dug into the nuts and bolts of what that meant, that it really needed to operate a little bit differently.”
As Deacon and the Mid America Assistance Coalition found, the internet is not like gas or electricity. There are more internet services and providers to choose from. Service quality depends on the cost. Internet bills can look different.
So KC Digital Drive and the Mid America Assistance Coalition had to build a different infrastructure. Deacon turned to debit cards as the solution.
This way, KC Digital Drive would oversee the debit cards and use them to cover people’s internet bills. Digital Drive keeps the debit cards, which are in the client’s name, and then are used to cover monthly internet costs. The program’s funds then go to reimbursing the money spent on the debit cards.
Similar programs at the local, state and federal levels have been implemented to help families pay for their internet during the pandemic.
The federal Emergency Broadband Benefit, for example, is also available to households who meet certain income thresholds or other requirements.
But unlike the regional program, the benefit relies on internet providers to opt in and participate, limiting the plans offered to qualifying households.
Johnson County and the Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund used their COVID-19 relief dollars to fund similar initiatives. Johnson County provided $709,000 to fund the rural Johnson County fiber service and the Digital Navigators program, a program out of the Johnson County public library.
The regional coalition also allocated funding to organizations like the Kansas City Public Library and nonprofits Connecting for Good and Literacy KC to support their digital inclusion efforts.
The Internet Access Support Program will continue until its funding runs out. Deacon said the program is about 80% through its funding, which totaled a little over $1 million.
Deacon hopes the program can continue to exist even when the COVID-19 relief funds run out.
“We can’t pay 100,000 people’s internet bills every month indefinitely, right, I just don’t think that the financial support will be there to do that,” Deacon said. “But it is clear that there are a lot of really urgent and acute needs.”
Muzquiz can testify to that. Knowing that her brother can access the care he needs has meant relief.
“I would go as far as to say they saved my brother’s life because we were able to have the internet,” she said of the program.
“I was able to calmly look for a job and I have one now, thank God. I’m able to come to work and focus on my work and not worry about him because I know he has the internet.”
How you can apply for the Internet Access Support Program in Kansas City.
How can the Internet Access Support Program help me?
The Internet Access Support Program can help eligible residents cover the costs of their internet bill. The program can help with the following:
- Find an affordable internet service
- Pay off an old internet bill
- Get caught up with current internet service
- Pay for monthly internet costs for up to six months.
How much of my bill can be covered?
The Internet Access Support Program can cover up to $75 of your monthly internet bill. The program can also cover up to $225 of past internet bills.
What internet plans can I choose from?
There are no limitations on the plans available for households that are eligible for the program. Navigators with the program can also help you find an affordable internet plan that meets your digital needs.
Who is eligible for the program?
The program is available to households that have been impacted by COVID and whose household income is less than twice the federal poverty level. For a household of one, that amounts to income less than $2,127. For a household of two, the income must be less than $2,873. A breakdown of the income thresholds can be found here.
How do I apply?
To apply for the program, go to kcconnect.me/get-connected
Are there other programs that can help me pay for internet?
Recently, the Federal Communications Commission opened the Emergency Broadband Benefit to help people pay for their internet. Families who qualify can receive up to a $50 monthly discount on an internet plan offered by a service provider participating in the program. Households can also receive a $100 discount to purchase a device through a participating provider, as long as they pay between $10 and $50 toward the cost.
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.