By Carl Franzen
Jan 22, 2014
September 11, 2013 12:00 pm
Kansas City, a metropolitan area of about 2 million that straddles the border between Kansas state and Missouri, seems an unlikely place to see what the future of internet connectivity could look like. But nearly three years after Google announced that this midwestern metropolis best known for jazz and barbecue would become the first place in the world to get the company’s experimental, ultra-high-speed broadband internet service — Google Fiber — Kansas City is looking more futuristic. Just not in the way Google or Kansas Citians originally anticipated.
That’s because Kansas City is also home to another experimental broadband internet service effort that hasn’t received nearly as much international attention as Google Fiber. Just over a year ago, right around the same time Google actually began installing Fiber here, a ragtag alliance of affordable-internet advocates including a jazz club proprietor, a Pentecostal Christian minister and a former Occupy Wall Street protester began building their own nonprofit wireless internet service specifically designed for low-income households, a system they call the KC Freedom Network. Even though it can’t match Google Fiber in terms of raw speed, the KC Freedom Network offers something to users they say Google does not: truly affordable internet.
“The amount of money was probably the biggest thing,” says Anita Dixon, vice president of The Mutual Musicians Foundation, one of six organizations participating in the alternate network. Her group manages one of the country’s oldest jazz halls, located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine district, a cultural pillar of the city’s African-American community.
Dixon says that many members of her community can’t even afford Google’s cheapest Fiber internet plan — the "free" tier, which actually does cost something: $300 up front to install Fiber per household, or $25 a month for a year. It’s free after that. The KC Freedom Network doesn't charge anything for many of its users, but eventually hopes to offer internet for $20 a year.
But since late August, The Mutual Musicians Foundation, which aims to stream live jazz to others in the community and around the world, has been getting internet beamed to it wirelessly through the KC Freedom Network. The network itself is made up of something called wireless mesh networks — local networks that can transmit data between devices in the same area, say a neighborhood, without any cables or internet service whatsoever, using radio towers and microwave dishes placed atop participating buildings across Kansas City. Besides The Mutual Musicians Foundation, the KC Freedom Network reaches "about 600 low-income households," with internet that’s free to use for now, says Michael Liimatta, the minister and co-founder of Connecting For Good, another local nonprofit that’s taking a leading role in organizing and running the network. They’ve raised the money for their project through crowdfunding and other private donations.
So while Google moves to expand Fiber to other cities around the country — including Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah — it’s worth looking back at just what the company accomplished in its first year of internet service operations in Kansas City, and why another new network is gaining ground.
You’re not in Mountain View anymore
Google started laying the groundwork for Fiber long before installing its first internet connection in November 2012. It inked deals with the mayors of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, to be able to use city offices, equipment, and electricity free of charge in exchange for installing Fiber in some government buildings. Google took over an entire strip mall near the state border to create its retail storefront for Fiber, the "Fiber Space." But the even sweeter deal came in the form of what Google was able to avoid: the "universal service" obligation, or long-established federal and state laws that force most other big telecommunications companies to at least offer their services to an entire city or town. Other companies have managed to avoid this as well.
GOOGLE STARTED LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR FIBER LONG BEFORE INSTALLING ITS FIRST INTERNET CONNECTION
And in Kansas City, the state governments on both sides of the state border permitted Google to install Fiber internet only in select areas based on predetermined user demand. In the summer of 2012, Google carved up the entire Kansas City metropolitan area into 202 differently sized neighborhoods of its own making, which it called "Fiberhoods." Google then imposed minimum pre-registration requirements for each based on population density: between 5 and 25 percent of households in every Fiberhood had to pre-register online, or in person at the Fiber Space, before Google would bring internet to anyone in those areas. Areas with higher population density had higher pre-registration requirements. Pre-registration cost $10 per household, and Google gave Kansas Citians about six weeks to sign up.
Google also knew that cost would be an issue for some Kansas City residents when going into its Fiber launch. After all, the company comissioned its own comprehensive survey ahead of time showing that 25 percent of Kansas Citians don’t have a home broadband internet connection, and that 17 percent don’t have home internet access of any sort, not even dial-up. Of that 17 percent, 46 percent are African-American, 64 percent have only a high school-level education or less, and 42 percent reported earning less than $25,000 a year. That compares to 98 percent of America that has access to the internet, and 20 percent of adults nationally who nonetheless still don’t use it.
