Google plan leaves digital gap
Experience in Kansas City sours some on high-speed venture
To hear Mayor Charlie Hales and other local elected officials tell it, everyone will benefit if Google brings its ultra-high speed broadband network to the region.
But when Google Fiber was first being installed in Kansas City a few years ago, the company was criticized for reinforcing historic racial breakdowns, with white neighborhoods getting service and traditional minority neighborhoods being left out.
Originally, the way Google provided the service, there was a stark division between the historic haves and have-nots, says Rick Chambers, executive director of the Center Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for schools with large numbers of low-income students in Kansas City, Mo.
Google officials say the split was not intentional, but an inadvertent result of how they let neighborhoods decide whether they want service. They point to research that shows there are many reasons people dont have or want high-speed Internet access, including cost, perceived relevance, lack of computer skills and worries about identify theft.
The challenges are quite complex, says Erica Swanson, Googles digital inclusion program manager.
To better overcome them, the company has increased its efforts to convince all potential customers about the benefits of being online in this digital age.
We are doubling down and really working with communities, says Swanson.
As part of that effort, Andrew Bentley, a Google digital inclusion specialist, recently came to Portland to learn about the citys community and other organizations working to expand Internet access to more residents. Among others, he visited the nonprofit Free Geek computer reuse organization, the Internet-oriented programs at the Multnomah County Library and a group at Portland State University studying the best ways to teach computer skills.
Portland really has a unique mix of programs teaching computer literacy, says Bentley.
Delivering free and equal access to technology and related opportunities is a key value for us, says county library spokesman Shawn Cunningham. Theres a growing divide between those with access and those without it. Were determined to keep that issue in focus as technologies evolve. The ongoing discussion around Google Fiber is one way we can lend our voice and our trusted role in the community to ensure that the broadest set of needs is being considered and met.
Even so, Hales is concerned about the possibility of inequitable Google Fiber access in Portland. His spokesman, Dana Haynes, says that if Google decides to install its system in Portland, the city will monitor the roll- out plans and may intervene to increase access if necessary.
The digital divide is a huge issue for us. Thatll be one of the key things we watch for, says Haynes.
The city is working to produce information about the permitting process and existing telecommunications infrastructure for Google by May 1. The company will then decide whether to offer its service in Portland and 34 other cities by the end of the year. They include Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego and Tigard, where officials are also compiling information for Google.
The Troost Wall
Internet service is no longer a luxury but a necessity, says Michael Liimatta, president of Connecting for Good, a non-profit organization that works to increase Internet access for low-income people in Kansas City, Mo.
You need Internet service to apply for jobs, access health care and social services, even get insurance these days. You just cant leave a large percent of your population behind, says Liimatta.
Googles experience in Kansas City is well documented. It has been covered by the local media and in such national publications and news websites as Wired and Newsweek. One of the most recent stories that appeared, Feb. 20 on Newsweeks website, had the headline, Is Google making the digital divide worse?
Kansas City was the first metropolitan area where Google installed its broadband service, which offers a 1 gigabite Internet option. According to news reports, when Google came to Kansas City in 2011, the company divided the cities spanning the Kansas-Missouri border into geographic areas called fiberhoods. To qualify for service, each area needed to hit a certain percentage of pre-paid registrations, ranging from 5 percent to 25 percent of households. The ranges were based on population density, which affects the cost of installing the cables in each area.
The $10 pre-paid registrations took place online, payable with a credit card. When the deadline expired in September 2012, critics said the map of fiberhoods was largely divided by income and racial lines. They compared it to the so-called Troost Wall, a historical racial divide in the city.
Troost Avenue has traditionally divided Kansas City along racial lines, and thats the way the original map of the qualifying service areas looked, too, says Chambers.
According to Chambers and Liimatta, once Google realized what was happening, it made or supported numerous efforts to bridge the divide. They included door-to-door sales drives in fiberhoods with low registrations. Google also backed recruitment campaigns by community-based organizations, such as Connecting for Good, where Chambers serves on the board of directors.
By February, Google said that 180 of the 202 Kansas City fiberhoods had qualified for service. They include 17 of the 20 with the lowest median incomes.
But Liimatta doesnt think much has changed. Basically, households that already had Internet service got faster Internet service.
Chambers does not blame Google for what happened.
Google didnt create the digital divide. It was here a long time before they arrived. But they didnt overcome it, either, says Chambers.
Despite the controversy in Kansas City, Google plans to use the same strategy as it expands into other cities. It includes a low-cost incentive that allows households to receive free broadband serve for at least seven years for a $300 installation fee.Google officials say there are many reasons people do not have broadband Internet access, however. Among other things, they repeatedly cite a September 2013 Pew Research report on reasons adults do not use the Internet.
The report found that 15 percent of Americans 18 or older do not use the Internet or email. The leading reason, at 34 percent, was relevance, with respondents saying they are just not interested, too busy or consider it a waste of time. The second reason was usability, with concerns including a lack of computer skills and worries about hackers and viruses. The third reason, at 19 percent, was price, including the cost of a computer.
Then again, many of the responses broke down along demographic lines, including race and income levels.
As in previous surveys, Internet use remains strongly correlated with age, education, and household income, according to the Pew report. One of the strongest patterns we see regarding Internet use is by age group: 44 percent of Americans ages 65 and older do not use the Internet, compared with 17 percent of the next-youngest age group (adults ages 50 to 64). A similar proportion (41 percent) of adults who have not graduated high school are offline, as are 24 percent of Hispanics and 24 percent of those in households earning less than $30,000 per year. And 20 percent of rural residents say they do not use the Internet, significantly more than those living in urban or suburban areas (14 percent).
Swanson says communitywide efforts are needed to overcome such trends. It has to be cities, community organizations, businesses and neighbors helping neighbors, she says.
Liimatta agrees. Everybodys got to be involved, he says.
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