SUNDAY EDITION | In Kansas City, Google Fiber boosts competition, but some areas left out
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Three years after Google began installing its superfast fiber Internet connections in the Kansas City area, Joe Norris is still waiting for the option to connect his house.
Norris lives in the middle-income city of Independence, which is just east of Kansas City, Missouri and home to more than 117,000 people.
Google has wired most of Kansas City’s core areas for its service and is now moving out to several suburbs, but Norris can’t figure out why the California Internet search giant has shown no interest in bringing service to his area.
“It kind of puzzles everybody … Why didn’t they just move east and come right to us?” said Norris, who even created a Facebook group called “We Want Google Fiber in Independence Missouri.”
Kansas City has received an enormous amount of attention for being the first area to get Google Fiber, which uses fiber-optic cables to bring an industrial-strength Internet connection to homes and businesses for $70 a month.
With Louisville now on Google’s short list of cities that might get wired in future years, WDRB looked at the progress of Google Fiber in Kansas City and what the superfast connections have meant for the area.
Perhaps the biggest effect is that providers like AT&T and Time Warner Cable to offer faster speeds, lower prices or both.
“Google came in the market and it made everyone get their act together,” said Dave Scott, Kansas City, Missouri resident whose company, Avid Communications, offers business services like phone and security cameras over Google’s connections.
The connections have also provided a boost to Kansas City’s start-up scene, helping attract the tech-savvy young residents that every midsize city wants more of.
“There is a PR element to it; people have thought about Kansas City in a way they wouldn’t have,” said Aaron Deacon, who leads Kansas City Digital Drive, a nonprofit dedicated to making the area a “digital leader.”
But, as Norris’s experience shows, Google’s coverage in Kansas City remains patchy even three years later – with gaps ranging in size from a couple of streets to broad areas like the city of Independence.
The fact that much of the metro area still lacks service is not surprising given that it involves stringing up thousands of miles fiber-optic cable on utility poles and digging up streets and sidewalks.
But the geographic disparities have also raised concerns about a divide between digital “haves” and “haves nots.”
“They never would even talk to us in Independence because we are not the wealthy demographic they wanted to hook on early,” Marcie Buttgen Gragg, a member of the Independence City Council, wrote in a Facebook post last week.
There have also been questions about whether low-income residents can afford Google’s service, which starts at $70 a month for a regular connection.
Last year the Wall Street Journal found that in the urban core of Kansas City, Missouri, higher-income neighborhoods were far more likely to subscribe to Google Fiber.
Louisville now a potential fiber city
Before any of these things might become an issue in Louisville, Google must first decide to bring its service here, and that is not guaranteed.
On Sept. 10, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Ashley Kroh, a Google official, announced that Louisville was joining the short list of cities where Google is looking to expand.
The announcement was a big win for Fischer’s office. Louisville had appeared passed over for Google Fiber despite public pleas for any company willing to wire the city for better connections.
In addition to Kansas City, Google Fiber is already in Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah. Another six cities, including Nashville, are slated to get it. And Louisville is among nine more cities where Google is considering going next.
In September, officials said it would take months for Google and metro government to examine rights of way to ensure Google could deploy the service in Louisville, and that construction would be 11 to 17 months away, perhaps longer.
Google Fiber brings fiber-optic cables directly to houses, making a connection of up to 1,000 megabits per second – or a “gigabit” – possible. That’s multiple times faster than the speeds offered by cable and phone companies, which typically offer 3 Mbps to 60 Mbps downloads.
Google’s gigabit service costs $70 a month. The company also sells a TV package comparable to cable or satellite for an additional $60 per month.
In the Kansas City area, Time Warner Cable announced in May that it would boost speeds by double or more without raising prices, offering downloads of up to 300 Mbps. And AT&T is rolling out its own gigabit service, called GigaPower, in Kansas City.
“I think all anybody in Louisville wants is competition. That is the one thing I hear all the time. We need more choices for TV, for Internet,” said Ted Smith, Louisville Metro’s chief of civic innovation, who is leading metro government’s push to get Google Fiber.
