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Two Google Fiber Chances Aren't Enough for Some Neighborhoods

The latest numbers mean that 95 percent of fiberhoods — including virtually all of Kansas City's Northland that faced a deadline Thursday — have qualified for service.

by Allie Hinga, McClatchy News Service / June 23, 2014

For several Kansas City-area neighborhoods, Google Fiber’s ultra-fast Internet speeds won’t be a reality, even after a second chance to sign on.

The company’s website showed that of 21 neighborhoods given a second shot at qualifying, most fell short by a midnight Thursday deadline. Among those were four in Kansas City, Kan.

In central Kansas City, nine neighborhoods failed to rally enough customers to tempt Google to sell service in those areas. All of those neighborhoods, called “fiberhoods” by the company, are on the East Side.

At the same time, eight neighborhoods that fell short two years ago will be able to buy Internet and TV hookups from the California tech giant this year.

The latest numbers mean that 95 percent of fiberhoods — including virtually all of the Northland that faced a deadline Thursday — have qualified for service.

“A lot of people in Kansas City want Google Fiber, and we’re going to do everything we can to get it to them by the end of the year,” said company spokeswoman Jenna Wandres.

Although more neighborhoods will be offered the service, Wandres said Google doesn’t have plans to offer additional chances to the areas that didn’t qualify.

The neighborhoods left out of the Google Fiber footprint represent a persistent gap between those who use home Internet and those who don’t. Sometimes the gap is a matter of economics, but sometimes it’s a matter of interest.

Google Fiber put a national spotlight on Kansas City by bringing in cutting-edge technology. But when so many people can’t take advantage, that shows a gaping digital divide, said Michael Liimatta, president and co-founder of Connecting For Good, a group that helps people get online.

“It’s not just the digital divide, it’s a digital black hole, and Google Fiber exposed that,” he said.

Aaron Deacon of KC Digital Drive, a group formed to take advantage of the area’s improving Internet infrastructure, was impressed with how many fiberhoods qualified. Because even some needier areas qualified, he said, factors other than economics might be in play.

Those areas might highlight where more help is needed to show people how computers and the Internet can affect their lives, he said.

Over the past couple of years, Deacon has seen more efforts to show people what they’re missing.

Wandres agreed that not everybody values computer use. She pointed out that during rallies in 2012, almost all of the area’s 20 poorest neighborhoods qualified for Google Fiber.

A 2012 study found that 17 percent of people in Kansas City weren’t online. Among non-users, one-quarter said they didn’t have a computer or that Internet was too expensive. And 41 percent said they didn’t think the Internet was relevant to their lives.

For some people, the obstacles to signing up go beyond what meets the eye, Liimatta said.

He pointed out that renters face a particular obstacle: Landlords are the ones who must sign up, and if they don’t think they’ll get a good return on their investment, they won’t pay to wire their properties.

And in areas where incomes are low, the issue is not just getting the landlord on board. It’s being able to afford the service, how to use a computer — and having Internet access in the first place.

“It’s an awesome opportunity, but there’s huge obstacles to be able to take advantage of it,” Liimatta said.

On Friday, one neighborhood leader saw several challenges in getting fiberhoods qualified in poorer areas.

Part of the Blue Valley neighborhood met the mark, but one fiberhood in the area did not.

“We really scrambled to get the qualified number, and we had a couple people who really worked hard to make it happen,” said Waunita Small, a vice president of the Blue Valley Neighborhood Association.

The neighborhood ran into a few problems in drumming up those numbers because of people who didn’t have computers or were satisfied with the Internet speeds they already had. It’s possible money might have played a role as well.

“This is not the high-economic area,” Small said. “We have a lot of folks who are struggling.”

Areas now without Google Fiber could see an impact, Small said. She wondered if having the ultra-fast Internet service eventually could be a selling point for houses and other properties.

Although a lot of dynamics could affect whether a neighborhood finds enough support, one key factor in success seems to be having people who will advocate on its behalf, said Cindy Circo, at-large city councilwoman for Kansas City’s 5th District.

The Ivanhoe neighborhood, which drummed up enough support to get wired in the first round of rallies, can attest to that.

At the time, the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council deployed staff members who spent two weeks contacting people to sign up. Other people went door to door. A regular contributor gave $500 to help people who couldn’t make the $10 pledge required in the first round of signups.

“It was quite an effort to get people to sign up,” said Margaret J. May, executive director of the neighborhood council.

Part of that effort was working with people who didn’t have email or Internet access. For others, finding an extra $10 was a struggle.

Other neighborhoods that struggled to meet the threshold might not have the resources Ivanhoe had, May said.

When Google wrapped up its first rallies in 2012, the vast majority of neighborhoods signed up enough customers to qualify. But areas with large numbers of apartments and low-income families proved less likely to qualify.

Google acknowledged some hiccups in its approach to signing up those areas, and gave them a second chance this spring and summer to meet its subscription levels.

This time, residents of those fiberhoods had to sign up for an Internet package from Google.

Customers who pay $300 — payable in 12 monthly $25 payments — can get relatively slow broadband service for at least seven years. Customers can buy Google Fiber connections with upload and download speeds nearing 1 gigabit per second — 50 to 100 times faster than found in most American homes — for $70 a month. Bundled with a basic cable-style TV package, the service sells for $120 a month.

©2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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