Google Fiber In Austin: Will It Democratize Internet Usage In The City?

The big announcement today here in Austin is that Google Fiber is coming to town next year.

What does that mean? I’m going to combine what I’ve read at the Google Fiber FAQ for Austin and what happened in the first Google Fiber city, Kansas City.

Google will divide up Austin (only within the city limits proper) into a number of neighborhoods. In Kansas City, it was a total of 202 neighborhoods (it was roughly 800 homes in each so-called “fiberhood”).

Beginning in 2014, Google will ask people in each neighborhood if they want Google Fiber.

The way it worked in Kansas City was:

Residents [were asked] to preregister and plunk down a $10 fee to express their interest. To qualify, neighborhoods had to reach goals of anywhere between 5 percent and 25 percent of residents signing up.

One of the coolest aspects of Google Fiber are their packages: Gigabit + TV, Gigabit Internet and Free Internet. Yes, FREE INTERNET.

  1. The Gigabit + TV package, as it is set up now is, costs $120/mo + taxes and fees. It is “up to one gigabit upload & download speed; Full channel TV lineup ; 2 year contract; no data caps; Nexus 7 tablet ; 1 TV Box; Storage Box; Network Box; 1TB Google Drive.” The $300 construction fee is waved.
  2. The Gigabit Internet package, as it is set up now, costs $70/mo + taxes & fees. It is “up to one gigabit upload & download; no data caps; 1 year contract; network Box included; 1TB Google Drive.” The $300 construction fee is waved.
  3. The Free Internet package, as it is set up now, is free (almost). It is “up to 5Mbps download, 1Mbps upload speed; no data caps; free service guaranteed for at least 7 years; includes Network Box.” The catch on the initial price: there is a $300 construction fee (one time or 12 monthly payments of $25) + taxes and fees. But the service is then available for SEVEN years.

They will also offer services tailored to small businesses, though they do not have any details about this yet.

Also, their FAQ states: “We’re going to connect a number of public institutions — schools, hospitals, libraries, to Google Fiber for free. We will work with the City of Austin to determine a list of public institutions that will receive free Gigabit connections.”

Service, they hope, will begin to be available in the middle of 2014.

If you are interested in Google Fiber and live in Austin, you can give them your email address and they’ll contact you once pre-registration begins next year.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Google Fiber project is that it has the potential to push good internet for a relatively cheap price ($300/7 years/household) to neighborhoods where many people don’t currently have access, mainly due to the cost of monthly internet service or the belief that they don’t need it. As our world becomes ever-more dependent on being online to do basic things like pay your bills, schedule doctor’s appointments, or apply for a job, being able to access the internet is a crucial thing.

In December 2011, Jamilah King at Colorlines wrote:

“Broadband adoption”—or, creating widespread access to high-speed Internet in homes—is arguably the most significant challenge in our political, economic and cultural transition to being a linked-in nation. But the leading solutions for achieving it, both among D.C. policy makers and telecom executives, are likely to program racial injustice into 21st century life.

King goes on to say that there are “two internets emerging in America,” which she characterizes as 1) “traditional Internet hookups that connect wires to desktop computers and allow users to work, play and explore from the comfort of their home” and 2) “mobile wireless” where “people of color and users with little income are entirely dependent upon cell phone companies for access.”

While you can do a lot on a smart phone, being able to explore the internet on a computer (which, of course, requires a computer, laptop, or tablet of some sort) is often a more robust experience.

So, will Google Fiber help democratize internet usage in Austin (which is divided geographically when it comes to race and class in the city  – the “east side” and “west side” have specific connotations as well as specific populations, even though gentrification is happening at seemingly exponential rates on the east side)?

In Kansas City, pre-registration for Google Fiber ran from July 26 to September 9, 2012:

Affluent areas signed up much more quickly than poor ones. “With almost all of Kansas City, Kan., including low-income areas, achieving their sign-up goals, Google’s focus over the weekend was here in Missouri, where it worked with community groups to register people,” the Times said.

