Google Fiber Spurs Digital Divide Discussions

“I’m concerned that the digital divide” — the gap between electronic haves and have-nots — “will be exacerbated by the fact that you’ll have extremely fast Internet in some neighborhoods while people in neighborhoods with fewer resources will be left even further behind,” said Christopher Barnickel, an assistant director at the Kansas City, Kan., Public Library.

Christopher Barnickel, speaking with Scott Canon of the Kansas City Star, echoed the growing concerns of many in Kansas City. The Google fiber initiative, meant to offer the fastest broadband, may leave many behind. Google is connecting neighborhoods that met a minimum threshold for service, creating concern that low-income neighborhoods will not meet that threshold. Of the 202 possible neighborhoods, 22 will not be connected.

We discussed in a previous post how Google is in the unique position of being able to offer their gigabit service for such a low price. But one of the reasons they make it work is by building only in areas where people are ready to sign up today. Their agreement with the City is very clear that they do not have to serve everyone.

Google's Kansas City preregistration just ended. But Canon's words from 2 weeks ago remain important: 

Two weeks remain for dozens of neighborhoods to sign up enough potential customers to qualify for Google’s service before a Sept. 9 deadline. But many neighborhoods — chiefly the least prosperous pockets of the metro area — remain far behind the pace needed to hit the Google-established thresholds of customer penetration.

That means many of the free connections Google agreed to make to public buildings, library branches and community centers won’t happen.

At that time, the map was fairly divided among income lines. 

West of Troost Avenue, the map is mostly green, indicating neighborhoods with plenty of eager customers. East of Troost, pre-registrations largely are low. In Kansas City, Kan., the map looks more quilt-like. Places where incomes are lower seem to have little chance of getting Google’s Internet service.

But we will know more on Thursday, when Google announces the schedule of when neighborhoods will be connected.

In addition to private citizens' concern over whether or not they will get the chance to access the new gig network, schools are worried about a new divide they had previously worked to diminish:

The city’s school district is worried that many of its buildings will be left without the fiberoptic connections that will blossom in areas that are better off.

“We worked hard to close the technology divide between our kids and more-resourced communities,” said school district spokesman David Smith.

All students in the district high schools, for instance, are issued laptops.

“It is unimaginable to us to have that divide reopen,” Smith said.

Some say the bridge over the digital divide now seems like a mirage.

“It does not have the feel of the universal access that was part of the initial description,” said Karen Hostetler, a resident of the East Argentine section of Kansas City, Kan.

Kansas City Logo

The municipal government of Kansas City should be responsible for making sure every school has the connections they need. Leaving it up to a distant, private company's marketing gimmicks rather than taking responsibility for a core city function is really poor public policy. It is also smart marketing for Google, which seems to be the message reporters are spreading.

Some have organized grassroots efforts to sign up more pre-registrants in low-income areas and results are mixed because obstacles in economically challenged areas are numerous. Some are not aware of the initiative, others don't trust door-to-door volunteers, and still others don't have the pre-registration fee of $10.

At Juniper Gardens, a University of Kansas research center dealing with children’s developmental disabilities, it has sparked a tone of worry. The downtown Kansas City, Kan., office is staffed by people fearing it won’t get Google Fiber or its potential for long-distance, high-definition video to analyze kids and train their parents.

“The potential is great,” said Jay Buzhardt, a professor at Juniper. “We just don’t want to miss out.”

While we remain hopeful that the Google effort in Kansas City helps to demonstrate the importance of next-generation broadband, we also believe the hype around it is hitting noxious levels, often from commentators who have no idea what they are talking about (and are attacking Google to defend the companies like Time Warner Cable that indirectly pay their salaries). Therefore, it was with relief that we read Timothy Lee's Ars Technica article explaining to free market glibertarians that Google's Kansas City network is fundamentally not an example of the free market working.

In fact, the local government is subsidizing this network in ways that local governments generally do not. Google has used its fame and its technical prowess to get a great deal from the City in terms of access to public right-of-way and instant inspections. 

We are strong supporters of local authority and do not believe that such a subsidy is poor policy per se. And we do defend the ability of communities to choose to partner with corporations in this manner. However, when we see that Kansas City will not get universal access and has no real decision-making power in regard to the network, we have to wonder how good of a deal they are getting. Kansas City, Missouri, may have been the better negotiators, as Google is installing an additional conduit and is charging them less than industry standards to do so.

In the short term, they get an incredible network and tons of publicity. But in the long term, we'll see -- because these networks will still be important in 10, 20, 30 years. And who knows what Google will be doing then.

Breaking the cable/DSL monopoly/duopoly is very difficult given the power of the massive corporations responsible for it, but we continue to see the largest gains going to the communities who have shouldered the greater risk of building their own network to achieve self-determination.

But viewed differently, the greatest risk lies in hoping distant corporations will provide the network a community needs to succeed in the digital economy.