Access Oasis versus Access Desert


Mary Sanchez


KANSAS CITY IS THE ENVY OF TECH GEEKS. The city is promised first-in-the-nation rollout of Google Fiber, an ultra fast connection 100 times speedier than typical broadband.

Google Fiber’s capabilities are the stuff of science fiction. No one knows what might evolve, what business or educational opportunities could transpire. But Google Fiber’s greatest accomplishment may not be a business application. It will be closing the digital divide.

In Kansas City the tech giant is set to either highlight or eradicate one of modern society’s barriers to class mobility; gaps between which households are Internet connected which are not. At this writing, it’s in the highlight phase.
Yet so far, swaths of Kansas City appear to be sitting this one out; unwilling to shell out a $10 deposit to help ensure access comes to their neighborhood, which would trigger free hookups for nearby schools, libraries, community centers and government offices.

That’s the concern; low-income areas, where students already lack the resources middle class families provide, will be left out. Google diced the metropolitan area up, mostly drawing around existing neighborhoods. Google calls the approximately 200 boundaries “fiberhoods.”

Each area has a percentage goal for pre-registrations—from 5 percent to 25 percent depending on population density and how difficult the area is to wire for access. When the “fiberhoods” meet their goal, Google commits. That fiberhood will get the service.

The deal, which has been expanded from initially just Kansas City, Kan., to include portions on the Missouri side too, also came with a civic challenge. A carrot, if you will.

More than 400 area public buildings—schools, libraries, police stations, community centers, municipal offices—will be wired for free if enough households around them pre-register. City officials chose the buildings.

Not surprising for a metropolitan city; splits by economic classes mirror racial and ethnic breakdowns. Poorer, predominantly black and Latino communities are not signing up very quickly, or not at all. Many might miss out altogether, and therefore, so will their neighborhood schools. That outcome has leadership in the area’s two main urban school districts upset.

Kansas City, Kan., public schools began providing a lap top for every high school student in 2007. But in a district where more than 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, many families don’t have Internet access at home, limiting student’s use away from school.

A 2010 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that young Hispanics, aged 16 to 25, have a much lower Internet usage rate, 77 percent, compared to about 95 percent for non-Hispanics. Among Google’s initial mentioned goals was increasing access to underserved areas. But they are a business, not a charity.

Google’s fees are $120 a month for the lightening-speed Internet and cable-style TV, or $70 a month for the fast Internet only. A third option is to pay $25 a month for one year for installation of a 5-megabits-per-second Internet connection, with no other costs for seven years.

Obviously, for households on a tight budget, the fees alone might dissuade. Another reality is the transient nature of low-income areas. Why would you wire a household with the latest and greatest of technology if the family might not have that address in a few months? You wouldn’t. Add in a lack of belief in what Internet access offers, and the digital divide is defined and cemented.

Still, the civic outcry has impacted the very brand-conscious company. In late summer, Google representatives began reaching out to Spanish-language and African-American media in the area to bolster pre-enrollments for its service. And Google has hired enthusiastic 20-somethings to push the signups, appearing at community events, even using an ice cream truck to spread information.

The Social Media Club of Kansas City is pressing for philanthropic souls to pony up enough pre-registration cash to tip areas over the goals preset by Google. Ultimately, Google needs the customer base willing to pay monthly fees and installation costs. But if there aren’t enough preregistrations in some areas, Google will forgo linking that community.

Like a lot of opportunities, this is a now-or-never deal for the two Kansas Cities. Stay tuned, these Midwestern cities are the test market before Google launches in the rest of the nation. •


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