And Google made a big point to say that it wanted to use Fiber to help mend this disparity. "The Google Fiber project is about making the web better and faster — but it’s also about making the internet more accessible for people throughout Kansas City," wrote Kenneth Carter, policy counsel at Google, in a blog post about the study. "Digital inclusion here is a priority for Google, and it’s clear that it’s also a priority for community nonprofits and the local government." That’s partly why in addition to its blazing-fast, 1-gigabit connection speeds — which the company advertised as 100 times faster than the national average for broadband at the time — Google also offered its more modest, 5-megabit option for "free."
Google promoted the Fiber rollout as a fun bonding experience for communities, encouraging those residents who wanted to receive Fiber to become its unpaid ambassadors, going out on "Fiber Rallies" to convince their neighbors to pre-register, even if those neighbors didn’t necessarily want Fiber (Google noted it would reimburse the $10 pre-registration fee for households that later decided they didn’t want the service when it came to paying the full installation and service fees). Google also sent its own employees out in trucks and vans to canvas neighborhoods with fliers and knock on doors.
But as the September 2012 deadline for Google Fiber pre-registrations approached, it became clear that many Fiberhoods, especially those in Kansas City’s historically poorer and blacker areas, were probably going to miss their goals. So just over a week before the deadline, Google recalibrated its goals, lowering the quotas for many Fiberhoods to allow 180 out of 202 (90 percent), to qualify for Fiber service. "Our build-by-demand model is unique," wrote Kevin Lo, Google Fiber’s general manager, in a blog post explaining the recalibration. "It will keep our prices low by using efficient networking and construction processes."
"IT SAVES ME A FEW MINUTES IN A DAY."
To that end, Google may have succeeded: while the company itself doesn’t break out numbers on Fiber, one independent estimate indicates it may spend as "little" as $94 million on the Kansas City network in 2013, far less than the tens of billions in revenue Google reports each quarter.
But when it comes to who actually has Fiber today, and who’s on track to get it, things start to get murky. When asked by The Verge to provide an exact number of households it has connected with Fiber so far, Google declined, pointing instead to the maps on its Google Fiber website, which show just 12 completed Fiberhood installations. "We don't have a number of households to share, but we're currently building and installing Fiber in 60-plus Fiberhoods throughout Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri," Wandres says. Another independent estimate by internet traffic monitor Akamaipegs the number of total Google Fiber customers somewhere below 830.
Google Fiber has also been installed in a few local restaurants and cafes. And several optimistic, wealthy tech entrepreneurs from out of state have also purchased Fiber-connected houses in Kansas City that they’re renting to local startups, creating a small, insular community known as the "Startup Village." But even those users say they haven’t noticed much of a difference when using Fiber’s top-tier, gigabit-speed connection. "It saves me a few minutes in a day," says David Hulsen, a co-founder of local startup RFP365.
And for many of those in Kansas City’s poorer, historically black areas, Google Fiber never really seemed like an option. "When they came into the community, there was a lot of excitement, but then when the criteria came down, we knew that this wasn’t us," says Dixon.
Money was an issue, but Dixon says the minimum pre-registration requirements were also barriers to adoption, because they necessitated that people in the neighborhood work together, even if they didn’t necessarily know or like each other, let alone have similar incomes: "[Google]’s saying, I’ve got to get 10 square blocks of my neighborhood together before I can get this, and then everybody’s to come up with $300 — it can’t happen like that in this community."
A tale of two internets
There were other factors that prevented Google Fiber from being as well-received as it could have been among lower-income areas: a significant subset of the population in the Kansas City metropolitan area lives in apartments or housing complexes; many are below the poverty line and many are black, according to US census data for both states. In apartment buildings, Google has to physically bring Fiber cables up to each separate unit, so the company won’t provide any service unless the entire complex is on board. That means either every unit owner or renter has to agree to pay their own installation fee, or the landlord has to agree to pay the costs for all the units.
Google employees who are working on the Kansas City Fiber project admit that they had difficulty in trying to penetrate all of Kansas City. "We had to do a lot of learning on the fly when we launched this," says Carlos Casas, the Kansas City field manager for Google Fiber sales and marketing, who was hired just two weeks ahead of the official launch. "I don’t think we knew the magnitude of how much we were going to have to be out there in people’s neighborhoods, talking to them about it, in order to get them to sign up." But the company learned quickly: Casas says that since Google started in Kansas City, he and his team have held over 600 different local events, from block parties to ice cream socials, to try to spur adoption and educate people about Fiber.
"WE HAD TO DO A LOT OF LEARNING ON THE FLY WHEN WE LAUNCHED THIS."
