Google Fiber could widen digital divide in Kansas City area


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 [broadband] 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 Time Warner Cable was granted franchises, no longer in force, that demanded it offer service to virtually every home.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.”

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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 Aug. 24, 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.

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