Wired had a pretty scathing piece about this exact issue (from September 2012):

“The white, affluent neighborhoods qualified and the primarily black, lower-income neighborhoods didn’t,” says Michael Liimatta, who runs a Kansas City nonprofit that works to bring broadband access to low-income residents. Liimatta’s group, Connect for Good, focused on getting one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, qualified. They succeeded thanks to heavy campaigning and door-to-door efforts, he says. […]

But Liimatta says the pre-registration process itself set a high bar for those already on the wrong side of the digital divide. To pre-register, residents needed to be willing to pony up $10. They also needed a credit or debit card, a Google Wallet account, and a Gmail account, which are harder to come by if you never had internet access in the first place. “Many don’t even have bank accounts,” Liimatta says. “That’s why there are so many check-cashing places out there.”

Wired ended their piece by quoting Rick Chambers, executive director of the Center Education Foundation, who said, “The challenging part is there has been a digital divide before Google got here. They didn’t create this. But in their attempt to bridge it, they may end up widening it.”

A month later, Liimatta was interviewed by Pitch News about the digital divide in Kansas City created by Google Fiber:

Liimatta says the residents in income-restricted Rosedale Ridge are too poor to afford Google’s free Internet service, even if the $300 installation fee is broken up into 12 payments of $25. Liimatta says paying the $300 for each of Rosedale Ridge’s 250 units would cost $75,000. That’s untenable for his group.

“That’s quite the leap, don’t you think?” he says. “Seventy-five grand for one property.”

So he and his Connecting for Good partners came up with an alternative idea: Install a few Fiber connections at Rosedale Ridge, then create a Wi-Fi hot spot that would give access to everybody in the complex.

“We figured, well heck, if we’re in public housing, and people are dirt poor, why can’t we buy one [Fiber connection] and create a hot spot?” Liimatta says. The nonprofit would pay for the installation and cover the monthly bills, and hundreds of low-income Kansas Citians would have access to the Web.

So far, the search behemoth has been cool to the idea.

“We appreciate the enthusiasm Connecting for Good has shown, and we’ve had many great conversations with them,” Google Fiber spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said in a statement. “But unfortunately, their plan to split one Google Fiber connection to many people is against our terms of service.”

Calvin Jones, program manager for the Front Porch Alliance, told Pitch: “I would say where Google dropped the ball on Google Fiber in this neighborhood is, they didn’t market it right. They marketed it for their ultrafast Internet speed and things like that, when a good majority of people in this neighborhood don’t even have computers in their homes.”

All of this was about the first wave of Google Fiber installations in Kansas City. The company has said it will do successive waves so hopefully Google will learn from its marketing mistakes and approach the low-income and poor neighborhoods in a more effective way in the future. It would also be nice if they figured out a way to make it easier and/or cheaper for people in low-income and poor neighborhoods to sign up for the service.

Let’s also hope they do so here in Austin.

Theory, while it looks often good on paper, is twisted and mutilated by the racist and classist systems that theory must pass through in order to become practice. Good intentions matter not at all when the resulting outcome is a reification (or worse, a strengthening) of the very thing you are setting out to damage or destroy.

So, I’m hopeful about Google Fiber coming to town. But I’m also not oblivious.


One thought on “Google Fiber In Austin: Will It Democratize Internet Usage In The City?

  1. Jessica, this was a good read, and I’m glad you’re bringing attention to something that worried me about Google Fiber here in Kansas City. I was very excited about the arrival of Google Fiber and free internet, considering how important access to the internet is nowadays (as you pointed out above). However, I was dismayed when I found out folks had to shell out either $300 at once or $25 every month for twelve months in order to get the (almost) free internet access. Although it doesn’t sound like much, as someone who’s had to live paycheck by paycheck, $25 dollars for internet are $25 you can’t use for groceries or for medications. Sure, they get the internet access for 7 years, but when you’re living paycheck to paycheck 7 years down the road isn’t your biggest concern. What I really liked (and the reason I pre-registered) was that it would give schools, libraries, and hospitals in the area free internet if we met our fiberhood’s quota.

    As a sidenote: I’m not sure about the $10 sign-up fee; when I pre-registered to qualify I only had to give my email address. However, I wonder if the sign-up fee is for the next step–pre-registering to get the service. (This is something I didn’t do.) I know they have to get a certain number of guaranteed subscriptions in an area to start building the network. It’s a very lengthy process, sadly.

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