Eating Google Fiber: Cash-Strapped Non-Profit Bridges Digital Divide
Round these parts of the Internet, we’re used to dealing with $1 billion valuations and $10 million A rounds, but sometimes $10,000 can go a long way to changing the world – or at least a little corner of it.
That’s the sum that app-making startup OneLouder has donated to Connecting For Good, a non-profit organization that hopes to take advantage of the Google Fiber project to help close the “digital divide” between the rich and the poor. Fiber is Google’s experimental project to bring high-speed 1 gigabit broadband to much of Kansas City. Under the program, which neighborhoods had to lobby to be a part of, residents will pay $300 for seven years of Internet connectivity.
Connecting For Good’s president Michael Liimatta says Fiber presents a great opportunity to get Kansas City’s poorest residents online. Many haven’t been able to afford Internet and others live in “digital deserts” where WiFi and 3G don’t reach, Liimatta says. Getting them online could improve their lives significantly, from providing online education to improving job searches, and introducing online shopping.
Many of Kansas City’s poorest people live in areas where groceries are expensive and limited in range. By shopping online, they can get a better selection for cheaper and delivered to their doors. Even simple things such as buying diapers through Amazon would be “revolutionary” for some of these households, he says.
Google’s offer of $300 for seven years of internet is “fabulous,” says Liimatta, and his organization wants to make sure the digitally destitute can take full advantage. That involves both education and getting Internet-connected devices in people’s hands. “We’re saying, ‘Okay guys, here’s why you need to do this.’”
Partnering with the Social Media Club of Kansas City, Connecting For Good is trying to round up and buy hundreds of laptops and mobile devices to give to people so they can use the Internet, even in the year leading up to the time when the high-speed connections eventually come online. The “digital have-nots” can use of Internet in public libraries, Liimatta says, but sometimes the wait for a computer can be as long as two hours.
The Fiber project almost went the other way, threatening to widen the divide between the rich and the poor. Initially, Google asked neighborhoods to lobby for the right to become “Fiberhoods,” requiring households to donate $10 to register their interest online. Each neighborhood rallied its community to lobby for the high-speed opportunity.
Unfortunately, that approach stacked the odds against the poorest neighborhoods. To cast their votes, households not only had to be online, but they also had to have a credit card, a Gmail account, and a Google Wallet account, through which the payments could be made. There are plenty of people in Kansas City with none of the above. Predictably, the most affluent neighborhoods came up on top, while the poorest were set to miss out. However, a last-minute push by community groups, and a bit of special attention from Google, managed to achieve a semblance of balance.
“While Google Fiber didn’t cause the digital divide, they ran into it in a way they never expected,” says Liimatta. He notes that 43 percent of non-Internet users in Kansas City are African-American. If Google Fiber is 100 times faster than what’s currently available, it also had the potential to increase the distance between the digital haves and have-nots, he says. “We can’t let a huge piece of our community be left out from this gigabit revolution.”
Before OneLouder’s donation – which was the startup’s prize money for winning a social media contest – Connecting For Good was eking by on just $1,000, all contributed by its board members. Liimatta describes the lifeline as “absolutely incredible."