How Did Kansas City Become Google’s Internet Guinea Pig?

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The city’s infrastructure helped, but the aggressive organizing of non-profits made it work.

By Rick Paulas

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(Photo: zachwerner/Flickr)

In March of 2011, Google announced that it had chosen a test city for its gigabit-per-second fiber connection: Kansas City, Kansas. A few months later, it expanded across the border into the more-populated Kansas City, Missouri. Ever since, Google has used the metropolitan area as a testing ground for the various ways it’s trying to change the world, from free connections for public-housing residents to deploying antennas for city-wide wireless broadband.

It seems like a strange relationship: the mighty Silicon Valley giant and the folksy Midwest charm of the 37th most populated city in the nation. How did it come to be, and what lessons can Kansas City teach the rest of the country?

When Google first announced its decision to go with Kansas City, Milo Medlin, Google’s vice president of access service, had this to say about why:

We wanted to find a location where we could build quickly and efficiently. Kansas City has great infrastructure. And Kansas has a great, business-friendly environment for us to deploy a service. The utility here has all kinds of conduit in it that avoids us having to tear the streets open and a bunch of other stuff that really differentiates it from other places in the country.

On top of those things, Kansas City offered Google a variety of benefits that other cities didn’t have. “There’s a sort of ‘middle America’ test market quality, it’s demographically approximate to the rest of the United States,” says Aaron Deacon, managing director of the non-profit KC Digital Drive. “I don’t know how much of a role this played, but the opportunity to work in one metro area and solve the problems with two different state governments [could have played a role].”

Perhaps more significant than the decision was how the city reacted to it. Google didn’t put this fiber deployment plan in motion without covering some bases. Before it began laying lines, Google carved the city into “Fiberhoods,” and each one had to meet a certain threshold of residents willing to pay the $10 pre-registration fee before deployment. However, this led to a possible deployment based on class, in which those with pre-existing access (neighborhoods with higher income levels) got upgrades. “You can spin it bad, we’re only going where rich people want us,” Deacon says. “Or you can spin it good, and say we’re empowering communities that have no say in it to have a say in it.”

“Some people are like, can’t we just solve this problem? I’m suspicious you can just solve it. The digital divide is a reflection of the socioeconomic divide, which no one has solved in the history of the world.”

Either way, Google gave the city a strict six-week deadline to sign residents up. It wasn’t the easiest of sells. “Here’s a global tech giant and sexy brand committing some unknown, but substantial, amount of infrastructure investment,” Deacon says. “But infrastructure is not really a consumer product. There’s an unsexiness around it.” In addition to Google’s own street team of 60 clipboard-wielding campaigners — working 80-hour weeks to sign up neighborhoods — the city’s non-profits unleashed their own armies.

Among them was Connecting for Good, co-founded by Rick Deane and Michael Liimatta. They made it their mission to set up shop in the urban core of Kansas City to spread awareness of why the fiber deployment was important. They “took refurbished computers and taught digital literacy classes,” says Tom Esselman, the new CEO of Connecting for Good. (Liimatta has since moved onto a managerial role at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome program.)

KC Digital Drive launched “Paint the Town Green,” using crowdfunding to purchase pre-paid debit cards and distribute them in areas where people couldn’t afford Google’s $10 set-up fee. The organizers paired this with aggressive door-to-door work. At the end of the six weeks, more than 90 percent of the Fiberhoods in the city qualified.

Unfortunately, while the overall penetration numbers were solid, the neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of who was obtaining access was not. A 2014 market analysis from Bernstein Research shows that, while Google Fiber had 75 percent penetration rates in medium- to high-income neighborhoods, the amount of users in low-income neighborhoods was only 30 percent. The non-profits are still trying to figure out exactly how to reach this section of the community, but now they have a half-decade of experience on which to draw.

“We were guinea pigs, and we tripped over ourselves the first couple of years, and have no shame in saying we learned our lessons,” Esselman says. “But you experience the best by trying things and sometimes failing.”

What lessons? A big one was getting people to care about their own digital inclusion. If people don’t know what they’re missing, they won’t necessarily be trying to get it. “You have to make them realize how much they can benefit, but not in a one-size-fits-all way,” Esselman says. “What we’re finding in areas with low access to service is they just want opportunities. You have to make them feel like they’re not going to be judged or looked down upon for not having literacy skills.”

“We were guinea pigs, and we tripped over ourselves the first couple of years, and have no shame in saying we learned our lessons.”

But the bigger lesson is broader, and has to do with the way in which we currently consider the digital divide. We may be looking at the problem in a short-sighted way. It’s not as if we just need to bring everyone within the borders of the digital community. Or that there’s a long finish line we have to nudge everyone past, and then, hooray, we’re done. Technology is constantly progressing, so some people are always going to be left behind.

“What is basic digital literacy? Is it knowing how to get an email account and go to a website? As people get smart-homes, is it programming your home router?” Deacon asks. “Your targets are constantly moving.” As an example, Deacon mentions tracking the quality of broadband. Years ago, Broadband USA developed an online map to measure the speeds of access across the country. The problem, Deacon says, was “they had 10 levels of shading.” “You just need three [levels], because the bottom seven layers are all too slow.” (The map currently has two: areas with less than one-gig-per-second, and those with more.)

The digital divide isn’t necessarily something to be solved, but rather something we should consider as a constant state of being, requiring relentless tinkering. “Some people are like, can’t we just solve this problem? I’m suspicious you can just solve it,” Deacon says. “The digital divide is a reflection of the socioeconomic divide, which no one has solved in the history of the world. It needs to have constant ongoing resource commitment, because the inequality that exists in the world, and has always existed, is going to continue to exist.”

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