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.' "
Critics have complained about the way Google required customers to sign up: with a credit card and on a website. They say those demands asked too much of citizens without Internet access or plastic.
Additionally, as the preregistration deadline approached, local TV news and The Kansas City Star reported that Troost Avenue was Google Fiber's dividing line, and that East Side fiberhoods' preregistration numbers lagged.
But many working with nonprofits say Google has been helpful in signing up poor residents.
Leigh Blumenthal, a community organizer with Blue Hills Community Services, says reports of Google being hands-off in poor neighborhoods are wrong.
"They [Google] had a learning curve when they came to Kansas City," she says. "They didn't understand the population."
But the company soon figured out how to help the East Side ensure that schools in the neighborhoods received Fiber, she says.
"The Google team couldn't have been more supportive or invested in that neighborhood and working with residents to make that happen," Blumenthal says. "Anytime we said, 'Let's have this registration event at the [Blue Hills] Neighborhood Association,' they were there. They would just send people and make sure they were there to support it. That's what it seemed like was going on in all the surrounding neighborhoods."
Blumenthal says there was a sense of pride when all the fiberhoods in Blue Hills reached preregistration goals.
"They were really excited, really proud," she says. "You know there was all this criticism going on in The Kansas City Star about [how] east of Troost isn't going to be invested in something like this. And I think people took that on as a challenge. It kind of got things going."
The Blue Hills North fiberhood is slated to receive Fiber in fall 2013.
Calvin Jones, program manager for the Front Porch Alliance in the Ivanhoe Neighborhood bordering Blue Hills, echoes Blumenthal.
"Not only did they help us out, but [they] sent a team of, I believe, five or six out to our facility," Jones says.
Google's employees helped residents set up e-mail accounts and sign up for Fiber's free seven-year DSL service. The Front Porch Alliance paid the $10 sign-up fee for 55 residents.
The only flaw that Jones sees in Google's strategy is that the search giant didn't actively market the free version to low-income areas.
"I would say where Google dropped the ball on Google Fiber in this neighborhood is, they didn't market it right," he says. "They marketed it for their ultrafast Internet speed and things like that, when a good majority of people in this neighborhood don't even have computers in their homes."
As for Liimatta's hot-spot plan for Rosedale Ridge, Google spokeswoman Wandres says it's not a viable way of connecting poor residents to the Internet.
"Access is certainly one of our major goals," Wandres tells The Pitch. "But another goal is to move the Web forward. And we think that having that gigabit fiber to the home is the way to do that right now."
She explains that a key goal of bringing Google Fiber to the area is constructing a physical infrastructure that would set up Internet access for future generations. In that way, digital literacy starts at home.
Wandres says 25 percent of Kansas Citians don't have Internet access at home — and the residents who didn't want to sign up typically said they didn't want the service.
"Most conversations weren't about cost," Wandres says. "They were about, 'I don't have the Internet now. I don't think I need it going forward.' "
Wandres says a Wi-Fi hot spot is a temporary fix, while hardwiring each residence ensures future access.
"Once you have the fiber drop into your home, that fiber drop can provide a range of speeds," she says. "That fiber connection will 'future-proof' your home."
Google isn't opposed to finding a working arrangement with Connecting for Good.
"We'd love to work with them in a different way that's not against our terms of service," Wandres says.
Liimatta sounds unfazed by opposition to his plan and hopes to reach a future compromise.
"I like the [Google] people I've worked with," he says. "Google is a megacorporation. It's hard to take anything they do personally."