Google

Why Google Fiber missed the mark with free internet

Many know Google Fiber for its gigabit internet, but did you know it offers a no-cost option for internet access? Here's how Google dropped the ball on its ideal of free internet access.

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One of the Google Fiber installation vans in Austin, Texas.
Image: Google

When most people think about Google Fiber, they probably contemplate the vast number of new opportunities presented by gigabit internet speeds. New innovations, faster downloads, or simply streaming video with no lag are all within the realm of possibility.

Another opportunity presented by Google Fiber has flown somewhat under the radar: the option for a free, lower-tiered internet, with speeds up to five mbps downloads and one mbps uploads. Those customers only have to pay for an installation.

The option is a clever marketing scheme to encourage more potential users to sign up for the installation, but it has some greater implications as well.

The way it works is that, if users choose to pay a $300 installation fee for Google Fiber, they get access to the free internet service for up to seven years from the date of installation. The fee can be paid all at the time of installation or in $25 monthly installments over 12 months, and it doesn't transfer to another residence.

Cities like Provo and Kansas City, two of the early cities to get Google Fiber, have formal plans on how to provide clarity to the new high speed tools. The potential implications for free internet are huge, especially in Provo where the initial installation fee was only $30 due to an existing fiber network (although it has since changed to $300).

Dixon Holmes, the deputy mayor of economic development for Provo, said that one of the biggest opportunities for this service was helping citizens find work.

"If you don't have access to the internet, there's a lot of jobs you can't apply for," Holmes said. "Because the only way to apply for a job, often times with some businesses, is through an online portal."

For lower income households, having what is essentially a free utility would help alleviate some of the financial burden while keeping those people connected. In fact, Holmes felt so strongly about the Google Fiber signups that he went door to door encouraging people to apply. One of the early challenges, he said, was the fact that residents were given a deadline to apply for service, which is atypical of traditional utilities.

According to Michael Liimatta, president of Connecting for Good, we are at the point where home internet is as essential as utilities such as electricity and running water. In addition to finding jobs, internet access connects users to family and friends, medical and health information, government services, and access to online education, such as courses toward GED completion or some freely available college courses.

Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City, Missouri, noted that improving access to the internet has become a focus for his city.

"It's something we see as really important to the economic stability of our neighborhoods and families, so we are trying to look at some ways to solve that problem," Usher said.

On the surface, Google Fiber's free service could have helped provide this access. The company makes money and increases its footprint, and more residents are able to join the digital world.

Unfortunately, Google Fiber didn't help the digital divide in the cities. In fact, it might have made it worse.

Connecting for Good works to provide low-cost refurbished PCs, connectivity, and digital literacy training to underserved communities. Liimatta said that many of the communities he works with through Connecting for Good weren't even aware of the service.

"During the signup periods, Google Fiber did absolutely no marketing at all to promote the service!," Liimatta said. "The ads they did run in print and TV did not include any mention whatsoever of this inexpensive option."

If residents are aware of the service, the next barrier is the price. The $300 installation fee may not seem like much to pay for seven years of free internet, but it is difficult to justify when you live below the poverty line. Even paying the fee in $25 installments is difficult to justify, as the installation is not transferable to a new residence, which poses a problem for some residents.

"With lower income income households, there is some statistics in the Kansas City School District that the average kid is transferring residence twice in the school year," Usher said. "So their families aren't then motivated to pay a $300 connection fee."

For folks that can't guarantee a stationary home base for 12 months, basic plans like the $15 a month option from Time Warner are a better way to guarantee consistent access to the internet. While the monthly fee for Fiber is only $25, there is no way to be sure that you won't have to move and start over paying installments, on top of being responsible for the remaining balance of the first account.

One of the biggest opportunities for free internet is multi-tenant dwelling and low-income housing, but that has been one of the biggest adoption challenges of all. According to Liimatta, it was installed by many apartment landlords in wealthy sections of town to stay competitive, but it didn't fit into many low-income areas.

"In Kansas City's urban core, this is a huge issue since 50% of its residents live below the poverty level," Liimatta said. "Nationally, we know that 78% of these people are renters. So, if you do the math, tens of thousands of low income people couldn't get Google Fiber even if they wanted it because their landlords weren't willing to put down the cash to get their properties hooked up."

Below is a map built by The Oregonian showing apartments in Kansas City with Google Fiber, which are represented by green dots. The red line is Troost Avenue, often cited as a dividing line for the low-income areas in town. The dark blue areas represent higher poverty rates. The full, interactive map can be viewed on The Oregonian's site.

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However, Usher said that Google recently changed its policy on the connection fee for landlords, and he mentioned that Kansas City is having conversations with Google about what that means for low-income housing.

So, if the free internet option isn't being picked up by people in low-income areas, then who is using it? According to Liimatta, the research he has seen and worked on shows that the free option is being picked up by people who are already using the internet, and it hasn't brought many new users to the internet.

Some people are installing Fiber to make their house more valuable if they sell. Others are taking advantage of the free service to eliminate their previous internet bill, and allocate the money to another line item in their budget.

However, Google has done quite a bit in the Google Fiber communities to increase access to the service. So far, Google has built out community connections, which are locations that provide access to gigabit services for people in the community. For example, there is a Starbucks in Kansas City that offers free Fiber Wi-Fi, wireless device charging, and a few Chromebooks for use.

Google Fiber has also done installations and offered free gigabit services to many schools, libraries, community centers, and other public buildings in the cities where it is deployed.

While Liimatta mentioned many of the challenges of Google Fiber coming to his city, he said that his organization actually has a good relationship with the company because Google understands their mission. In fact, Liimatta is a Fiber user himself.

"I have to say that Google Fiber has done more than any other ISP so far in the area of digital inclusion," Liimatta said. "I just hope they will be willing to keep learning from the people who are doing it successfully and will throw some real financial support behind it."

With that being said, the issue of the digital divide is not something that can solved solely by cheap internet access. Liimatta said that it will require more community work by grassroots organizations, better education, and cheaper devices as well.

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Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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