Austin prepares to welcome second installation of Google’s Fiber project

The Takeaway

In Austin, Texas an innovative project is in the works.

Google and city officials announced a deal to launch Google Fiber, a city-wide high speed internet project, following on the heals of Google Fiber's start-up in Kansas City.

But Shannon Jackson, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Misouri-Kansas and co-author of an article called “Only Connect: Kansas City Gives it Up for Google,” says the Google project there didn't roll out quite as it had been pitched. In fact, she says, the project reinforced existing disparities between connected and disconnected neighborhoods.

Volunteers worked to help already underserved neighborhoods get pre-registered for Google's service — but at this point it's not clear whether they'll wind up getting access, Jackson said.

"Our concern has been that Kansas City is … one of 16 hyper-segregated cities in the nation. And we don't want to intensify disparity here," she said. "Those under-served areas are getting so-called free access. What they're getting is painfully slow, 5 (megabit per second download speed), as opposed to the (1 gigabit per second speeds) that the wealthier neighborhoods are getting."

Google officials declined to comment on Jackson's comments.

Joy Diaz, a city reporter for KUT in Austin, said her community is coming into the Google Fiber experiment in an entirely different position. A previous city requirement stipulated that a telecom company begin offering service in underprivileged neighborhoods.

In fact, the city's east side, which historically, was the segregated community and historically had less wealth, has much greater access to high-speed, fiberoptic networks, she said.

One city council member, Laura Morrison, feels strongly that disadvantaged areas will really benefit from the Google project. 

"This city, by policy, takes digital inclusion as a priority because we know that, for people to prosper, they need to be able to engage with society on the Internet and with technological skills," Morrison said. "(Google Fiber) really could be a great step forward in us meeting our goals for digital inclusion."

Jackson says Google seems to be adapting to local culture, in being more responsive to digital inclusion in Austin — a city that mandates it.

"At the same time, we (in Kansas City) have a local culture that actually needs to be challenged," she said. "We need help building out a network in a more inclusive way. We don't have the same profile Austin has."

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