Google Fiber Enters Poorer Neighborhoods, But Doesn’t Close Gap

Google Fiber was launched in Kansas City in 2012 in an effort to “close the digital divide.”  However, a new survey from The Wall Street Journal reveals the company is still a good distance away from achieving that goal.

Conducted in 6 low-income neighborhoods in Kansas City, Missouri by research firm Haynes and Co., the survey discovered that only 10% of residents subscribed to Google Fiber, with another 5% subscribing to a slower version that was free for seven years after paying a $300 installation fee.

Of the five middle and upper-class neighborhoods surveyed by brokerage firm Sanford C. Bernstein, 42% subscribe to Google Fiber, with another 11% using the slower version.

These results suggest that the digital divide is not about location, but who can afford to pay for it.

According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, 70% of American homes have broadband Internet.  However, only 55% of African American and 43% of low-income households use the service.

In order to educate consumers on the benefits of the product, Google did send employees door to door in certain neighborhoods, and supported classes taught by non-profit groups on using the Internet.  The company also supported the sales of cheaper, refurbished computers.

“Addressing the digital divide is going to take a lot more than any Internet offering, because some people still don’t see the relevance of the Internet in their lives,” said Erica Swanson, Google Fiber’s head of community impact programs.

Of those who did not subscribe to the service, 21% said it cost too much – the most popular reason given.  The service offers speeds of one gigabit per second for $70 a month.  Internet and TV packages start at $120 per month.  The slower version offers speeds of five megabits per second.

“They come in here, and this is a low-income neighborhood, and they are selling their packages at such a high rate,” said Vivian Hawthrone, a resident of Squier Park, a neighborhood east of Troost Avenue, who didn’t subscribe.

Other companies offer similar high-speed packages.  AT&T charges $70-140 a month for up to one gigabit per second, while a traditional package runs just $20 a month, for speeds that are less than 1% as fast.

“We may be limiting opportunity for poorer people because the fastest speeds are more common in richer neighborhoods,” said Angela Siefer, who researched digital-divide issues this year for the University of Illinois’s Center for Digital Inclusion.

Those who did not cite cost as their main reason for not subscribing offered reasons such as not wanting to pay two separate bills, one for Internet and TV, and one for phone.  Others said they could not use the cheaper service.  Since the service is attached to the building, those who rent cannot benefit from it.  Other reasons included being able to use the Internet on their smartphones.

Such statements trouble John Horrigan, a consultant who studied broadband adoption at the Pew Research Center and for Comcast Corp.  “School work, searching for a job and some health-care applications are much less useful for people with only a smartphone’s small screen as their connectivity device,” he said.