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Google attempts to bridge the digital divide with Kansas City's poor communities

Nonprofits reach out to Google to talk about Internet access in poor communities.



Kansas City, Kansas' Rosedale Ridge public-­housing apartment complex is one of the battlegrounds in the metro's digital divide. Seven beige buildings, some with windows boarded over, sit atop a steep hill on Mill Street, which is lined with crumbling sets of concrete stairs. Dead ends bound the community. A hundred feet or so down one of those roads is a nearly Appalachian scene, with chickens waddling around a yard of an old house near where a rusted tractor sits.

This shabby, neglected and out-of-sight complex, where a baby was wounded by a bullet during a double homicide in March, could miss out on Google's ultrafast Fiber network, according to Michael Liimatta, president of Connecting for Good. "If they brought 100-times-faster Internet, they'd also make the digital divide 100 times bigger," says Liimatta, whose nonprofit seeks to close the gap between the city's digital haves and have-nots.

Liimatta acknowledges that 1-gigabit-per-second Internet speed is great for tech-savvy Kansas Citians who already have Internet access. But he argues that the lowest-income residents in places like Rosedale Ridge are not potential Fiber customers. Some, he adds, have never been logged on to the Internet.

Google is offering three tiers of its Fiber service, including 1-gigabit-per-second Internet with cable TV for $120 a month, gigabit Internet alone for $70 a month, and free standard 5-megabit service for seven years after a $300 installation fee.

Liimatta says the residents in income-restricted Rosedale Ridge are too poor to afford Google's free Internet service, even if the $300 installation fee is broken up into 12 payments of $25. Liimatta says paying the $300 for each of Rosedale Ridge's 250 units would cost $75,000. That's untenable for his group.

"That's quite the leap, don't you think?" he says. "Seventy-five grand for one property."

So he and his Connecting for Good partners came up with an alternative idea: Install a few Fiber connections at Rosedale Ridge, then create a Wi-Fi hot spot that would give access to everybody in the complex.

"We figured, well heck, if we're in public housing, and people are dirt poor, why can't we buy one [Fiber connection] and create a hot spot?" Liimatta says. The nonprofit would pay for the installation and cover the monthly bills, and hundreds of low-income Kansas Citians would have access to the Web.

So far, the search behemoth has been cool to the idea.

"We appreciate the enthusiasm Connecting for Good has shown, and we've had many great conversations with them," Google Fiber spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said in a statement. "But unfortunately, their plan to split one Google Fiber connection to many people is against our terms of service."

No one following Google Fiber's rise in Kansas City — the first metro in the nation to get the service — could say the company hasn't been generous. Google has vowed to wire public buildings, schools, libraries and hospitals for free in areas defined as "fiberhoods" that reach a certain threshold of residents registering for service. But Google won't budge on Liimatta's plan.

Despite Google's unwillingness to bend on the issue, Liimatta says he's determined to keep chasing the rainbow bunny. He says he isn't considering going to a Google competitor, like Time Warner or AT&T, and handing it a sterling PR moment during a year in which Google Fiber has been front-page news on a weekly basis.

"The thing about it is, we want to work with Google," Liimatta says. "All of us at Connecting for Good say this is a wonderful thing. We don't want to say, 'Here, in your face, Google. We went with Time Warner.' "

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