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Google hopes to avoid local pitfalls

Groups urge Portland to push for service in low-income areas


by: COURTESY OF GOOGLE CORP. - Google Fiber installation trucks have become a common sight around some Kansas City neighborhoods. The tech giant is bringing its high-speed broadband service to Portland after a franchise agreement is reached. If Google Fiber comes to Portland, many people think City Hall must take the lead to ensure that everyone in town has an chance to access it — regardless of their race, income or where they live.

That’s the opinion of equal access advocates who reviewed Google’s proposed franchise agreement at the request of the Portland Tribune. The City Council is scheduled to consider the agreement on May 7. Google will decide whether to expand its 1-gigabit ultra-high speed broadband cable service to the Rose City by the end of the year.

One advocate, Michael Liimatta, president of Connecting for Good, an equal access outreach organization in Kansas City, where Google began installing its first fiber network around two-and-a-half years ago, says the public should understand provisions in the franchise pact that help low-income areas hook up to the new service.

When Google began installing its system in Kansas City, the company was criticized for reinforcing the so-called Digital Divide by initially serving mostly the whitest and richest parts of the two cities in Kansas and Missouri.

Liimatta says the proposed Portland agreement is very similar to the one in Kansas City. But, according to the Liimatta, the problem is actually not the agreement. Both have provisions intended to make sure minority and low-income communities have access to Google Fiber, which is about 100 times faster than existing broadband.

The problem, Liimatta says, is that no one in Kansas City understood the provisions and worked to take advantage of them, at least at first.

“Many public meetings were held, but the right people were not at the table in the opening days — those who had all the facts and had time to think through the implications of all this and come up with a meaningful plan to address the Digital Divide,” says Liimatta.

Two Portland State University researchers agree. Jill Castek and Andrew Pizzolato both work with the Literacy, Language & Technology Research Group, a community of university faculty, staff and graduate students. They say Portland’s city government needs to actively work to minimize the kinds of problems that arose in Kansas City if Google Fiber comes to town.

“The city needs to be a leader in identifying and bringing those groups together that can be involved in increasing Internet access to those who don’t have it,” says Pizzolato, the group’s coordinator.

Avoiding pitfalls

According to Liimatta, Portland’s city officials need to focus on two provisions in the proposed franchise agreement with Google. One guarantees the company will provide its 1 gigabit per second service without charge to select nonprofit organizations. The other provides 5 megabytes of service for free for seven years after payment of a $300 installation fee.

These provisions did not initially increase access to many minority or low-income people in Kansas City, however. Liimatta says the city government there at first did not designate which nonprofit organizations qualified for the free service, then released a random list of qualifying groups with no public input.

“The community had no input whatsoever in the choice of the free connections,” says Liimatta. “Someone at City Hall sent the the list. That’s how the dogcatcher got free fiber while the school down the street didn’t.”

Not many people took advantage of the low installation offer, either. That’s because most minorities and low-income people in Kansas City are renters. The $300 installation fee has to be paid by property owners, and not many of them have paid it.

And, Liimatta notes, no one is guaranteeing renters who have computers.

“The cheap fiber option Google is offering can solve part of the problem by making Internet access more affordable. But that doesn’t by itself help someone who can’t afford a computer or doesn’t know how to use it. Those things are the community’s responsibility,” says Liimatta.

Liimatta says city government and community organizations like his have scrambled to increase equal access since Google Fiber arrived in Kansas City. Although progress is being made, Liimatta says much more could have been done if more people had understood the challenges and agreement provisions.

“Sadly, by the time we fully ramped up, things were quite a ways down the road and much valuable time had been lost,” Liimatta says. “As a result, some of what we did in the beginning was more reactionary and naive without knowing all the facts. That sometimes allowed the media to portray us as anti-Google — a nice David vs. Goliath story. ”

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’ office is aware of the problems that arose in Kansas City. And Google has already started contacting community organization in Portland that work to increase equal Internet access, including the Mutnomah County Library System and Free Geek, which repairs discarded computers and provides them to people who take classes on computer use.

Google is also considering installing its system in Gresham, Beaverton, Tigard, Hillsboro and Lake Oswego.

Encouraging deployment

The 29-page franchise agreement to be considered by the City Council in early May allows Google to construct and operate its fiber network under Portland streets for 10 years. Most of it deals with legal, technical and financial issues, including the fee Google and other companies with similar franchises must pay to the city.

Still to be resolved is where Google will place some of its equipment on public property. The equipment includes large “network hubs” and smaller utility cabinets that are designed to fit on parking strips in neighborhoods.

The proposed agreement includes an installation method that led to criticism in Kansas City. Unlike the city’s franchise agreement with Comcast, Google will not be required to provide service in the entire city. That is because Google is primarily offering broadband Internet service, not cable TV service, so that means Google gets to pick and choose where it will install its cables.

In Kansas City, Google required a certain percent of neighbors to commit to the service before it agreed to install the cables. Not surprisingly, most of the neighborhoods that met the requirement were compromised of well-educated people who understood how to use Google Fiber and had money to pay for it. That is consistent with national surveys showing relatively few minorities and low-income people see Internet access as a necessary service they can afford.

The proposed agreement says the city will be available to consult with Google on picking service areas, include those involving “public goals of equity and inclusion.” The company will also offer up to three free Wi-Fi networks in parts of Portland, after conferring with the city on their locations. This does not mean the city can require Google to extend its system into poorer parts of town, however. The Federal Communications Commission has preempted local governments on the regulation of broadband service.

A city summary of the agreement argues that all Portlanders will benefit from Google Fiber, even if it does not come to their neighborhoods, however.

“We hope to encourage as widescale a deployment as possible,” according to the summary prepared by the Office for Community Technology, which is working on the franchise agreement. “But even citizens in neighborhoods not directly reached by Google, at least in the early going, will benefit from Google’s buildout due to the availability of indirect benefits such as increased services by community organizations, public WiFi, the likelihood of cost savings due to the introduction of competition in the marketplace and economic development and jobs arising from Google’s investment here.”