Bridging the digital divide, Kansas City style
The Kansas City Star
Google didn’t create the digital divide in the Kansas City area. But the tech-savvy company — with help from others — could be doing more to help bridge it.
That would benefit thousands of mostly low-income and minority residents who for a number of reasons aren’t hooked up to the online world.
Since late July Google has been engaged in an intense campaign encouraging customers to pay $10 to register now to eventually get super-high-speed Internet service connected to their houses, condos or apartments in parts of Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan.
The company has emphasized that — for free — it will connect several hundred public facilities such as schools and libraries to its ultra-fast service. The catch: The connections will only be made in neighborhoods that meet the registration goals established by Google.
Despite all these efforts — and with the deadline for signups one week from today — the disturbing digital divide remains (see map).
Dozens of neighborhoods in Kansas City, primarily east of Troost Avenue, and some lower-income parts of Kansas City, Kan., have not signed up in sufficient numbers to make it possible for them to get Google service now, if ever.
On Friday, the company announced that it had taken into account new information about the large number of vacant and abandoned properties in some neighborhoods. This effectively lowered the threshold for qualifying for Google Fiber. Yet more than 80 of the 202 so-called “fiberhoods” still weren’t eligible.
That’s a big problem.
The Internet has become an essential service for most Americans — when it comes to education, research, applying for jobs, connecting to government and health offices, communicating with others, shopping and myriad other activities, including entertainment through video games and movies.
If Google Fiber leads to a new era of innovation among entrepreneurs, the inability to participate could further increase the financial divide that also exists in Kansas City.
Google knew about these problems before it unveiled its campaign in late July. A study for the company showed 42 percent of the Kansas City market with incomes of less than $25,000 did not use the Internet. And 46 percent of African Americans did not participate, either.
In the last few weeks, with community angst rising, Google racheted up its efforts to help bridge the area’s digital divide. One community organizer early on complained about the lack of Spanish language material regarding Google Fiber; the problem is now resolved.
Now Google is reaching out more actively to neighborhood leaders, ministers and residents in lower-income neighborhoods, trying to increase the sign-up rate. These meetings should have been held at the end of July, not the end of August.
Other efforts have joined to help Google — and the fiberhoods — reach their goals.
A website — http://neighbor.ly/paintthetowngreen — has been set up to collect money to pay the $10 registration fee.
Kansas City Public Library officials also have encouraged donations, hoping its East Side libraries will get free service.
Some residents, working with Google, are holding town hall-type meetings to discuss the importance of the Internet.
No one should expect Google to give its product away for free to large numbers of residents. Indeed, registering households for the service does not mean all those residents will pay for it on a long-term basis. That could create some money-losing propositions for Google.
This is Google’s first boots-on-the ground approach to selling its high-speed Internet service, and Kansas City is being watched around the nation for how it reacts.
For now, everyone is facing a hard truth, that getting access to super-fast Internet service is pretty easy in some parts of the community — and too difficult in others.