3 Google Fiber programs that could help ease the digital divide

Google’s affordable broadband service is already impacting some communities and schools

The latest Digital Equity report from the Consortium of School Networking paints a picture of an educational environment where schools are at least on the right path to providing access to high-speed wi-fi within their walls (though there is still plenty of work to be done). An equally pressing problem is the fact that the number of pupils with fast connectivity dwindles as they move away from their K-12 hubs—and the divide deepens even further when issues like socioeconomic status, income, and race are taken into account.

According to The Pew Research Center, 82.5 percent of American households with school-age children currently have broadband access at home. This is approximately 9 percentage points higher than the broadband adoption rates across all households, CoSN reports, but there are still 5 million households with school-age children which lack broadband in the home.

“Students in these households experience what is being labeled the ‘homework gap,’” reported CoSN, pointing out that more than 75 percent of school district technology leaders have no strategy for addressing off-campus access.

As new pedagogies like blended and flipped learning gain in popularity in the K-12 space, the need for high-speed at home has grown exponentially. In some U.S. cities, Google Fiber, which provides an internet connection speed of up to one gigabit per second (1,000 Mbit/s), is attempting to reduce the size of the homework gap. Key cities where the service is currently available include Kansas City, Mo.; Salt Lake City; and Austin.

“Google Fiber offers a wonderful data package to its home subscribers. I have it at my home in Lees Summit and it has met my every expectation,” said Thomas Brenneman, executive director of technology at Kansas City Public Schools, which has had access to Google Fiber since 2012 and is currently implementing Google Classroom and a Chromebook initiative in its high schools. “I am also pleased to see that Google is offering data drops to homes in the urban core. This will certainly help diminish the data divide that we face today.”

Google’s strategy

A spokesperson for Google provided background on—but would not speak on the record about—three programs that are impacting (or that could impact) the K-12 community: ConnectHome , the Community Leaders Program (CLP) , and the Create Your World (CYW) program.

Next page: A rundown of 3 Google Fiber programs

[image via ramseymohsen/flickr]

1. ConnectHome:  Earlier this year, the company announced that Google Fiber would be supporting the HUD/White House ConnectHome. In markets where Google Fiber will be available, Google will make $0/month home internet service available to residents in select public housing authority properties and other low-income housing partners’ properties. The firm will also create computer labs and digital literacy programming in partnership with ConnectHome and other community partners to bridge the digital divide, especially for families with K-12 students. The first place to benefit from this in-home service could be Kansas City.

2. Community Leaders Program:  CLP is currently available in Kansas City (and also Provo/Salt Lake and Austin). In Kansas City, the company recruits college students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Rockhurst University to facilitate free digital literacy programs. One group is partnered with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City to focus on small business users, and the other is partnered with Literacy Kansas City (an organization that works to advance literacy among Kansas City area adults through direct services, advocacy, and collaboration) to focus on individual learners. Approximately 130 hours of free digital literacy training have been provided to small businesses and individual learners since CLP has been in Kansas City. CLP follows the college school year calendar and is currently in its third year.

3. Create Your World: Create Your World (in both Kansas City and Austin) is a free interactive workshop where youngsters can experience the power of coding and the Internet. Through hands-on activities and Google tools, they explore their interests and learn how technology shapes the world around them, as they set out to become creators of their own. Since Create Your World launched in late May 2015, more than 200 participants from youth organizations, school field trips, and open community events have participated.

Google’s recent announcement that it would eliminate or sideline the “free” high-speed option in some communities has some concerned that the move might impact the strategy of providing low-income communities with more comprehensive internet service. The company, however, still maintains that since Fiber launched, it has been working to find ways to service those most affected by the digital divide.

In May, for example, Google is introducing a broadband internet plan for the most digitally divided areas it serves. For $15 per month, residents in these neighborhoods will get speeds up to 25 Mbps. There’s no application process, no service contracts, no equipment rental, no data caps, and no construction or installation fees.

More competition, please

Evan Marwell, CEO of San Francisco-based EducationSuperHighway, said Google Fiber’s ability to extend high-speed to the families that need it will depend on where—and how quickly—the company rolls out its service.  “In markets where Google Fiber is rolling out, it’s a fantastic alternative for school districts,” said Marwell. Districts, for example, will typically pay anywhere from $3,000-$5,000 per month for 1 gigabit Internet service. “Even in markets where Google isn’t giving away free connections, the fact that it’s offering 1 gigabit internet access for around $70 a month is pretty substantial,” he said.

In terms of bridging the homework gap, Marwell said his group’s research shows that currently about one-third of K-12 students lack broadband access at home. “We’d love to see Google bring high-speed broadband to those students living in affordable housing; that’s certainly a place where kids lack broadband at home,” said Marwell, who also sees an opportunity for cable and telephone providers to jump into the game and do their part by opening up their metro wi-fi networks to students outside of regular school hours.

“We think there’s extra capacity on those systems, and that these providers could make a huge dent in the homework gap by doing this,” said Marwell. “Whether we’re talking about Google or any other provider, more competition means more options and better prices for schools and homes.”

Update: The first paragraph of this article has been amended to more accurately reflect the findings from CoSN’s Digital Equity report. The original version had overstated its depiction of school wi-fi readiness.

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