Monday, September 10, 2012

Google and Kansas City push to narrow the digital divide

We have covered various aspects of Google's gigabit connectivity trial in Kansas City. Their plan is to install fiber first in areas of the city, "fiberhoods," with high demand for the service, as measured by the percent of households willing to pay a $10 pre-registration fee.

The deadline for pre-registration was midnight last night, but, as of last Friday, the map of fiberhoods that had met their goal reflected the digital, cultural, racial and income divide in Kansas City, Missouri.

Google and the City worked hard to bridge the divide. The threshold to qualify for fiber was higher in affluent areas than poor. For example, in the circled area on the map shown below, only 5% of the households had to register in order to qualify.

Furthermore, on August 31st, Google adjusted some of the thresholds to make it easier for poor neighborhoods to qualify.

During the last weekend of the six week registration drive, Google and the City worked overtime to close the gap. They held meeting, walked door to door, deployed an ice-cream truck refitted as mobile registration site, and more.

The map below shows that many fiberhoods east of the traditional Troost/Paseo Avenue division line met their thresholds during thd weekend push. (This map shows Kansas City Kansas as well as Missouri). Google reports that 63 fiberhoods qualified during the last week of the registration drive and that at least 180 out of 202 have qualified for service. They will announce the final tally on the registration drive and publish a fiberhood installation schedule next Thursday.


This is important for two reasons. Google will give free gigabit connectivity to all schools, hospitals, libraries and other public facilities in qualifying fiberhoods. That will mean more to a school in a poor neighborhood than an affluent neighborhood.

Furthermore, while Google will charge subscribers $70 per month for gigabit access, they offer free 5 mb/s DSL connectivity to those who wish to pay less. (Households that elect free connectivity must pay a $300 installation fee in 12 monthly $25 installments).

While 5 mb/s sounds slow compared to gigabit connectivity, the fastest DSL speed Verizon can offer me in my middle class Los Angeles neighborhood is 3 mb/s for $29.99 per month. At that rate, I could pay off a $300 installation fee in ten months.

(Verizon does not offer fiber service in my neighborhood, but, where they do, they charge $89.99 a month for 75 mb/s service).

I would expect less contention for backhaul with Google DSL than Verizon since they are provisioning for gigabit service. Five mb/s customers will not add much load.

Google's free DSL service will be more important to many households on the wrong side of the digital tracks than their gigabit service. It will provide very usable speed to newly connected households.

I have said a lot about Google's effort, but, as Timothy B. Lee points out, Kansas City is an active partner. To attract Google, Kansas City taxpayers offered power, office and equipment space and more.

This is a good example of blended public-private investment. It reminds me of Stockholm where the municipal government provided "middle mile" fiber then invited private companies to compete using that infrastructure.

Lee points out that some right-wing commentators have claimed the Kansas City project shows that industry (Google in this case) can build exellent infrastructure without government guidance or subsidy. That is clearly not the case in Kansas City. Hundreds of cities applied to participate in this pilot study, and I am sure they all offered various incentives to Google.

Google and Kansas City cannot bridge the cultural, income and digital divide by themselves, but they are making laudable effort and I applaud them.