Google Fiber could widen digital divide in Kansas City area

Friday, August 31, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — She has no Internet at home, so Robinett Foreman sweats over lost computer time at school.

The 17-year-old is one of 11 students out of 18 without home Internet access in her business technology class at Kansas City Public Schools' Central Academy of Excellence.

Stress builds in class, she said, "when I'm on a project, trying to do research and (the Internet) is running slow."

Her high school, with its overwhelmed Internet connection, sits in a neighborhood lagging well behind the pre-registrations Google requires to light up its cutting-edge Web access.

"It's not fair," said Mona Price, Central's dean of instruction. "It's not fair to the kids in urban settings who are trying to get an education."

Many of the schools, libraries and poorest neighborhoods given first shot at drawing Google's ultra-fast Internet service look in danger of missing out on Kansas City's digital revolution.

Despite an offer by the tech giant's Google Fiber operation to virtually give away some Internet service to customers, the areas most lacking in online connections also appear the most likely to be left behind in Kansas City's leap ahead on a light-speed network.

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.

Google insists it's too early to write off any of what it calls "fiberhoods." It has begun to fix problems that have complicated apartment dwellers' efforts to sign up for its service. And, most critically, the company points out that it has every incentive to round up as many customers as possible — and to expand to more neighborhoods rather than fewer.

Yet the Google Fiber rollout is driven by very real logistic and economic factors that make it impractical to offer the service where few people show an interest in buying service, even if that means a neighborhood school won't get wired to tomorrow's Internet.

Meanwhile, community efforts strive to help Google find would-be customers. Some are even paying the $10 fee needed to cast a vote of interest in the service.

That in turn creates a problem for Google. Are people who didn't pay their own registration fee likely to buy the company's state-of-the-art Internet and TV service for $120 a month for two years? Would they purchase super-fast Internet-only packages for $70 a month for a year? Or pay $25 a month for one year for installation of a 5-megabits-per-second Internet connection that would carry no other cost for seven years?

"We're thrilled that some local organizations want to encourage widespread Internet access by helping with the Google Fiber pre-registration process," Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said. "That being said, people should only pre-register if they intend to get Google Fiber service."

Google, after all, is using its ongoing "rally" — a now-or-never period when residents of much of Kansas City, Kan., and a large part of Kansas City, Mo., must put down their small deposits suggesting they want service — to identify the greatest demand.

Other Internet service and TV subscription companies — in this market, chiefly Time Warner Cable and AT&T — entered the business under different regulations. Time Warner Cable was granted franchises, no longer in force, that demanded it offer service to virtually every home. The company still gives free Internet and television service to more than 350 libraries, schools and other public buildings in the two cities. AT&T's U-verse service, although not as ubiquitous, still reaches 400,000 homes in the market.

Google has strong incentives to be prudent in its rollout. Each city block brings a significant gamble for Google. Some industry analysts estimate that the cost of installing a connection to a single home averages $2,500. Google is mostly waiving that cost to customers, and it will have to absorb the expense.

That drives Google to neighborhoods where the demand is most widespread. The company's strategy, meanwhile, has stirred grumbling in areas where hitting Google's goals looks most remote.

"Everybody thought all the schools and libraries were going to get this for free," said the Rev. Rick Behrens of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church. "A lot of people are upset that that's not going to be the case. It's disappointing."

In its agreement with the two city councils, Google said it would give free service to up to 430 locations in Wyandotte County and Kansas City. The cities picked the buildings.

Google then drew "fiberhood" boundaries. Next, it set the percentage of pre-registering households needed to qualify a neighborhood for service. Depending on the neighborhood, the pre-registration goals range from one in 20 homes to one in four.

Wandres, the Google spokeswoman, said the company has 60 people in Kansas City now trying to sign up enough residents to get more neighborhoods to qualify for its service.

Still, many are in jeopardy of missing out.

In downtown Kansas City, Kan., 11 places were slated for free service: Children's Campus of Kansas City, the city health department, police headquarters, Memorial Hall, the main library, City Hall, the court services building, the Board of Public Utilities, the Kansas State School for the Blind, the county courthouse and the Jack Reardon Convention Center.

Google has said 10 percent of the downtown district must pre-register before anyone there gets service. That means 89 homes. By Friday afternoon, just 13 were pre-registered in the first four weeks, with a little over two weeks to go.

In the meantime, some neighborhoods cleared the hurdles set for them in a matter of days. Even a cursory glance at the map showing which neighborhoods are likely to get Google Fiber — more than 80 have met Google's requirements — shows a strong correlation between rich and poor Kansas City.

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.

"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.

The city's school district is worried that many of its buildings will be left without the fiber optic 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.

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

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