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Will Google Fiber Bridge San Antonio's Digital Divide?

Photo: Courtesy of the Open Technology Institute, License: N/A

Courtesy of the Open Technology Institute

The map reveals disparities in internet access along socio-economic and geographical lines

Another significant problem Liimatta’s group ran into is, ironically, the “affordable option.” Assuming an apartment renter can afford the one-time $300 construction fee for “free” basic broadband internet, they must rely on enough of their neighbors to sign up (due to that ‘demand-driven’ model) and for landlords to opt in, creating a sizable hurdle for any renter living in multifamily low-income housing—and conversely, a much lower barrier for a homeowner. In Kansas City, says Liimatta, Section 8 and public housing property managers simply have not done this. To date, 25 percent of Kansas City area residents still don’t have broadband internet access at home, according to Connecting For Good.

“We have been left to figure out how to keep the underserved in our community from falling too much farther behind as those in the predominately white middle-class suburbs are racing around the internet with 100 times faster connections,” says Liimatta, who describes the digital divide as one of the “most important social justice issues” of our time.

In response, his group and other tech nonprofit partners have taken matters into their own hands by offering free wi-fi in well-trafficked public places, hosting public access computer labs and even building their own wi-fi network in underserved inner-city communities. The organization has already built wi-fi networks for more than 500 low-income public housing and Section 8 households.

While Google did not share subscriber numbers, they say 90 percent of “Fiberhoods” in Kansas City that were eligible for fiber qualified for it and can receive the service. Wandres tempers Liimatta’s reality, noting many of those previously disconnected are now online thanks to Google. “We have seen a lot of people in Kansas City who never had the internet before choose to get that product,” says Wandres. “We’ve heard really great things from them about how they have been able to use the web at home for the first time.”

Still, Google acknowledges not only the ongoing digital divide in Kansas City, but its national implications.

“We do care deeply about getting more people online so they can benefit from the web; that is important to us,” says Wandres. “There’s still a digital divide out there and it is an incredibly complicated problem. We are working with communities to tackle it together.”

In surveys conducted in Kansas City, Google found most who are still offline are so largely by choice. “We’ve also learned that even if access to the web is affordable, they don’t see it as relevant to their lives or don’t have the digital literacy skills to use it,” says Wandres.

The tech giant partners with local groups and grassroots organizers to provide digital literacy skills and training, and has worked with other local companies to create a “digital inclusion fund” to subsidize nonprofits that provide digital literacy. As for the “affordable option” obstacle for low-income renters, Wandres says Google is committed to ensuring price isn’t a barrier and cost isn’t set in stone (pricing has yet to be announced in Austin, for example). “We don’t want affordability to become a hurdle, so we work with landlords to determine pricing and availability.”

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