Business & Tech
9:49 am
Thu December 12, 2013

Google Fiber And Kansas City's Digital Divide

Issac Wilder (right) and assistant add a dish to a tower at Posada del Sol to send bandwidth over to the 18th and Vine district.
Issac Wilder (right) and assistant add a dish to a tower at Posada del Sol to send bandwidth over to the 18th and Vine district.
Credit Courtesy / Connecting for Good

While Google has cast a spotlight on Kansas City that has the country excited about high speed internet, like most cities around the country, access is not equally available.

Internet activists believe that the arrival of Google Fiber has highlighted the so-called digital divide. But Google says it wants to work with the communities and organizations involved in bridging the gap.

Digital training, a life necessity 

Ben Preheim, is a volunteer with one such program. As he burrows his big hands in the bowels of an opened computer, he tries to dislodge an old memory stick like a surgeon operating on a delicate organ.

Preheim is in the basement of a building at 31st and Troost in the Midtown area of Kansas City, Mo., home to Connecting for Good, a community group that is bringing computers, training and internet to low-income residents.

One by one, Prenheim is refurbishing computers donated from businesses and public institutions, which are currently stacked on dusty shelves.

"We’re not completely building the computers from the ground up, but we’ll take a wiped hard drive, upgrade RAM, install every piece of software on computers that go out," says Prenheim.

Four floors above, Connecting for Good holds classes for students learning digital skills, once they are trained they can purchase a refurbished computer for as little as $50.

Organizers say they’ve trained more than 1,000 digitally-challenged students in the last few years. Student Mary Powell says she needs the skills to get a job.

"I’ve lost a lot," she says about being without internet access. "You know, you might go to the library and put an application for job. You don't know if you have it unless you go back forth [to check] every day. With finances you can’t even catch the bus going back and forth every day."

Super high-speed doesn't mean super accessible

Before launching its super high-speed fiber internet last year, Google released a study that found 25 percent of more than 3,000 metro residents surveyed didn’t have access to broadband. Most of them resided east of Troost, and were disproportionately poor and black.

Officials with Connecting for Good have met with collaborators at Reconciliation Services, an agency that provides emergency assistance like food and cash, and the Free Network Foundation, which installs network hardware. Together, they have rigged what’s called a “mesh network” to provide internet access where Google Fiber service does not reach.

It is a web of microwave dishes ranging across the metro from the Kansas City's 18th and Vine neighborhood to Kansas City Kan., and the internet service is purchased on the wholesale market.

Together, the agencies have successfully connected 500 families in three low income communities: Rosedale Ridge, Juniper Gardens and Posada Del Sol.

Outreach coordinator Clint Winn says they know 300 different devices —phones, laptops, and tablets —have moved hundreds of gigabyts of data, be it job applications or fun stuff.

He points out connectivity brings choice, for entertainment as well as information.

"I know at Rosdale last month six XBoxes connected to the network … but what is the problem with that?" Winn says.

The network also connects bus stops, community centers and churches, as well as the large majority of low-income residents who live in rental units or subsidized housing.

Connecting for Good and other community activists have criticized Google for launching a service that only provides high speed internet to home-owners and apartment managers, and only in certain neighborhoods.

Google’s manager for digital inclusion, Erica Swanson, sees it differently.

"There’s an exciting movement under way in KC really, with respect to digital inclusion," she says. "And we know that people around the country are really watching and learning from what’s happening in KC."

Swanson says Google is proud to have kick-started a conversation about digital inclusion, and to be a contributor to $1 million private fund dedicated to bridging the digital divide.

Swanson says Google's initial product was designed to promote affordability. She says the company will reconsider connecting unqualified neighborhoods.

Craig Settles, an independent broadband consultant and author, says a public-private partnership aimed at breaching the digital divide has inevitable pitfalls.

"The private sector has an obligation to its stockholders, the city has responsibility to protect the public good," says Settles. "Somehow those two goals have to be reconciled in the process."