At the September announcement, Kroh said Google was looking to bring its service to all of Jefferson County, but there was no indication which neighborhoods might actually get wired.
Google declined to make an official available for interview. But in a written response, the company said it would design a Louisville fiber network “to cover as much of the city as we can.”
“This is a massive infrastructure project. While there may be some areas where we won’t be able to offer service, our goal is to bring Google Fiber to as many people as possible," Google said.
Smith said the city won’t attempt to require Google – which would spend “hundreds of millions” of dollars installing about 5,000 miles of new fiber lines – to serve every household.
“They are a private company, and they have to think about how to run a business,” Smith said. “It’s a little bit different than getting sewer service or water service where every single house -- all the time -- has to be connected. This is more of a market process where they have to engage with the community and figure out where they have critical mass.”
Google hasn’t had said how many subscribers it’s signed up, nor how much of the Kansas City metro area it’s wired.
The company’s approach has been to stagger construction by groups of a few hundred properties called “fiberhoods.” But to keep costs down, Google does not wire so-called fiberhoods without a certain threshold of pre-committed customers.
Last year, a story in the Kansas City Star noted that in the central city of Kansas City, Missouri, nine neighborhoods who failed to meet Google’s threshold for service were on the less prosperous east side of town.
“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,” the story said.
About a year ago, door-to-door surveys commissioned by the Wall Street Journal and a brokerage firm found that Google’s penetration into households differed widely on opposite sides of Troost Ave., “which has long been an economic and racial dividing line in Kansas City,” the Journal story said.
But Deacon, of KC Digital Drive, said talk of a “digital divide” made worse by Google Fiber has been overblown.
“It’s true that you are seeing lower take-rates in lower income neighborhoods, but that is true of any Internet provider or cable company and totally unsurprising,” he said.
The city government of Kansas City, Missouri, estimates that Google Fiber is available to households representing 440,375 of the city’s 470,800 residents, said Rick Usher, assistant city manager.
Deacon said few would complain about a Whole Foods grocery store going into a low-income neighborhood.
“Being able to access a luxury product is a nice thing for low-income neighborhoods,” he said.
Google also offers a very basic connection of 5 Mbps for “free” after a one-time, $300 connection fee. The fee can be broken up into $25 monthly payments.
But one issue with that plan, Usher said, is that low-income renters move around more often, so they have less incentive to shell out for a connection that stays with the property.
Areas of demand in Louisville
So which areas of Louisville would be most profitable for Google?
Last year, a group of tech-savvy Louisville residents launched a social media campaign asking people to put in their addresses if they want a fiber connection from a company like Google.
Nearly 3,600 addresses were entered on Louisvillefiber.com, and the results show highest demand in dense, urban neighborhoods – the Highlands, Germantown and Old Louisville.
Smith said there was “absolutely nothing scientific” about the social media campaign and that Google would presumably perform “real market analysis” to determine where it wants to offer service.
For Christopher Cprek, one the people who behind the Louisville social media campaign, a Google Fiber connection at this house off Preston Highway would be a great deal.
Cprek, a programmer at the University of Louisville, said he already pays $70 month to Time Warner Cable for a high-end 50 Mbps plan.
“My Internet connection really does get taxed,” Cprek said, especially if he’s uploading research data for work, his son is playing video games and his wife is watching Netflix.
But Alida Antonia Cornelius, a retiree who lives on Social Security benefits, said Google Fiber probably wouldn’t be affordable for her. She pays about $33 a month to AT&T for her Internet connection at her home near Churchill Downs.
“You’re going to have people on Social Security; you’re going to have poor people, and they are going to take the cheapest route possible,” she said.
Smith said if Google comes to Louisville, both the company and Fischer are interested in seeing low-income neighborhoods connected.
He said there are different ways to do that. In Kansas City, for example, Google has provided free connections to libraries and community centers even though it has not reached every neighborhood, he said.
In Provo, Utah, basic connections were “subsidized” through “philanthropy,” he said.
“There are different models, and I am not sure what model we ultimately will end up with,” Smith said. “We understand there is currently a divide in access in our community in the current structure -- differences, disparities in speeds across our community. This will be an opportunity to continue to push on that.”
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