Google Fiber and the digital gap appear to be two things that communities with high speed internet can count on, despite efforts to bridge the divide. When Google Fiber announced it was bringing ultra-high-speed Internet to Kansas City, a local nonprofit with a mission of providing Internet connection to low-income residents celebrated its arrival, envisioning that it would bridge the area’s digital divide
between the haves and the have-nots.
The service would offer connectivity advertised as up to 100 times faster than basic broadband, as well as free broadband after an installation fee. But as rollout for the fiber network began, it became clear to the organization’s leaders that expectations had been too high.
“We really thought the coming of Google Fiber was going to herald a new age for digital inclusion,” said Michael Liimatta, founder and president of the nonprofit Connecting For Good. “That wasn’t the case.”
Google Fiber is looking to Nashville and eight other metropolitan areas for expansion, and the possibility of its high-speed capabilities has been welcomed by local city and business leaders for its potential as an economic driver that can help attract entrepreneurs and distinguish the city as a tech leader. It also has been seen as a potential catalyst for connecting underserved communities that stand to benefit from increased affordable Internet access.
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., is still months away from determining which cities it will move forward in and has only begun to examine Nashville’s infrastructure. Should Google decide to expand in Nashville, some in cities where Google Fiber is growing say, Nashville should not expect a white knight when it comes to addressing the digital divide. Instead, they encourage city leaders to take advantage of the attention it brings to the current divide and use that to ramp up community-driven efforts.
“Google did not create the digital divide in Kansas City,” said Rick Chambers, director of Kansas City nonprofit Center Education Foundation. “It existed before they were here. Google also did not fix it. (It) has actually had some benefits for those of us who are trying to work on the digital divide. They created a high degree of visibility about the problem.”
The digital divide is evident in Nashville, where 44 percent of Metro Nashville Public Schools students live in homes that lack Internet connection. The reasons go beyond access and include cost, lack of digital skills and lack of perceived benefits, said Corey Johns, executive director of Connected Tennessee.
“For the region to continue to be economically competitive, we have to have effective strategies to move more folks to adoption,” Johns said.
In the majority of Davidson County census tracts, 60 to 100 percent of households have broadband connection. In several neighborhoods north of Charlotte Avenue and near Lafayette Street, though, that percentage range drops to 20 to 40 percent, and in the tract that includes the Napier area, where median family income was $8,831 in 2010, fewer than 20 percent of households are connected, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.
The numbers are not lost on city and school leaders. Three years ago, Metro school leaders partnered with Connected Tennessee and a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, Connected Nation, and developed the Anytime Access for All initiative focused on bringing Internet access and computer devices to students’ homes. The program seeks to provide computer training for parents and students and provide low-cost or no-cost access to homes, according to Laura Hansen, who has helped lead the effort as director for information management and decision support for Metro Schools.
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