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Google Fiber: Kansas City offers Charlotte ‘Digital Divide’ lessons

Installers for Google Fiber confer while working in Kansas City, Kansas, in 2013.
Installers for Google Fiber confer while working in Kansas City, Kansas, in 2013. MCT

In a past job in Kansas City, Julie Porter was part of an intense, door-to-door campaign to get residents in economically challenged, mostly minority neighborhoods to sign up for Google’s high-speed Internet service.

Community organizers didn’t want residents in these areas to face an even wider Digital Divide.

Now the head of a Charlotte housing agency, Porter has urged local leaders here to get an early start encouraging residents to embrace broadband service, long before Google Fiber makes its planned Charlotte debut.

“It was just very, very challenging,” said Porter, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, of the Kansas City situation. “I wanted to make sure that Charlotte didn’t have the same experience.”

Interviews and emails obtained through a public records request show that digital inclusion has been a concern for Charlotte leaders since Google said in February 2014 that the city had made the shortlist for the coveted service. Community leaders have been holding meetings on the topic for months, and a Queens University of Charlotte conference will highlight the issue next week.

In January, Google announced that Charlotte was one of four metro areas chosen to next receive Google Fiber, which the technology giant says is 100 times faster than regular broadband.

Construction is expected to start this year, but the city says the first customers probably won’t be online for two years. Designated neighborhoods – called fiberhoods – will be eligible for the service if a certain number of residents sign up for Google Fiber.

Charlotte can’t require Google to serve all homes in the city, said Phil Reiger, a Charlotte transportation official spearheading the Google Fiber project for the city. Under a 2006 state law, telecommunications companies reach franchise agreements with the state, not municipalities. The state agreements have no requirements that providers build out their footprints to all homes.

But Google, Reiger said, has made a commitment to construct a fiber network that covers all of Charlotte – with the availability of connections based on the company’s demand-based selection process.

“We believe they’re good for their word,” he said.

Challenges in Kansas City

In 2012, when Google installed fiber in its first location – Kansas City, in Kansas and Missouri – the company’s approach to selecting neighborhoods drew criticism.

As the deadline approached for neighborhoods to meet registration requirements, higher-income white neighborhoods were meeting the threshold, while lower-income, primarily black neighborhoods were not.

City leaders and community advocates, Porter said, took an “all hands on deck” approach and went house to house urging residents to register.

Adding to the challenge, residents needed credit or debit cards to pay, which some didn’t have. Porter’s group ended up offering grants to neighborhood groups to help people purchase pre-paid debit cards for the $10 pre-registration fee.

In the end, the effort was mostly successful, Porter said, but it wasn’t easy. In Charlotte, “I think it will still be a challenge,” she said, “but at least we’re prepared for it.”

Google said it can’t say for certain how the process will work in Charlotte, but in Austin, Texas, where construction is underway, the company is signing up fiberhoods in waves, instead of the whole city at once.

That way the company can focus on a smaller area at a time, answering questions, registering customers and getting them connected sooner. This approach also makes it easier for community organizers to concentrate on more manageable areas, Porter said.

In Austin, the Google Fiber website shows the sign-up date for each neighborhood and how many more registrations are required to meet the threshold. Credit or debit cards are required.

Erica Swanson, head of community impact for Google Fiber, said there are around 60 million people in the U.S. who don’t use the Internet.

“This is a complex problem that won’t be solved overnight, but in every city where we bring Google Fiber, we’re working with local partners and investing in solutions that address the unique needs of the community,” she said.

In Google Fiber cities, the company offers a basic package that has no monthly fee after a connection charge ($300 in Austin), provides free service to community organizations, holds rallies to promote Internet connectivity and supports training programs. In Charlotte, Google is in the process of hiring a community impact manager to lead digital inclusion programs.

Ultimately in Kansas City, 19 of the 20 fiberhoods with the lowest median incomes qualified for service in the first round, Google said. And in a survey of six low-income neighborhoods in Kansas City, Mo., one in three Google Fiber customers said they did not have broadband at home before the service.

‘Google eyes wide open’

According to emails obtained by the Observer, Porter alerted city officials in February 2014 to the challenges Kansas City faced. She wanted Charlotte to enter the race for the service with “Google eyes wide open,” according to an email she sent.

A month later, Reiger stressed the importance of the issue in an email to Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble. “This Digital Inclusion issue,” Reiger wrote, “has created a lot of political frustration in other communities.”

A previously existing group of public and private sector officials that meets on community issues has since added digital inclusion to its agenda, said Tom Warshauer, community engagement manager for the City of Charlotte.

The group wants to learn more about how hardware and training can be provided to neighborhoods that need it, he said. It’s reaching out to community leaders, and in the next couple months, someone may be hired to help coordinate the effort, possibly through a public-private partnership, he said.

“We know that the digital divide is probably one of the largest community issues we need to deal with,” Warshauer said.

An annual “Best Minds Conference” that Queens University of Charlotte is holding March 20-21 is expected to bring more attention to the issue. The focus this year is “Charlotte 2025: The Connected City,” said Eric Freedman, dean of Queens’ Knight School of Communication. Swanson, the Google executive, will be part of a panel discussion on March 20.

In 2012, the Knight School conducted a survey that found 85 percent of Mecklenburg County adults have used the Internet in the past three months and that most had access to the Internet at home. The residents with the lowest Internet access included African-Americans, Hispanics, adults age 55 or older, adults with incomes under $40,000 and adults in west Charlotte, the study found.

“We are ahead of the curve in identifying communities,” Freedman said. “But we know we need to have feet on the ground.”

The city emails showed City Council member Alvin Austin, who represents the 2nd District in north Charlotte, checking in with city staff about Google’s plans for African-American communities and how the city planned to prevent the problems experienced in Kansas City.

In an interview, Austin said he met with a Google representative last year and gave her a tour of communities along Beatties Ford Road in his district. The representative “got it” and made a “strong commitment” to inclusion in Charlotte, Adams said.

Combating the Digital Divide, Austin said, is an important issue for Google as well as its competitors.

“This is not just Google,” he said. “It’s all providers.” Staff Writer Steve Harrison contributed.

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