Google Fiber Splits Along Kansas City’s Digital Divide

Two days before the deadline to get neighborhoods signed up, Google’s effort to bring ultra-high-speed internet to a major American city could end up reinforcing the digital divide.

When Google Fiber launched in late July, the announcement of the service came with the caveat that to get the super-fast 1 gigabit broadband hookups, neighborhoods would have to pre-register a certain percentage of households for the service. The deadline for pre-registrations is Sunday at midnight.

Google has a map publicly tracking which neighborhoods meet the goal. As of Friday afternoon, Kansas City, Missouri, looks divided pretty much straight down the middle. On the western half of the city, nearly all neighborhoods have turned green, indicating they’ve met the goal. To the east, most are still yellow, meaning they haven’t met the goal. Right down the middle between the two halves runs Troost Avenue, the city’s historical socioeconomic and racial dividing line. Based on the map generated by the signup data, Google’s project is the latest to fall short of bridging that gap.

“The white, affluent neighborhoods qualified and the primarily black, lower-income neighborhoods didn’t,” says Michael Liimatta, who runs a Kansas City nonprofit that works to bring broadband access to low-income residents. Liimatta’s group, Connect for Good, focused on getting one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, qualified. They succeeded thanks to heavy campaigning and door-to-door efforts, he says.

Google did not go into Kansas City blind to the issue of the digital divide, says company spokeswoman Jenna Wandres. It has 60 representatives on the streets trying to convince people without internet access of the benefits of getting their homes online, Wandres says. (That number will go up to about 100 for this final weekend, she says.) But the process is a challenge, with typical conversations lasting around 25 minutes per resident. Before coming into Kansas City, Wandres says Google did a survey that found about 25 percent of residents didn’t have internet access at home. While affordability is one part of the equation, she says Google found another factor keeping people offline was relevance. “They don’t think they need it,” Wandres says. “They don’t see why.”

Troost Avenue is Kansas City, Missouri’s historical dividing line between rich and poor, white and black.

A week ago, Google effectively lowered the minimum number of households needed for qualification for about one-third of Kansas City’s neighborhoods after complaints from residents. The company said in a blog post that it had overestimated the number of residents in those neighborhoods in part by miscounting vacant lots and abandoned homes. The adjusted count means fewer households now need to pre-register in 73 neighborhoods. But that lower threshold hasn’t helped in many neighborhoods, according to Google’s map, at least not yet.

The company says its pre-registration model helps it keep construction costs down by only bringing the service to areas showing demand. Wandres says those savings get passed on to customers, who will be able to get a connection the company is calling 100 times faster than the average broadband connection, but for about the same price – around $70 per month. Without the efficiencies created by not digging trenches and laying down fiber until demand reaches a critical mass, Wandres says Google wouldn’t be able to offer its free service at all. She points to the free service as a clear sign of Google’s commitment to internet access for everyone.

‘The challenging part is there has been a digital divide before Google got here. They didn’t create this, but in their attempt to bridge it, they may end up widening it.’ — Rick ChambersBut Liimatta says the pre-registration process itself set a high bar for those already on the wrong side of the digital divide. To pre-register, residents needed to be willing to pony up $10. They also needed a credit or debit card, a Google Wallet account, and a Gmail account, which are harder to come by if you never had internet access in the first place. “Many don’t even have bank accounts,” Liimatta says. “That’s why there are so many check-cashing places out there.”

Wandres says Google’s field representatives have 3G-enabled Chromebooks to help get people signed up. She says Google will also accept a pre-paid debit card.

The lowest tier of service offered by Google Fiber guarantees a free broadband connection for at least seven years, though customers must still come up with a $300 startup fee (which Google says covers its construction costs). Google has also promised to offer broadband for free to public institutions such as schools. The catch: The neighborhoods surrounding the schools need to reach the pre-registration goal to get Google’s fiber unspooled to the area in the first place.

A house across from the Genesis School in a neighborhood east of Troost Avenue still far from its pre-registration goal to get Google Fiber.

Take for example the Genesis School, a public school for kindergarten through eighth grade in a neighborhood well east of Troost Avenue designated by Google Fiber as Vineyard Northwest. According to the Google Fiber website, Vineyard Northwest has 12 pre-registrations as of Friday afternoon. The neighborhood needs 37 more for the Genesis School to get a free connection. Average listing price for a home in the ZIP code that includes Vineyard Northwest and the Genesis School: about $35,000, according to real estate website Trulia.

A house near Border Star Montessori School in a neighborhood west of Troost Avenue that will getting Google Fiber, ranks fourth out of 128 Kansas City, Missouri, neighborhoods in pre-registration rates.

West of Troost Avenue, Border Star Montessori School in the Wornall Homestead neighborhood will be getting a free Google Fiber connection thanks to the 175 residents who put the neighborhood above the preregistration threshold several times over. Average home listing price in that zip code: $398,000, again according to Trulia.

Rick Chambers, executive director of the Center Education Foundation, which raises money for a school district that includes many students east of Troost Avenue, has organized a pavement-pounding effort to get poorer neighborhoods pre-registered. He says Google has supported his campaign even though those neighborhoods won’t likely be profitable for the company, since most residents who sign up will choose the free service. Still, he says the latest gulf that’s opened along Troost Avenue has stirred up old emotions with deep roots in the city’s segregated history.

“The challenging part is there has been a digital divide before Google got here. They didn’t create this,” Chambers says. “But in their attempt to bridge it, they may end up widening it.”

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