Updated 5:40 p.m. ET, Friday, August 31
Google is rapidly approaching the September 9 deadline it imposed on residents of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri to pre-register for Google Fiber, the company’s new ultra high-speed Internet and TV service, which Google claims will be “100 times faster” than current broadband connections offered by the likes of Time Warner and Comcast.
But after early promising signs of interest among residents of the Kansas City metropolitan area (located on the Missouri-Kansas border, most of it located on the Missouri side), it appears that Google Fiber is getting tangled up in long-simmering socioeconomic tensions in the area. Local newspapers, including the Kansas City Star are pointing out that the way Google is planning to distribute the service — based on how many households pre-register in given neighborhoods up until September 9 — could actually exacerbate the “digital divide,” between wealthier neighborhoods, many of which are located on the Kansas City, Missouri, side, and poorer ones concentrated in Kansas City, Kansas.
While many schools are eager to be connected to Google Fiber, school officials say that the company is putting them in a tough spot — forcing them to choose whether or not to accept only having some schools, generally the more affluent ones, linked-up to the new gigabit-speed Internet service.
“For us it is unimaginable to have a situation where some of our schools and kids have access to this wonderful technology while some of them don’t,” said David A. Smith, chief of staff of the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools district, in a phone interview with TPM.
The thought is particularly troubling to Smith and his colleagues given that the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools district made a move six years ago to provide wireless Internet access to its over 50 buildings (47 schools, several libraries and other administrative buildings) as well as loaner laptops to all of its students, some 85 percent who qualify for free or reduced lunches due to their household financial situations.
“The idea of recreating inequalities that we’ve worked hard to get rid of goes against everything we value,” Smith said, of having to choose whether or not to agree to connect some schools and not others to Google Fiber.
Aside from the costs of having to potentially switch some schools over to Google Fiber from Time Warner, the school district’s current Internet provider — which Smith pointed out to TPM has a long-term contract with the district which couldn’t be abruptly severed anyway — the other major problem is in the actual architecture of the Google Fiber installation itself.
As Smith explained, the current Time Warner broadband Internet serving Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools is distributed from a centralized connection in the district’s main office building to all 50-plus other buildings in the district, which makes it simple and cost-effective to apply the necessary content filters to make it appropriate for a learning environment and compliant with federal regulations.
But Google Fiber — though provided for free by Google to qualifying schools — would require a direct connection with each building that it hooks-up, necessitating a separate filter be set up for each of those buildings’ networks, which would likely cost the district in excess of an additional $1 million, or a majority of the technology budget.
“It’s not accurate to say that the Fiber comes for free to schools,” Smith told TPM.
Those reservations haven’t deterred Google in its quest to use education as a springboard for its Fiber program.
Throughout its drive to get pre-registration sign-ups online, Google has posted several video ads for Fiber on YouTube (which Google also owns) featuring local Kansas City school teachers, officials, even students, explaining how they believe the ultra-fast Internet service could help students. It also held a “Back to School Day” event in mid-August to promote uses for Google Fiber in Kansas City schools.
And in early August, Cynthia Lane, the superintendent of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, took to Google’s official Fiber blog to advocate on behalf of the service, writing: “High-speed fiber will make a tremendous difference for this community and for our students.”
“Education is just one part of the overall Google Fiber rollout,” said Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres in a phone interview with TPM. “In other areas, it’s premature to imagine what uses Google Fiber will have. But with schools, you can immediately think of use cases.”
Wandres gave one example: Imagine that instead of using a sick day as an excuse to loaf off and miss lessons, a child with an illness could still “attend” his or her classes virtually, watching their teacher’s lecture and even participating in the class through a high-definition video conferencing link. However, this particular example would require both the child’s school and the their home computer to have Google Fiber.
Wandres said another obvious potential use case for the service in education would be in providing advanced placement (“AP”) classes to students located in schools that did not offer them through their curricula, from schools that did.
“Ideas like this are immediately actionable,” Wandres told TPM.
But actionable isn’t the same thing as inevitable, and with the way Google has structured its program, it’s far from guaranteed that the schools that could use Fiber the most will be those that end up receiving it in this first round of installations beginning after registration closes September 9.
As of Wednesday, just about half of the 202 neighborhoods eligible to receive Google Fiber that the company has drawn-up, called “fiberhoods,” had met Google’s declared pre-registration goals, TechCrunch reported. Part of this may have been due to technical problems encountered by some residents, mainly those of apartments or condos (“multiple unit dwellings,” in Google-speak), when they tried to sign up. Google has said recently it has fixed the issues.
The pre-registration goals are Google’s way of gauging whether there’s enough demand for its Fiber service to warrant its costs of construction, which can run as high as $2,500 per household, according to the Star.
The pre-registration goals vary between 5 percent, 10 percent and 25 percent of households, and fiberhoods can contain “anywhere between 250 and 1,500 households,” depending on the specific neighborhood, as Google previously told TPM.
Further, Smith said he was troubled by reports of school children and parents organizing on their own and going on unofficial “door to door” drives to raise awareness and encourage neighbors to sign-up for Google Fiber to bring it to a local school. Smith said that he sent out staff wide memos specifically to discourage officials from participating in these activities.
“What we as a system have said to our staff is that we must treat Google as we would any other business,” Smith said. “We’ve got to do things openly and in a way that’s equitable. It puts us in a difficult position because we understand the position of individual schools and neighborhoods. All of us want the best for our kids.”
To pre-register, interested Kansas City residents must visit the Google Fiber website and pay a $10 refundable fee. The actual cost of the service depends on the type of package that a resident selects — Google is offering three levels of benefits, ranging in price from $0 monthly to $120 (the $0 monthly Internet service, slower than the gigabit connection, costs $300 in construction fees, but is free after that).
Google’s deals with schools are much more generous, in a way.
“We have different agreements in Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas,” Wandres told TPM. “The gigabit plan in Kansas City, Kansas will cover all public buildings for free. In Kansas City, Missouri, public buildings will cover the construction costs.”
Those construction fees vary depending on the building’s location, type and other factors, Wandres explained. But they are likely to be well in excess of $300.
Further, “the build order is build by demand,” Wandres said, meaning that fiberhoods that see the most demand, some in excess of 100 percent of their goals, will get their Fiber connections installed first.
Schools and other public buildings will also only get an Internet service package, not Google’s digital TV service, nor will they be getting Google Nexus 7 tablets that are typically bundled with the TV package, at least not yet.
For Smith and his fellow colleagues at the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools district, it’s still an open question as to whether or not they’ll actually agree to hook-up any of the schools that end up qualifying to what Google is offering with its Fiber for schools packages.
“I hope you don’t think I’m dodging the question,” Smith told TPM, “It’s something we’re actually struggling with right now. We haven’t answered it, yet.”
Late update: Google on Friday announced it had lowered its pre-registration goals for 73 fiberhoods, giving the ones that had already reached or exceeded them a higher overage percentage and thus, and earlier place in line for installation. Those that are still below their goals are now closer to reaching them. Google said it made the changes after “hearing some concerns” about the way it counted residences in each fiberhood. Google sent out teams to recount, admitting “the data wasn’t 100% accurate,” but that it is now.
A quick glance at Google’s Fiber registration rankings webpage shows that some of those 73 fiberhoods affected by the changes include public schools, such as John Fiske Elementary School in Armourdale and Coronado Middle School in Coronado.