"I think that the planners of Google Fiber didn’t anticipate this huge cultural, economic, and technological divide that they were going to encounter here," Liimatta says. That’s not to say Liimatta and his collaborators are anti-Google Fiber. Far from it: in fact, they initially tried to get Google to let them bring one high-speed Fiber connection into a low-income apartment complex and split it into multiple apartment units, but the company declined, citing its terms of service. This approach would also degrade the speed and security of Google’s internet service.
Still, Liimatta’s nonprofit, Connecting For Good, continues working to encourage people to sign up for Google’s cheapest option. Connecting For Good recently applied for some grant money from a new Google-sponsored fundto promote digital literacy, that is, teaching people who are unfamiliar with the internet how to use it and why it’s important. But the requirements for that fund specify that the money cannot be used to build Wi-Fi networks like the KC Freedom Network. "It's the Connecting for Good clause," Liimatta says, wryly.
For its part, Google repeatedly declined to answer questions about the KC Freedom Network directly. Instead, Google Fiber spokesperson Jenna Wandres provided the following statement: "Locally driven solutions — like Connecting for Good's Digital Life Skills program — are critical to tackling the digital divide."
Ironically, the KC Freedom Network would not have come together in the first place had it not been for one of Google’s harsher critics in Kansas City, Isaac Wilder, an impassioned 24-year-old advocate who gained some notoriety in 2011 for setting up a mesh network for Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in New York, and was later arrested for his participation in the protests.
Building a "free" network
Wilder, a Kansas City native who returned to town after the Occupy Wall Street protests died down, is a regular patron at the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation jazz club. It was he who first convinced Dixon to consider wireless mesh networking as a viable, more cost-effective option to Google Fiber or any other traditional internet service provider. "It’s a group we have been working with a long time trying to realize increased connectivity, better connectivity for their neighborhood," Wilder says.
MESH NETWORK SOLUTIONS
In March, the KC Freedom Network installed its first neighborhood-wide mesh network in Juniper Gardens, a large Kansas City public housing project with 390 units spread across four blocks. Each green dot corresponds to a wireless radio, with two or three installed per building.
Like the internet itself, wireless mesh networks were first pioneered by the US military, specifically as a means to keep troops connected in Iraq. The basic principle behind the technology is simple: take a bunch of wireless radios, tiny boxes capable of sending and receiving data over the air using radio waves, and make them all talk to each other.
There are technical limitations to scaling these mesh networks up due to the physical limits of how far electromagnetic waves can carry data — for instance, the range on the KC Freedom Network’s main data transmitter is about 8 miles — but they can be technically overcome by linking together various mesh networks, or finding higher altitudes from which to beam the signals.
Part of how Wilder sold the idea was its feasibility. The critical thing to understand about any mesh network is that it’s fundamentally just a wireless version of a local area network (LAN), a technology that was developed in the 1970s to allow computers to communicate in a small group. "People get tripped up a lot by the feeling that that’s weird, that’s innovative, that’s something new," Wilder tells The Verge. "But in fact the tech is old hat, it’s been around for a long time."
Wireless mesh networks have recently found wider success on other continents — in Catalonia, Spain;Athens, Greece and in South Africa, but they are all still relatively small compared to the size of global internet traffic.
If you have a device that can connect to a mesh network, you can in principle communicate with any other device on the network without ever having to go on to the actual internet itself. If you’re on the mesh network and want to watch a video uploaded directly to a network server by another user, the network passes that video to you through a number of other people’s computers, and can do so without ever going on the web itself. "You can and are encouraged to host your own stuff," Wilder says.
Being able to host and share content with members of the local community who may never be able to pay for internet access, no matter how cheap, but who nevertheless own wireless digital devices — computers, phones, tablets — is a critical reason why The Mutual Musicians Foundation joined the KC Freedom Network. After all, the group is intent on streaming its jazz concerts to those in the local community and beyond.
Mesh networks can also connect to the wider commercial internet, which KC Freedom Network does right now through a central access point — a commercial data center downtown, which is housed in one of the city’s tallest buildings called Oak Tower, providing ample opportunity to beam the bits around town using a microwave transmitter.
And while the KC Freedom Network builders are disappointed Google hasn’t responded to their invitations to integrate Fiber into their network, they’re doing their best to work alongside the internet giant, realizing that in the end, they share the same ultimate goal: getting more people, especially poorer people, online. "We work a lot with Google Fiber now," Liimatta says. "I think they realize that we’re filling a gap." He tells The Verge his group is even encouraging low-income households to sign up for Fiber if they could manage to pay for it. But to them, Google Fiber isn’t quite as accessible as it could have been. "It’s not coming from a place of evil in any way from Google," Wilder says about Fiber’s rollout. "But it’s coming from a place of ignorance... ‘one size fits all.’"