In Kansas City, competition for faster Internet service

Marketplace Contributor Sep 6, 2012

In Kansas City, competition for faster Internet service

Marketplace Contributor Sep 6, 2012

Sarah Gardner: Kansas City may consider itself “better off” than the rest of the country, at least when it comes high-speed Internet. It recently beat out more than a thousand other cities to be the first in the U.S. to get something called “Google Fiber.” That’s a super-fast Internet service — 100 times faster than current speeds. Google’s also offering its own cable tv service. But the competition in Kansas City isn’t over. Now, the city’s neighborhoods are duking it out to see who will get the service, and who gets it first.

From KCUR, Maria Carter has the story.

Maria Carter: Yvette Roberts is one of about a dozen people stopping at Google Fiber registration event in the basement of St. James Church. She says she didn’t know what Google Fiber was when she saw it in the church newsletter. She puts her most pressing question to Google’s Luke Carlson.

Yvette Roberts: The major thing that I need to know is do you guys have the NFL Package?
Luke Carlson: We have the NFL Network and the NFL Red Zone as of right now. 

She’d be less excited to find out Google hasn’t signed on some other big channels like ESPN to its lineup. They say they’re working on it. Google’s doing things differently than most cable and internet companies. Google’s Kevin Lo says they’re having people do the market research for them.

Kevin Lo: Rather than us decide where and when to build, we decided, “Hey, let’s ask Kansas Citians” and ask them to let us know their interest by literally going to a website and pre-registering.

Google will only bring its fiber service to neighborhoods where enough people pay the $10 registration fee. They’re relying on excited customers like Roberts, who plans to get in touch with her neighbors.

Roberts: Oh most definitely, I will be sending text messages to make sure they get down to the location where the sign up is for our neighborhood.

If Roberts can’t get enough of her neighbors to sign up, then Google won’t bring the fiber optic cable to her neighborhood. Google’s calling this approach a rally, and it looks like a grassroots political campaign — complete with yard signs, fliers, and enthusiastic supporters. Heck, they even have a pair of ice cream trucks rolling around town to drum up support. 

At a sign up event outside a local community center, Tonya Sipple grabs a plate of barbeque. She volunteers for the city parks department, but faced a problem when she tried to sign up.

Tonya Sipple: I brought cash and they said they need a debit and we don’t have a debit card at this time.

Workers tell her she can get a Visa gift card at the Walgreens across the street and use it to register. This is just one of the challenges Google faces in trying to cross the so-called digital divide. Google’s research shows about a quarter of all Kansas Citians don’t have broadband at home and that skews by race, education, and income. Google’s Kevin Lo says it comes down to two basic factors –relevance and affordability.

Lo: It’s certainly not Google’s role to solve the entire problem, but we really wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to do what we can.

And what they’re doing is offering something they call free Internet. It’s not super fast, and it’s not exactly free. Customers are expected to pay the $300 installation fee, then they get normal broadband speeds for seven years. Christopher Barnickel is the assistant director at the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library, where many people now come to use the Internet. He says affordability is only part of the problem.

Christopher Barnickel: Then there’s just the fact of the matter that certain people don’t have computers in the home, and if you don’t have computers, what good is the Internet?

Whether enough people in all neighborhoods will sign on is still being decided. Google recently made it easier for some places, lowering the number of sign-ups needed to get service after complaints some homes were empty. The final registration push ends Sunday.

In Kansas City, I’m Maria Carter for Marketplace.

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